How reparations can work
A new phase in the movement for reparations is beginning. For more than 25 years, many activists, including our own Dudley Thompson, have made the case that reparation needs to be made by the nations which grew rich on the profits of slavery, for the damage which is still suffered as a result of the transatlantic trade in Africans, and the institution of chattel slavery, these being the worst of crimes against humanity. The case is based on sound principles of international law.
Peter Espeut's article, 'Don't give Gov't one red (reparations) cent", expressed the case for reparations with eloquence. He described how the slavemasters received massive compensation and how the victims received nothing. He correctly pointed out that slavery was not legal at the time in Britain. There is ample scholarship to show that in all the slave-trading nations, chattel slavery was illegal. As French scholar Jean Bodin put it in 1579, "a slave became free merely by touching French soil".
The case has now been officially recognised in the Caribbean by the decision of the CARICOM Conference of Heads of Government, in July 2013, to establish a CARICOM Reparations Commission, which will report to a Prime Ministerial Sub-Committee on Reparations.
In Jamaica, there will soon be a full debate in Parliament which will, I hope, specifically authorise the Government of Jamaica to make a reparations claim. Legal strategies are being examined. A 10-point Caribbean Reparatory Justice Programme has been drafted by the commission, and will be discussed at the second CARICOM Reparations Conference in Antigua next month.
So we are moving from the question, 'Should reparation be made for slavery?', to 'By what means should reparation be made?' Peter Espeut says not a cent should go to the Jamaican Government. He echoes the wide and legitimate mistrust and cynicism with which people regard politicians. His point deserves a considered answer.
But he goes too far in describing the report of the Jamaican Reparations Commission as "self-serving and corrupt". Those words are false. I have worked with the commission under professors Chevannes and Shepherd, and with members who share a burning desire to see the reparations claim succeed for the good of the Jamaican people. They do not serve themselves or any government official.
The commission's report does not, in fact, recommend a payout to Government. It calls for a full apology, and for discussion and negotiation over repatriation, debt cancellation, and a programme of restorative justice. The debate over mechanisms and accountability has hardly begun. My own view is that Government should lead the way and speak with, and for, the people.
The 10-point CARICOM plan includes reparation in the fields of public health, education and illiteracy, areas where the government plays a leading role. But I totally agree that the scrutiny of the people must be part of the process. Active discussion is needed as we build a reparations movement which can ensure that any settlement is based on public support, and is carried through with integrity, and that the benefits reach those who suffer.
In the debate which is to come, I appeal to my other country of citizenship, the UK, to view the claim for reparation with an open mind and an honest recognition of history. In my 25 years of living in Jamaica, I have seen the psychological wounds and the economic inequities which are consequences of the horrors of slavery. There is a debt to be paid, but it can be settled in a spirit of reconciliation and understanding.