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Reparations: The pursuit of justice, not compensation

Published:Thursday | February 27, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Jaevion Nelson

lavery was an injustice to Africans, our foreparents, to us and our children and their children and their children's children. We were forced into a life of "unrequited justice" (Janna Thompson, 2001) where we "were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property and real estate" (Professor Hilary Beckles in Jamaica Observer). We must, therefore, as a people, seek to correct "this malady called injustice" (Jermaine McAlpin) through reparations.

Today, as we bring the curtain down on Black History Month, I want to discuss this important national issue, using bits of a presentation I made at a recent forum on reparations at the Institute of Jamaica.

According to Wikipedia (n.d) "Reparations are measures taken by the state to redress gross and systematic violations of human rights law or humanitarian law through the administration of some form of compensation or restitution to the victims ... Reparations can be symbolic as well as material. They can be in the form of public acknowledgement of apology for past violations, indicating state and social commitment to respond to former abuses."

It is rather disappointing and unacceptable that these countries that enslaved us refuse to right their wrongs, especially in light of the UN Assembly Resolution 60/147 of December 16, 2005 on the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. To right the wrong could also mean making a profound apology. But I suppose such an admission would be problematic for their legal gymnastics.

We can't be daunted. We cannot retire our efforts to right the wrongs meted out to us. We must support the government and the National Commission on Reparations.

Reparation is important because we were born out of a "history that has inflicted massive psychological damage upon African descendants [that] is evident daily in [our] social life" (Hilary Beckles in Jamaica Observer). Reparation is not a handout as is often argued by the denouncers (of reparation) but about repairing historical damage and finding a way forward for the descendants of a people who had their human rights trampled on; who were disenfranchised to the benefit of people and states who continue to reap the benefits of their pilfering of the resources and dignity of African peoples.

more than money

I was so very delighted that Mutabaruka, at the Reparation Forum at Emancipation Park earlier this month, reminded us that "reparation has to mean more than receiving money from those institutions and countries that have benefited from slavery" (JIS). That could not have come from a better person, a conscious Rastaman since they appear to be the most ridiculed when they speak about reparations. I remember how people, myself included, scoffed at the Rastafarian community when they said/lobbied Britain to compensate them and provide them passage to return the motherland, Africa.

I was not always supportive. For a very long time (until late last year), the pursuit for reparation was a grand waste of time and resources. so, my evolution on the issue is a continuing one; a process of constant learning and unlearning, but I do know, in the words of McAlpin (in his lecture), "We want reparations and we want justice", and so I fully support and endorse their efforts to seek "internal redress in Jamaica for the mentalities and legacies of slavery that continue to permeate the society; and ... external redress from countries such as Spain and Britain, who committed crimes against our ancestors and did not even apologise" (Professor Verene Shepherd in Jamaica Observer).

Walter Rodney, a man who dedicated his life to decrying and acting against the injustice of the slave trade and the resulting social dynamic, argued that he was "opposing a system which is barbarous and dehumanising - the one which snatched me from Africa in chains and deposited me in far-off lands to be a slave beast, then a sub-human colonial subject, and finally an outlaw in those lands. Under these circumstances, one asks nothing more but to be allowed to learn from, participate in and be guided by the African Revolution ...; for this Revolution here is aimed at destroying that monstrous system and replacing it with a just socialist society."

I humbly submit that reparation is a part of that continuing revolution to deconstruct the injustice that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and