Time To Pay For Slavery, Says UN Chief.

Wikiemedia Commons. The Capture of the Slave Ship Condor.
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Africa and Caribbean nations are building support for the creation of an international tribunal that will look at compensation for the horrors of the historic transatlantic trade in slaves, with the United States backing a U.N. panel that is at the center of the initiative.

A tribunal, which would be similar to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War Two, was proposed last year. It has now gained traction within a broader slavery reparations movement,

Reuters has interviewed a  dozen people and dug out the following facts:

Formally recommended in June by the U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, the idea of a special tribunal has been explored further at African and Caribbean regional bodies, said Eric Phillips, a vice-chair of the slavery reparations commission for the Caribbean Community, CARICOM, which groups 15 member states.

The scope of any tribunal has not been determined but the U.N. Forum recommended in a preliminary report that it should address reparations for enslavement, apartheid, genocide, and colonialism.

Advocates, including within CARICOM and the African Union (AU), which groups 55 nations across the continent, are working to build wider backing for the idea among U.N. members, Phillips said.

A special U.N. tribunal would help establish legal norms for complex international and historical reparations claims, its supporters say. Opponents of reparations argue, among other things, that contemporary states and institutions should not be held responsible for historical slavery.

Even its supporters recognise that establishing an international tribunal for slavery will not be easy.

There are “huge obstacles,” said Martin Okumu-Masiga, Secretary-General of the Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF), which is providing reparations-related advice to the AU.

Hurdles include obtaining the cooperation of nations that were involved in the trade of enslaved people and the legal complexities of finding responsible parties and determining remedies.

“These things happened many years ago and historical records and evidence can be challenging to access and even verify,” Okumo-Masiga said.

Unlike the Nuremberg trials, nobody directly involved in transatlantic slavery is alive.

Asked about the idea of a tribunal, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Office acknowledged the country’s role in transatlantic slavery, but said it had no plan to pay reparations. Instead, past wrongs should be tackled by learning lessons from history and tackling “today’s challenges,” the spokesperson said.

However, advocates for reparations say Western countries and institutions that continue to benefit from the wealth slavery generated should be held accountable, particularly given ongoing legacies of racial discrimination.

A tribunal would help establish an “official record of history,” said Brian Kagoro, a Zimbabwean lawyer who has been advocating for reparations for over two decades.

Racism, impoverishment and economic underdevelopment are linked to the longstanding consequences of transatlantic slavery from the United States to Europe and the African continent, according to U.N. studies.

“These legacies are alive and well,” said Clive Lewis, a British Labour MP and a descendant of people enslaved in the Caribbean nation of Grenada.

Black people “live in poorer and more polluted areas, they have worse diets, they have worse educational outcomes… because structural racism is embedded deep.”

The United States, which has financed the U.N forum, “will make a decision on the tribunal when it has been developed and established,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said. “However, the United States strongly supports” the forum’s work, the spokesperson added.

Regarding reparations, “the complexity of the issue, legal challenges, and differing perspectives among Caribbean nations present significant challenges,” the spokesperson said.

The U.N. leadership has now come out in support for reparations, which have been used in other circumstances to offset large moral and economic debts, such as to Japanese Americans interned by the United States during World War Two and to families of Holocaust survivors.

“We call for reparatory justice frameworks, to help overcome generations of exclusion and discrimination,” U.N. General Secretary Antonio Guterres said on March 25, in his most direct public comments yet on the issue. Guterres’ office did not respond to a request for comment about a possible tribunal.

Source: Reuters, United Nations, Essence.
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