The quest for reparations for historic atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade is running into increasingly determined resistance from the UK government.
Members of Caricom, the Caribbean’s political and economic body, are meeting on the island of St Vincent on 10 March to co-ordinate their campaign for compensation payments against former slave-owning nations in Europe. The claim is being organised by the London law firm Leigh Day and channelled initially through the UN convention on the elimination of racial discrimination (Cerd) which, Caribbean leaders believe, can be used as a forum for negotiation.
Failure to reach agreement, however, will result in it 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 Foreign Office believes, prevent claims dating back to the 17th century from Commonwealth countries making progress through the court. The transatlantic war of words, however, is intensifying.
Martyn Day, the lawyer leading Caricom’s claim, maintains that the 1974 limit does not apply since “the current consequences” of race discrimination, resulting from slave trade in the past, still exist today. Nor, he claims, does the UK’s reservation about Commonwealth countries have “any bearing on the dispute mechanism under the Cerd convention”.
The newly formed Caricom reparations commission has called upon the “former slave-owning nations of Europe – principally Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark – to engage Caribbean governments in reparatory dialogue to address the living legacies of these crimes”.
West Indian states have been encouraged by a statement from Sweden’s ambassador to the Caribbean, who said his country would “look at the claim when we receive it” and promised “to have respect for the process”.
The ambassador, Claes Hammar, added: “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 … The question is what sort of compensation could be offered. There are no survivors from the period, only their descendants.”
Martyn Day said: “As one of the prime beneficiaries [of the slave trade in the 18th century], the UK has a responsibility for getting rid of the repercussions of slavery. The legacy of the era has left the people of the Caribbean with [a sense of] being second class citizens in the world.”
The Caricom reparations commission has identified a number of broad areas where “reparatory diplomacy and action” is needed. In public health, it said, “the African-descended population has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the form of hypertension and type 2 diabetes that are the direct result of their nutritional exposure, endemic inhumane physical and emotional brutalisation and other aspects of the stress experience of slavery and post-slavery apartheid”.
Slavery left Caribbean states with poor levels of literacy and education, the commission argues. 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.”
Britain’s sense of guilt over its past role has recently been refreshed by a widely praised biography of the anti-slave campaigner William Wilberforce, written by William Hague while in opposition. Now Foreign Secretary, Hague revisited the theme last month in an article for the Evening Standard, praising the film 12 Years a Slave. He wrote: “It is shocking that our country once participated in the sale of human beings on a vast scale. British traders shipped more than 3 million men, women and children from Africa to slave markets in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those who survived the cruel journey were condemned to a life of brutal servitude.”
Responding to Caricom’s campaign, a Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We recognise that Caribbean heads of government committed to follow-up action on the issue of reparations for slavery at the Caricom meeting in July 2013.
“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.”