14 Caribbean countries ask former colonial powers to pay slave reparations

  • Article by: STEPHEN CASTLE
  • New York Times
  • October 20, 2013 - 6:24 PM


– In a 2008 biography he wrote of an anti-slavery campaigner, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the trade in human beings as an indefensible ­barbarity, “brutal, mercenary and inhumane from its beginning to its end.”

Fourteen Caribbean countries that once sustained that slave economy now want Hague to put his money where his mouth is. The countries plan to compile an inventory of the lasting damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial ­powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands.

To present their case, they have hired a firm of London lawyers that this year won compensation from Britain for Kenyans who were tortured under British colonial rule in the 1950s.

Britain has paid compensation over the abolition of the slave trade once — but to slave owners, not their slaves. Britain transported more than 3 million Africans across the Atlantic, and the effect of the trade was vast. Historians estimate that, in the Victorian era, between one-fifth and one-sixth of all wealthy Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from the slave ­economy.

Caribbean nations argue that their brutal past continues, to some extent, to enslave them today.

“Our constant search and struggle for development resources is linked directly to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our peoples during slavery and colonialism,” said Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, in July this year.

Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, the London law firm acting for the ­Caribbean countries, said a case could start next year at the International Court of ­Justice in The Hague, a tribunal that adjudicates legal disputes among states.

“What happened in the Caribbean and West Africa was so egregious we feel that ­bringing a case in the ICJ would have a decent chance of success,” Day said.

But the prospects for a modern-day legal case for reparations by victims are far from clear. Roger O’Keefe, deputy director of the Lauterpacht Center for International Law at Cambridge University, said that “there is not the slightest chance that this case will get anywhere,” describing it as “an international legal fantasy.”

“Reparation may be awarded only for what was internationally unlawful when it was done,” O’Keefe said, “and slavery and the slave trade were not internationally unlawful at the time the colonial powers engaged in them.”

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