Colonial Reparations: Initiative of Caribbean States

Strategic Culture
by Valentin KATASONOV

The contemporary world system has shaped as a result of centuries – old colonial and neo-colonial policy of the West. The material well-being of «gold bullion» states is not based on effective economy but rather on global system created to exploit the poor South by the rich North. Even when the countries of the South increase production they satisfy the needs of the same «gold bullion» instead of internal demand. The production gap is being narrowed while the social polarization is on the rise. This is a paradox of contemporary world. According to the United Nations data, the income per capita of the richest 20 nations was about 37 times (!) the average income of the poorest 20. The gap has widened in the recent 40 years. 

In the XX century the developing countries tried to change the trend with the help of the USSR. The Group of 77 (the Non-Aligned Movement – NAM) applied efforts to overcome the legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) on May 1, 1974 meant to be a revision of the international economic system in favour of Third World countries. It was an important milestone in the history of fight for justice. The NIEO was a set of proposals aimed at improving the terms of trade between the North and the South, introducing restrictions on the transnational banks and corporations activities driven by predatory instinct, expanding aid to poor countries including writing off their debts, providing easier access of the goods produced by the countries of the South to the markets of the North etc. The age of globalization put an end to all those endevours. 

Today there are some signs signaling the revival of attempts to establish a new world order in the interests of the countries that belong to the periphery of world capitalism. The establishment of BRICS and the consolidation of the periphery countries within the framework of G20 are the examples of such activities. Of the whole range of problems related to the struggle for new world order there is one aspect I’d like to point out. I already mentioned it in my piece Reparations for Colonialism. It describes the intention of many developing states to demand reparations for the damage suffered as a result of colonialism and neo-colonialism imposed by the rich North, especially regarding the legacy of slavery. The developing countries fully realize that they will never get reparation «in cash». So they see the writing off external debts of the poor South, partial or full, as a way for the states of the North to pay the reparations. Some periphery states are in dire straits. For instance, according to the recent data of International Monetary Fund, the external debt of Liberia is 606% of GDP, the Republic of Congo – 155%, Zimbabwe – 132% etc. 

One more initiative to repay the damage inflicted on the poor South by the rich North was put forward in 2013 by the members of CARICOM (an organization of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies) 1. According to experts, it has a high probability for success. In July 2013, the CARICOM states held a meeting in Trinidad. 14 Caribbean countries coalescing under the CARICOM banner took a unanimous decision to join forces and demand compensations from former colonies «for the lingering effects of slavery». 12 CARICOM member-states will bring an action suit against Great Britain, Haiti will do the same against France and Surinam will put a claim to the Netherlands. 

On March 10, 2014 a meeting of CARICOM nations in St. Vincent approved unanimously a ten-point plan proposed by the CARICOM Reparations Commission to include aid to cultural institutions and transfer of new technology to diversify the economy based on raw materials production and exports. The tenth point on debt cancellation is the most important one. The program is rather transparent and starts with damage assessment. Then the governments of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands will be offered an out of court solution. In case of refusal the CARICOM states will go to European courts. If they refuse to take action or grant the petitioners’ request while no mutual agreement is reached, then the claimants can take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. The CARICOM Reparations Commission engaged the British human rights law firm Leigh Day to prepare their case. Martyn Day, lawyer at Leigh Day, the CARICOM members are interested in settling the issue without launching judicial procedures. 

The CARICOM did not choose Leigh Day at random. In June 2013, This particular law firm obtained compensation of £19.9 million (around €23.04 million) for Kenyan victims of torture under the British colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s (Mau Mau rebels demanded «land and freedom» after the British took away their land). At first glance, it is not the amount to strike imagination – the sum is three times than requested by claimants – but it sets a legal precedent and that’s what really matters. 

The Leigh Day lawyers and CARICOM claimants are going to refer to other precedents. Japan is a good example. It paid large sums to the countries that emerged on the territories occupied by Japan during WWII. 

