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Caribbean panel expands slavery reparations battle

  • Article by: DAVID McFADDEN
  • Associated Press
  • December 10, 2013 - 5:25 PM

KINGSTON, Jamaica — A Caribbean commission is expanding the number of former colonial powers it says should provide some form of reparations for the lingering regional impact of the Atlantic slave trade.

At a Tuesday news conference at the Jamaica campus of the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean Community Reparations Commission identified eight European nations that should work with regional governments to "address the living legacies of these crimes."

A British law firm hired by Caribbean governments seeking reparations initially targeted Britain, France and the Netherlands. But the Caribbean Community reparations panel, which is acting as an advisory group for regional governments, added the names of Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

"Of course, when we delve deeper into the history, we find that most of the European nations, including those in southern Europe and central Europe, were also involved in this," commission chairman Hilary Beckles said, adding that the group is also gathering information on countries such as Switzerland and Russia.

Beckles, who has written several books on the history of Caribbean slavery, said the commission is preparing to submit its first report to heads of governments, who will ultimately decide how to approach the European nations.

The commission says the wounds of slavery include psychological trauma that is still evident in Caribbean social life and a legacy of scientific and technological "backwardness" due to a focus on the production of raw materials such as sugar during the days of plantation slavery.

St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who takes over the rotating leadership of the Caribbean Community at the start of 2014, has vowed to press the issue, which he calls a "fundamental, defining matter of our age."

Caricom, as the group is known, announced in July that it intended to seek reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples and created the regional reparations commission to press the issue. In addition, eight member states have established their own national reparations committees.

The Caribbean governments hired the British law firm of Leigh Day, which waged a successful fight for compensation for hundreds of Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government during the so-called Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.

Firm attorney Richard Stein said Tuesday they will go to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations' highest judicial organ, if government negotiations don't pan out.

It appears it could very well turn into a legal dispute. During a stopover in Jamaica last month, the British government minister for the Caribbean, Mark Simmonds, voiced skepticism about arguments calling for Britain to pay reparations.

"Do I think that we are in a position where we can financially offer compensation for an event two, three, four hundred years ago? No, I don't," Simmonds was quoted as saying by the Jamaica Observer. He added that slavery was "abhorrent" and said people around the globe need to work together to eradicate modern-day slavery.

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