THE charismatic and visionary St Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves is working hard to put the issue of reparations for slavery on the map. Last week’s first ever Regional Reparation Conference is an important initial step.
Nobody pretends that the campaign to obtain reparations for the Caribbean will be easy. Europe is in the middle of a severe economic downturn, triggered by the banking crisis a decade ago. The people of the former slave-holding countries are facing big cuts in their standard of living, jobs and services.
In many ways, ordinary people in Europe have never faced such economic insecurity. One symptom of that is the rise of racist political parties like the English Defence League here in Britain. So it is not a great time to be asking European taxpayers to hand over millions to the Caribbean.
But the facts are incontrovertible. When slavery was abolished in 1833 the slave-holders were awarded billions of pounds in compensation. As a result, there are wealthy and aristocratic families all around the UK who are still indirectly enjoying the proceeds of slavery. But the actual slaves who suffered the brutality and hardship of slavery were not awarded a penny.
As well as organising a successful Reparations Conference at short notice, Gonsalves has also engaged the services of top British human rights law firm Leigh Day. They are specialists with some of the country’s leading international and human rights teams.
The firm is one of the most distinguished in the UK, with a stellar record on compensation issues. They recently waged a four-year battle to get the British Government to compensate thousands of Kenyans who were tortured by the British as they fought for the liberation of their country during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the process, they inflicted two High Court defeats on the British Government and ultimately obtained nearly £20 million in compensation for their clients and an apology from the British foreign secretary.
When the case was concluded, Martin Day, a senior partner at Leigh Day, said: “We hope that this case will act as a reminder that there are human rights abuses so grave that they deserve recognition and redress, even if the events in question happened many years ago. That was true of those who sought redress decades after the Second World War, including the British prisoners of war of the Japanese (whom we also represented), and now it is equally true for these African victims of British colonial abuse.”
I suspect that if anyone can effectively pursue the legal case for reparations, Leigh Day can.
But, as well as engaging lawyers, Gonsalves is also embarking on a political campaign. He is urging the other Caribbean leaders to insert in their statement at this week’s United Nations General Assembly “a strong and positive message on reparations”.
He has also appointed Professor Sir Hilary Beckles chairman of the Caribbean Reparation Commission. Beckles has said “reparation is not about people getting handouts, but about repairing historical damage and how to find a way forward”.
It remains to be seen how successful the campaign will be. And it is important that it does not distract from tackling the region’s problems. But, as Professor Beckles said, if it helps the region find a way forward, it will be a campaign worth waging. And as Gonsalves will take up the leadership of Caricom in 2014, this will not be the last we hear of reparations for slavery.
• Diane Abbott is a British
Labour party MP and
spokeswoman on public health