Filed under: Politics
I wrote an article back in September 2001 (just a week or so before the WTC attacks) about the idea of reparations for the slave trade. In the light of Blair’s pseudo-apology I thought it might be worth posting it here.
The issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism received some media attention around the 31st August during the World Conference Against Racism, although little was achieved at the conference itself.
Why would anyone advocate that we, the mostly Western countries involved in the slave trade and reparations, should pay reparations to countries that suffered from these events or to the descendants of slaves? To understand this, it is important to understand first what most of the advocates of reparations do not think.
Firstly, the idea of reparations is not punitive. Nobody alive today was involved in the slave trade or colonialism so punishment would not be fair. (Although slavery still exists today, which is an important but separate issue.) The idea of reparations is to provide a remedy for a contemporary ill with a historical cause, not to attempt to remedy a historical ill. The contemporary ill is the underdevelopment and poverty, the after effects of the slave trade and colonialism, of the people and nations that suffered them.
However, we shouldn’t get the idea that reparations is just aid under another name. Providing aid is a voluntary act of goodwill, paying reparations is a duty imposed on us by our own moral beliefs. It is a duty because we are still benefiting today, through our relative prosperity, from the enormous amount of wealth generated originally by the slave trade and colonialism.
The aim of reparations should be to use that amount of wealth we have thanks to our participation in the slave trade and colonialism to help restore the affected countries to the levels of prosperity they would have enjoyed had it never happened.
With this aim in mind we can begin to think about how best to go about achieving it. The most immediately obvious suggestion, a one-off cash payment, which many (e.g. Will Hutton in the Observer) assume is what the reparations advocates are suggesting, turns out to be one of the worst. The effects of a one-off cash payment, however large, would only have a temporary effect, whilst the offending countries would be legally and morally absolved. Indeed, this has been used by conservative commentators as an argument for the one-off payment form of reparations.
Many of the champions of reparations advocate a very different strategy to simple cash payment. For example, the Human Rights Watch report on reparations suggests setting up “… national and international panels to examine racist practices.” As well as determining the cost of reparations, “They should aim to reveal the extent to which a government’s past racist practices contribute to contemporary economic and social deprivation, educate the public about this continuing effect, acknowledge responsibility for it, and propose methods for rectifying these effects and making amends.” Payments would still be made, but they “… would presumably be used for investment in education, housing, health care, or job training, rather than consumer goods or other ephemeral benefits.”
A consequence of pursuing this aim for reparations is that black people descended from slaves, living in and personally benefiting from living in countries that gained from slavery, would be considered no differently than white people, in otherwise similar circumstances, descended from slave traders. In principle the issue is not race but illegitimate advantage. An interesting extension of this principle underlying reparations, that suggests itself when the issue is divorced from race, would be for women as a group to demand reparations from men as a group for centuries of repression.
There is even some hope of a legal case for reparations too. It is put forward by Lord Anthony Gifford QC on behalf of the Africa Reparations Movement (ARM) on their webpage.
His case starts by demonstrating that slavery and colonialism constitute a crime against humanity. He then demonstrates that those who have committed crimes against humanity have to pay reparations and gives some precedents, for example in 1952 Germany paid Israel $222m, in 1990 Austria paid $25m to Jewish people and, perhaps even more significantly, in 1988 the US government paid $1.2bn to Japanese Americans as restitution for discriminatory behaviour towards them during wartime. The last part of his legal case is to demonstrate that descendants of victims of a crime against humanity have a right to claim reparations. Some precedents are given here, too, for example: “More recently, since the unification of Germany, claims have been pressed successfully by the sons and daughters of property owners whose lands were seized after the German Democratic Republic was set up.”
Although they are the best hope for actually achieving reparations, we shouldn’t get carried away with the legal arguments, they are not really the point. What should motivate us is a consideration of the moral principles involved. Do we feel happy with ourselves knowing that a considerable amount of our wealth is due to our country’s participation in such horrendous acts?