Patrick Robinson | United Kingdom committed a wrong and it has to repair it
In 2015, David Cameron, the then United Kingdom (UK) prime minister, advised the Jamaican Parliament against requiring the UK to pay reparations for transatlantic chattel slavery. To do so, in his view, was to look back on history when it was more fruitful to look forward. Every member of the House of Representatives should have walked out of the chamber when Mr Cameron gave this unsolicited advice to our parliamentarians; but we are sometimes too polite, even while being insulted, or are not always aware that we are being insulted.
When the now outgoing UK high commissioner arrived in Jamaica, he echoed the message of Mr Cameron by telling us that we should not peer into the past. Now that his tour of duty is at an end, he has informed us that “the British institutionalised system was not actively contemplating making reparation payments to Jamaica. It is simply not happening.” ( The Gleaner July 20 2021, captioned, “It is simply not happening”.)
As honorary president of the American Society of International Law, I convened an International Symposium on the Lawfulness of Transatlantic Chattel Slavery. The symposium, held on May 20 and 21, 2021, was co-sponsored by the American Society of International Law and The University of the West Indies. There were many distinguished speakers on various aspects of transatlantic chattel slavery – lawyers and academics, in the main, but all experts in international law. The overwhelming conclusion of the symposium was that the presentations established that transatlantic chattel slavery was wrongful conduct under international law, and consequently, called for reparations. A second symposium will be held shortly to assess the reparations that are due not only from the United Kingdom, but from all the other European countries that engaged in the grotesque practice of transatlantic chattel slavery.
IGNORANCE AND ARROGANCE
The statements attributed in The Gleaner article to the high commissioner reflect ignorance and arrogance. The insurmountable problems anticipated by him in paying reparations are readily addressed. For example, he asks, who will pay the reparations? The answer is that reparations are to be paid by the European countries who succeeded to their predecessor states, if there was one, so that the United Kingdom would pay for the wrongs of Great Britain.
He also asks, “Who do we pay it to?” Again, this is not problematic. Reparations are to be paid to Caribbean countries like Jamaica, in which 94 per cent of its population spring from persons who were enslaved by the British for almost 200 years and were obliged to provide their labour free of cost. No one is contemplating that reparations are to be paid to John Brown, Mae Stokes, Kwame Obaseyo, or Abayomi Abebe. The funds due are to be used for development purposes to provide services for the millions who continue to this day to suffer from the systemic consequences of transatlantic chattel slavery.
It is unclear why the high commissioner should have asked to whom reparations are to be paid. There are many examples of reparations of which I am sure the high commissioner is aware. In 1952, Germany paid Israel and the World Jewish Congress US$65.2 billion for atrocities committed during the Holocaust and for the resettlement of Jews. Just as Germany paid reparations to Israel for Germany’s wrongful conduct during the Second World War, so must the United Kingdom pay reparations for its wrongful conduct of transatlantic chattel slavery carried out in Jamaica, other Caribbean countries, and in what is now the United States of America. More recently, Germany agreed to pay €1.1 billion to Namibia for its ill-treatment of the Herero and Nama tribes although it has not agreed to describe these funds as reparations. In 1995, New Zealand paid $170 million to Maoris for land stolen from their ancestors by settlers in 1963. I am not aware that the question of to whom these sums of money were to be paid gave rise to a problem.
The high commissioner refers to the by now tired and shallow argument that slavery also existed with the Spaniards, Arabs, Africans, and Romans. History shows that servile labour had many forms in Europe and Africa, but transatlantic chattel slavery was uniquely different in its form and barbarism and cannot be compared to serfdom as practised in Europe and Africa. One has only to read Thomas Thistlewood’s account of his favourite punishment designed for runaways – forcing another enslaved person to defecate in his mouth, which was then gagged for about three hours – to understand that a slave owner was not required to justify any action he chose to take in relation to the enslaved who were his personal property. This was not the serfdom found in Europe and similar forms of servile labour in Africa.
The most offensive aspect of the high commissioner’s statements was his reference to development assistance from the United Kingdom to Jamaica. A proud and noble people, entitled to reparations, must not settle for what is called development assistance from the United Kingdom when it is abundantly clear that much of the social and economic conditions found in the country can be traced directly to transatlantic chattel slavery and the different and unequal policies applied by the UK in treating slaves and slave owners at its abolition.
What the Jamaican Parliament sought in the 2015 resolution that was unanimously adopted – itself a rarity among the two Jamaican tribes – was not development assistance, but reparations for transatlantic chattel slavery. It is also rank effrontery for the high commissioner to suggest that Jamaica is claiming reparations from the UK because “there are certain political activists who want this to happen …” and “some people have made it their lifelong ambition”! Did the high commissioner not learn anything about Jamaican history in his four years in our country? Does he not know about our lineage? Does he not know that we are descended from West Africans who fought transatlantic chattel slavery with all their might and overthrew that obnoxious system? Does he not know of the courage of Sam Sharpe who gave his life for the freedom of his enslaved brothers and sisters? Does he not know of the valour of Nanny and Tacky in the fight against transatlantic chattel slavery? And if he had this knowledge of our background and history, why would he find it strange that Jamaicans today would press for reparations for transatlantic chattel slavery?
The high commissioner needs to appreciate that transatlantic chattel slavery was wrongful conduct and that under international law, a state has a duty to repair its wrongful conduct. A wrong was committed, and it must, as a matter of law, not of grace, be repaired by the UK.
The high commissioner stated that there was recognition in the United Kingdom at the highest level “that there was deep sorrow and regret for what actually transpired”. If that is so, he should advise his government to tender an apology for its wrongful conduct and pay the reparations that are due. He should also immediately apologise to the people of Jamaica for his unbecoming remarks.
- Judge Patrick Robinson is a Jamaican member of the International Court of Justice. Send feedback to email@example.com.