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Reparations: a moral imperative

Published: 
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Douglas Mendes

Imagine a community tucked away in the splendid seclusion of the northern range, engaged in some profit-making enterprise, it really doesn’t matter what. With all such enterprises, there is some sort of hierarchical structure, with mangers at the top and workers below them receiving daily instructions. But imagine that the workers are not paid, they are prevented by force from leaving the compound, they are regularly and arbitrarily whipped and made to suffer unspeakable indignities, and the women and girl children are sexually abused by the owners. Imagine that these atrocities have gone on for years, even as the owners and managers of this horrendous enterprise hobnob with decent citizens.

No one would doubt that, once these enslaved workers are emancipated, they would be entitled to claim compensation from their tormentors for their wages lost, their freedom taken away, their bodies battered and abused, their mental states permanently scarred. They may even be entitled to have their exploiters disgorge their ill-gotten profits. 

All of this would be possible today because there are laws protecting us from unlawful imprisonment, assault and rape, and which do not allow anyone to be unjustly enriched. In short, slavery is illegal. We call it compensation for tortious wrongs today. The word 'reparations' is also suitable and indeed is the word used in international human rights to describe what victims of human rights abuses are entitled to.

There were of course no such remedies available to our ancestors during slavery or even after emancipation. Slavery was legal and when it was abolished, it was not abolished retroactively to create any right to compensation for the unpaid labour and broken bodies, minds and spirits which former slaves were made to endure.

Slavery was legal in domestic law, despite the fact that the majority of the population was enslaved, because the minority slave owners made the laws and had the wherewithal to enforce them with extreme violence where necessary. Slavery was also legal in international law because, again, international law was determined by the consensus among nations who either operated or participated in the slave trade or benefited from it.

When slavery was eventually abolished, the logic of the legal system made it imperative, it seems, that slave owners be compensated for the property that they were being deprived of as a consequence of the change in the law, much as any landowner would be compensated today for any property acquired by the state for public purposes. There are some historical reports of former slaves in the United States being given pieces of land after abolition, but that was not by way of compensation, surely, for past wrongs.

So what about reparations today? Naturally, to my mind, the case for reparations is not built entirely on the basis of individual claims for compensation by the ancestors of former slaves, although that is a part of it. The obvious difficulties involved in such a venture would immediately stymie that path to reparations. Nor can the case for reparation be mounted entirely on the fact that slave owners were compensated for the loss of their property. That historical fact does, however, serve to feed the moral argument for reparations. From the perspective of a modern world incapable of understanding today how Christian civilisation managed to tolerate the barbarity and brutality of the slave trade for so long, it is incomprehensible that the question of reparation did not arise then. Surely, the wrong having been recognised, the now self-confessed perpetrators of crimes against humanity ought to have sought tangible ways to purge themselves of their sins.

For me, the case for reparations today is made irresistible because of the indisputable historical fact that former slave owning nations enriched themselves literally on the backs of a mass of humanity whose humanness was only belatedly acknowledged. Each such country is sitting on a pot of gold which they obtained immorally, and illegally, when viewed through the eyes of the modern world. The question for all of us is whether our former colonial masters should be required to unburden themselves of the wealth they now enjoy in part as a direct result of crimes committed in the past. To my mind, it is unconscionable to say, as Prime Minister Cameron would have us do, “let’s move on,” “let’s look to the future.” I find it impossible to do so knowing that, at present, former slave owning countries are enjoying superior standards of living precisely because of the brutalities our ancestors were made to endure. There must be a reckoning.

The question, who must be a reckoned with, is easier to answer. Clearly it is the nations who continue to feel the effects of slavery today.

The Caricom Reparations Commission has identified six broad aspects of the Caribbean condition which have resulted from the crimes against humanity committed by former slave owning countries and which should be the focus of the debate on reparations. Among them are the state of illiteracy in which the descendants of African slaves were left at the end of colonial rule; the psychological trauma of being classified as non-human which continued long after slavery was abolished and manifests itself today in persistent racists attitudes; and the scientific and technological backwardness in which countries of the region were left because the imposition of the system of slavery necessarily precluded early involvement in any manufacturing and industrial processes locally, but which were nevertheless carried out on the continent, fuelled by the wealth which slavery provided.

The connection between slavery and the inequality in development between former colonies and former colonial masters is palpable. A historical debt is owed. Mr Cameron must atone.

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