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Illiteracy, diabetes, psychological trauma: Caribbean states demand reparations for ‘legacy of slavery’

Published time: March 11, 2014 20:06
Most slaves were brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations (Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

Most slaves were brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations (Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

Fourteen Caribbean states are to set to sue former European slave-trading countries after approving a document that blames them for historical maltreatment and leaving a “debilitating colonial mess.” The UK has hinted it will not pay any compensation.

“We believe we have the law and the facts on our side in relation to addressing the legacy of native genocide and African slavery and we will make our case,” said St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who is hosting a summit for 14 Caribbean countries which are part of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

CARICOM Chairman Ralph Gonsalves (second left), with two of the Action Plan's backers, (r) Professor Andrew Downes and Professor Vaughan Lewis, and Sir Edwin Carrington Trinidad and Tobago's Ambassador to CARICOM. (Photo from facebook.com/cc.secretariat)

Every country in CARICOM – which includes most independent island states in the region, but not Cuba or the Dominican Republic – voted Monday to back a 10-point claim, which demands a formal apology and a cancellation of existing debt, as well as repatriation to Africa for those who wish it.

Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have been named as potential litigants.

Gonsalves told the media in St. Vincent that CARICOM would conduct a “mature conversation” with European states during a conference this summer.

“And then after that conversation, we will make a formal claim,” said Gonsalves, who heads the international body uniting 16 million people.

CARICOM will be represented by British human rights lawyers Leigh Day, which last year secured £20 million compensation from the UK government on behalf of Kenyan Mau Mau rebels, who rose up against colonial rule in the 1950s.

According to Martyn Day, the lawyer handling the case, Britain faces the greatest liabilities.

“Undoubtedly, Britain faces more claims than anyone else because it was the primary slave power and colonial power in the Caribbean. Britain will be very much at the forefront,” Day, who has also won compensation cases for Colombian farmers and Japanese prisoners of war in high-profile trials, told Reuters.

Britain issued a cool response when the current list of claims was first mooted last year.

“Slavery was and is aberrant,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement.

“The UK unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it. But reparations are not the answer. Instead we should concentrate on identifying the ways forward with a focus on shared global challenges.”

Britain legally abolished intercontinental slave trade in 1807, and in 1834 paid £20 million (just under £200 billion in today's money) in compensation to the owners, about one-quarter of the country’s annual budget.

But CARICOM’s Action Plan says the “persistent” effects of slavery are a fundamental reason for why the region lags behind the West in its economic progress.

“Persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of their suffering today… [and] the primary cause of development failure in the Caribbean,” the document claims.

It goes on to outline the specific damage of slavery to the current population.

“The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the forms of hypertension and type two diabetes. This pandemic is the direct result of the nutritional experience, physical and emotional brutality, and overall stress profiles associated with slavery, genocide, and apartheid,” the Action Plan says.

A Jamaican man receiving diabetes treatment (Photo from www.facebook.com/pages/Diabetes-Association-of-Jamaica/205943152771799)
Along with physical symptoms, Caribbean citizens still suffer “psychological trauma” as a result of being “denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe,” which should be rectified with “reparatory justice.” One of the problems outlined is the angst of “forced separation of Africans from their homeland [that] has resulted in cultural and social alienation from identity and existential belonging.”

The document also says that the Caribbean was “denied participation in Europe’s industrialization process,” while particularly British policies “left the black and indigenous communities in a general state of illiteracy” when CARICOM countries declared independence, between the 1960s and the 1980s. These could be corrected with “technology transfer” and education programs funded by former colonial states.

According to the authors, the sum of these issues forced Caribbean governments to “clean up the colonial mess,” a task that has “burdened” them with “unsustainable levels of public debt that now constitute their fiscal entrapment.”

“This debt cycle properly belongs to the imperial governments who have made no sustained attempt to deal with debilitating colonial legacies. Support for the payment of domestic debt and cancellation of international debt are necessary reparatory actions,” the Action Plan says.

But some legal experts believe that any financial compensation will be hard to obtain in the International Court of Justice, due to the time that has passed, the wholesale social changes that have occurred since, and the dangers of setting a precedent.

“There is no legal basis for a claim for reparations. Slavery was legal at the time, and international law was not a part of the law of the European states. Moreover, a long period of time has passed, and all the victims of slavery are long dead,” said Robert Sedler, a professor at Wayne State University Law School.

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