There is another recent precedent they try hard to hush up. In August 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to sign an agreement on bilateral cooperation. As one can remember, Libya was an Italian colony in 1911-1943. The Libyan government accused Rome of killing and making flee their homes thousands of Libyans during the occupation. It wanted apology and material compensation. It should be noted that Muammar Gaddafi was, probably, the staunchest and most consistent African leader demanding reparations and compensations for colonialism in Africa. He managed to make Berlusconi cede ground. The agreement mentioned above envisioned $5 million investments into the economic infrastructure of Libya in 25 years. In three years the well-known events occurred in the country to make the Gaddafi-Berlusconi agreement null and void. The researchers say that one of the reasons for killing Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was his loyalty to the ideals of struggle against the impacts of colonialism. It very much exasperated the «democratic’ West. 

It is expedient to remember one more precedent related to the initiative launched by CARICOM – the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. It was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire with some exceptions. Slavery was finally abolished in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. The grant of £20 million in compensation was to be paid by the British taxpayers to West Indies slave owners. It was a big sum those days equal to approximately 40% of the UK budget. Meticulous researchers remembered that the predecessors of Graham Green, George Orwell and even the incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron were among the recipients of compensations for the loss of human property. The precedent of 1833 provides some guidelines to the CARICOM states regarding the size of contributions to claim. According to Nick Draper, back then the amount of compensations to slave owners was equivalent to $21 billion in current prices. Verene Shepherd, the chairwoman of Jamaican national reparations commission, believes the contemporary price should be much higher. Caribbean officials have not mentioned a specific monetary figure but Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica, mentioned the fact that Britain at the time of emancipation in 1834 paid 20 million pounds to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today. «Our ancestors got nothing», Professor Shepherd said. «They got their freedom and they were told «Go develop yourselves». Preliminary statements of some CARICOM officials, the members of organization, show that are inclined to use the estimates offered by Verene Shepherd as they prepare to put their claims forward. 

The Haiti government remembered another precedent related to slavery abolition. France granted Haiti independence in 1825. Back then it wanted the people of the island to pay 90 million francs to compensate the plantation owners. Haiti has been paying off the sum (called reparation or compensation in different cases) till the 1940s. The current government of Haiti acting under the CARICOM banner wants France to apologize for its colonial past and repay back the unjust contribution. 

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Former European colonies are reluctant to pay for the colonial exploitation to the COMICON members. Some express openly their negative attitude while some do it in a veiled form. British High Commissioner to Jamaica David Fitton said in a radio interview in July 2013 the Mau Mau case was not meant to be a precedent and that his government opposed reparations for slavery, «We don’t think the issue of reparations is the right way to address these issues», Fitton said. «It’s not the right way to address an historical problem».

In 2010 then French president Nikola Sarkozy said France was not going to pay a contribution to Haiti because it offered it economic aid after WWII. 

The UK government discussed the issue of reparations in late 2013. The members of cabinet express concern that it may set a precedent for claims to be put forward by other former colonies. In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trade, Mr. Hague spoke of his deep regret over «an era in which the sale of men, women and children was carried out lawfully on behalf of this country, and on such a vast scale that it became a large and lucrative commercial enterprise». But as Foreign Secretary, Mr. Hague is opposed to compensation. In a statement, his office said that while Britain «condemns slavery» and is committed to eliminating it where it still exists, «we do not see reparations as the answer».

In conclusion I’d to note that many books have hit the shelves of Western book stores recently saying that the negative affect of colonialism and neo-colonialism on social and economic development of former colonial states is evidently exaggerated. Some authors even try to affirm that the monopolies have helped the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America to overcome «backwardness» and «savagery». Without the West these states would have done much worse being at a much lower stage of development. All told, it means that today we face the process of large-scale historic revision of the relationship between the North and the South. 

1 The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) brings together 15 nations and dependencies in the Caribbean, including Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Haiti, Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, Montserrat, St. Lucia, Suriname, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. The total land area of the Community amounts to only 458, 5 thousand square kilometres, the total population is 16, 7 million people (2010), the total GDP is $108 billion (2012). 

Strategic Culture