Will the Caribbean Reparations Initiative Inspire a Revitalization of the US Movement?
Picture this scene. It was almost surreal, improbable just a few years ago: a room filled with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from the fifteen-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), all listening with rapt attention, several nodding in agreement, as Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, one of the region’s most distinguished academics, and perhaps the Caribbean’s most prominent public intellectual, gave a riveting report on the recent work of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission, which he leads. Yes, “reparations,” as in compensation for the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide at the hands of former European colonizers— reparations, as in reparatory justice for the horrific consequences of two of the greatest crimes against humanity in the history of this planet—the 400 years of the African slave trade and the systematic and calculated extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
This scene played out in the conference room of the beautiful Buccament Bay Resort on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on March 10, 2014; the occasion—the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community. Contrary to what a casual observer could conclude, this was not some gathering of flaming radical black nationalists demanding reparations from white society. There was applause at the end of the professor’s report. Not a single dissenting voice was heard from a group of leaders whose politics ranged from conservative through liberal to progressive. The CARICOM heads of government then proceeded to unanimously adopt a ten-point program for reparatory justice for the region. This breakthrough plan calls for a formal apology for slavery, debt cancellation from former colonizers and reparation payments to repair the persisting “psychological trauma” from the days of plantation slavery.
For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as nonhuman, chattel, property, and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe.
This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations. This much is evident daily in the Caribbean. Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair. Such an engagement will call into being, for example, the need for greater Caribbean integration designed to enable the coming together of the fragmented community,” stated the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
The plan also calls for assistance to boost the region’s technological capacity and to strengthen its public health, education and cultural institutions such as museums and research centers. It even calls for the creation of a “repatriation program”, including legal and diplomatic assistance from European governments, to potentially resettle any person who wishes to return to Africa, particularly members of the Rastafarian spiritual movement. Repatriation to Africa has been a cardinal belief of Rastafari for decades, and their followers have consistently advocated for reparations.
Collectively, the economies of CARICOM member states totals about $78 billion, which would place the region sixty-fifth in the world if it were a single country. Clearly, this is a region that can’t claim much in the way of economic clout, yet its demands for reparations possess enormous moral authority, as it suffered over 400 years of slavery and colonialism at the hands of European powers, mainly Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Strong support for CARICOM’s reparations claims was voiced in late January by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) at its summit in Havana, Cuba. In a “Special Declaration” on the issue of reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples, CELAC said it supported wholeheartedly “a swift, action-oriented and good-faith engagement with those colonizing states responsible for the genocide of native peoples and African enslavement in the region, with the sponsorship and organization of the State with a view to identifying just and effective means to provide reparations for the impact of those serious violations of human rights that are a crime against humanity, to which they are morally obliged.”
If the European powers fail to publicly apologize and refuse to come to the negotiating table, the CARICOM nations said they will file a lawsuit against the European powers at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
They have hired a powerful British human rights law firm, Leigh Day, to represent their claims against Europe. Martyn Day, a senior partner at the firm, said that plans are afoot to convene an upcoming meeting in London between Caribbean and European officials to “enable our clients to quickly gauge whether or not their concerns are being taken seriously.” He called the CARICOM plan a “fair set of demands on the governments whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them.”
In 2013 the Leigh Day firm waged a successful campaign for compensation of almost $20 million for surviving Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.
European reactions to the CARICOM demands have so far been mixed. There have been
University of the West Indies Professor Hilary Beckles continues to lead the
charge for reparation.