Slavery reparations…Energies should be focused on modern-day atrocities
By Zena Henry
While Heads of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) gear to approach European countries for reparations after years of African slavery and native genocide, it is apparent that accessing compensation might be more uphill than previously anticipated. Already, representatives of one nation have expressed skepticism in the idea of seeking repayment for hardships faced during the 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade.
The United Kingdom’s plenipotentiary to the Caricom, Victoria Dean, on Wednesday reiterated remarks by her government that they are not convinced that slavery reparations are the way forward in healing old wounds.
Dean told Kaieteur News that Caricom would have engaged in a process to address the issue, but there has not yet been “any kind of outreach to the UK or other European countries”.
“You would have heard very clearly, our (UK) Foreign Minister say on a number of occasions that he doesn’t believe that reparation is the answer. We do believe very much that slavery is and most abhorrent, and actually our focus now should be on the very sad fact that slavery still exist in many forms in many, many countries around the world and we should use our collective experience to address and deal with the scourge that continues for all sorts of people affected in the communities.”
Her Excellency Victoria Glynis Dean presented her credentials as the new Plenipotentiary Representative (designate) of the United Kingdom to Caricom. The small island conglomerate has however consulted legal representation from British law firm Leigh, Day& Company. The regional body is optimistic about meeting European Heads of governments in June to discuss the matter which it is eager to pursue.
Secretary General of the 15-member body, Ambassador Irwin LaRocque explained to the UK diplomat that the Caribbean Community places great importance on the issue of Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide.
“Our Heads of Government last week, reiterated their desire to engage with your Government and other European nations in substantive exchange on the matter in the context of development and in the spirit of the mutually respectful and amicable relations which we enjoy.”
The Secretary General said he is convinced that the UK-CARICOM relationship is strong and mature enough to meet the challenge of finding reasonable solutions to these issues and any other that may emerge.
A February 24 (2014) report from the Guardian (London) pointed out that the UK is “sternly” resisting reparation payments. The report said that Caribbean leaders, through legal representation are developing a forum for negotiations under the UN convention on the elimination of racial discrimination which came into being in 1969.
The article went on to say that in response to Caricom’s campaign, a (UK) Foreign Office spokesperson said that it recognised Caricom’s commitment to follow-up reparations for slavery. “However, neither Caricom, nor individual Caribbean governments, have made a formal approach to the UK government with regard to reparations in relation to the transatlantic slave trade.”
“No legal claim has been made against the UK government in relation to reparations for slavery. We do not see reparations as the answer. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward, with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century.”
“We regret and condemn the iniquities of the historic slave trade, but these shameful activities belong to the past. Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 200 years ago.”
Former slave-owning nations of Europe – principally Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are prime nations Caricom wants to acknowledge post-slavery difficulties that affect the identified peoples.
Sweden’s Ambassador Claes Hammar has however hinted a listening ear to the Caricom’s plight despite that country playing a meagre role in the slave trade, having colonized St Barth between 1784 and 1878; and thus, has no difficulty in being part of reparation discussions.
Reports say that failure between First World nations and Caricom to reach an agreement on the issue may result in the matter being transferred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
“The UK accepts the jurisdiction of the court, but only in cases relating to disputes arising since 1974 and those that do not involve Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries. These restrictions, the (UK) Foreign Office believes, prevent claims dating back to the 17th century from Commonwealth countries making progress through the court.”
Caricom’s lawyers maintain, however, that the 1974 limit does not apply since “the current consequences” of race discrimination, resulting from slave trade in the past, still exist today. They claimed also that the UK’s reservation about Commonwealth countries “have no bearing on the dispute mechanism under the UN convention”. Caricom has outlined numerous post-slavery issues; nutritional, economical and psychological.
The Caricom reparations committee has stated that slavery left Caribbean states with poor levels of literacy and education. The commission argues that there are no museums recording the cultural experiences and African traditions of those forced into slavery.
The psychological trauma of slavery lingers on, the commission says: “For over 400 years Africans were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws and practices derived from the parliaments and policies of Europe. This history has inflicted massive psychological damage upon African descendants, and is evident daily in social life. Only a reparatory dialogue can begin the process of healing and repair.”