All Eyes on Slavery Reparations Case by Caribbean Nations

October 20, 2016

In September of 2013, Caricom, or Caribbean Community that consists of 15 nations including St. Vincent, The Grenadines, Barbados, Suriname, and Grenada, announced they would be attempting to sue 11 European nations for slavery reparations. After a few months of fighting to gain ground, this task is proving much harder than expected for the Caribbean nations. The Caricom is now attempting to bring their case to the United Nations in an effort to gain political leverage against the European nations involved in the case. This move has proved to be quite controversial because it could have monumental effects on those who participated in the slave trade and those who were victims of it. The Caricom is now attempting to use the UN to pressure the European nations involved like those in the U.K., France, and the Netherlands to negotiate to reach fair restitutions.

When the Caricom first announced the case, it was thought they would be seeking monetary reparations for the slave trade. Since then, the Caricom has made it clear that they are not seeking reparations for slavery itself but rather for the lasting effects it caused. The Caricom claims that the current underdeveloped state of various Caribbean nations is because of the lasting legacy of slavery. This move brings forward the controversial difference between present day injustice and historical suffering. By attempting to make this lawsuit about current issues, it would allow the Caricom to avoid treaties and conventions that would prevent retroactive application. It also means that Caribbean nations with troubled pasts would be allowed to participate rather than be forced to sign onto human rights status. These proposed reparations are now demanding assistance with building a slavery museum and the development of better education and health programs. David Standard, head of media relations at Leigh Day, the firm representing the Caricom, said of the pending case, “This was one of the most heinous periods of mankind. France, the Netherlands, Britain all massively benefited through the course of this time. It was built on the backs of the slavery trade. While one fully understands that these countries are not doing as well as they once were, at the same time, in the end if you have a debt due, you have a debt due.” On the other hand, a representative of Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth office fired back, arguing for forward progress rather than focusing on the past: “Slavery was and is abhorrent. ... The U.K. unreservedly condemns slavery and is committed to eliminating it. We do not see reparations as the answer. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century.”

In their latest press conference, the Caricom vowed to bring the U.K., France, Spain, The Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) if they refuse to negotiate these reparations. It seems unlikely the ICJ will side with the Caribbean nations. With European countries already financially strapped and also becoming increasingly frustrated over the expectation to compensate nations for actions during colonial times, all nations with previous involvement in slavery are keeping a watchful eye on the progression of this case. While taking the case to the UN may seem like a big move, it could prove fatal to the case of the Caricom. The ICJ typically does not try historical cases, and discrimination and slavery conventions are an entirely new topic for the court. Furthermore, many countries signed onto ICJ participation did so with restrictions, especially when it comes to historical cases. The Netherlands cannot be tried for any actions preceding 1921 and the U.K. for any actions before 1974. Both countries and the UN agreed to these restrictions before each country agreed to ICJ participation. As a result, many critics and experts do not think the ICJ will take the case even though it focuses on modern problems in the Caribbean.

In the event that the ICJ does take the case, Leigh Day must then prove that Caribbean underdevelopment is a direct result of the slave trade. Robert Westley, a professor at Tulane and an expert on reparations believes this argument has merit: “If you look just at measures of just well-being in racial comparison, not just the racial wealth gap, but if you look at employment, if you look at access to things like medical care, or if you look at rates of imprisonment, if you look at poverty rates — almost every measure of well-being in society — there is a racial disparity. And those disparities are clearly an outcome of historical forces. They didn't just happen that way.” Westley also argues the amount of time between the end of slavery and current times have increased the inequality and disparity between slavers and victims. The ICJ requires that before taking a case, both parties much reach a settlement outside of court. Westley believes this process will give one side leverage when it comes to seeking monetary compensation. In the case of the Caricom, they will have significant leverage against an already monetarily squeezed Europe. The ICJ can also be pressured by the UN General Assembly to make an “advisory” opinion. While these advisories do not hold legal weight, they are extremely influential when it comes to politics. Advisories can also be used to reach a temporary agreement and would allow for discussion of the bigger issues at a later time.

While some critics do not think anything will come from the case, in the ICJ courts or outside of it, if there is a ruling handed down it could forever change the dynamics when it comes to country’s past actions. The slave trade may have ended over 100 years ago in the Caribbean, but there is no doubt that it is one of the less developed places in the world. However, should that fault fall on nations that have admitted their mistakes and moved forward? The outcome of this case could become monumental in setting a precedent when it comes to dealing with legacies of slavery in the modern world. Even if the case is not heard, judges who agree with Caricom can still write articles that publicly shame European countries for ignoring responsibility for the Caribbean’s current state. No matter the outcome, the case is escalating and will no doubt call into question the mistakes in the histories of various countries. The question remains; should current generations have to pay for the mistakes of their ancestors? Or, should current generations continue to suffer due to the victimization of their ancestors? The United Nations and the International Court of Justice may have the answer these questions in the very near future.

About Author(s)

Kelcey Hadden-Leggett
Kelcey Hadden-Leggett is an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a degree in Spanish, a Certificate in Latin American Studies, and a related area Certificate in Portuguese. She recently completed the Pitt in Ecuador program in the Amazon.