Winning the Oscar ®for best picture in March 2014, the acclaimed movie “12 Years a Slave” recently brought slavery back under the spotlight. Around the same time, but far less noticeably, a group of Caribbean countries brought forward a concrete action plan to seek compensation from some European countries which took part in the slave trade in centuries past. The plan is highly controversial .
The Caribbean region witnessed what is probably the longest period of slavery in the American continent. During their meeting in Saint Vincent, on 11 March 2014, CARICOM , the regional organisation of 15 Caribbean states , unanimously approved a ten-point plan laying out a series of claims against European countries involved in the slave trade 200 years ago: Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
The CARICOM demands include: a full and formal apology; repatriation to Africa of descendants of victims who so wish (Rastafarian movement); a development plan for rehabilitation of indigenous people into society; various programmes to set up a proper health system, promote psychological rehabilitation and eradicate illiteracy; the establishment of an African knowledge programme and of cultural institutions tasked with raising awareness about the Crimes Against Humanity (CAH) committed; transfer of technology; and, finally, debt cancellation.
CARICOM countries also signalled that they may take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if no mutual agreement is reached. In preparation, in July 2013 the CARICOM Reparations Commission engaged the British human rights law firm Leigh Day to prepare their case. This particular law firm obtained compensation of £19.9 million (around €24.5 million) for Kenyan victims of torture under the British colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.
The debate about whether the mentioned European countries should compensate their past colonies for the lingering effects of slavery is a long-running one. In July 2013, however, the movement gained real momentum, calling for concrete reparations.
To date, European reaction has been muted. A UK Foreign Office spokesperson argued that CARICOM should concentrate on identifying ways forward rather than reparations. Moreover, whilst stating that the UK regrets and condemns the nation’s actions during that period, he added that the current government cannot take responsibility for what happened 200 years ago.
An encouraging statement came from Sweden ‘s ambassador to the Caribbean, who declared profound respect for the process started by the CARICOM Reparations Commission in July 2013 and said that his country would “look at the claim when we receive it”. He added that “Sweden did after all have a colony in the Caribbean – St Barth’s [between 1784 and 1878] – so it’s not wrong for us to be part of the discussion …”, but noted that the absence of survivors from the period raised questions on the nature of the compensation that could be offered.
Additional reactions may be expected later this year, as Caribbean states may confront European governments with formal claims in June 2014.
What to expect?
According to various analysts, the chances of a lawsuit succeeding in obtaining slavery reparations from European countries are slight.
None of the countries involved will wish to set a precedent, causing a domino effect, with other countries calling for similar compensation.
In addition, it appears quite unlikely that the ICJ will back CARICOM since its jurisdiction only covers the time period recognised by the State parties to it. For instance, the UK only considers disputes related to events occurring after 1974, and in general rejects cases related to countries formerly belonging to the Commonwealth. From its side, the Netherlands does not accept cases prior to 1921. Finally, even without these time limits, the ICJ does not normally hear historical cases.
Nonetheless, Martyn Day, lawyer at Leigh Day, is pushing the case forward, arguing it is ” not a historic issue “, but that his law firm is helping the Caribbean to obtain compensation for the current problems which result from the injustices of the past. Leigh Day suggests that a conference between Western nations and leaders of CARICOM member states be held in the summer to examine the issue.
Robert Westley , a professor at Tulane University (US) and an expert on reparations, considers that reparations in a near future are unlikely to happen but this movement may constitute political leverage for the future.