Q. What does Reparations mean?
A. It comes from the Latin Word for “repair”. It means redressing a wrong which has been done. In international law it is a recognised principle that those nations or individuals who have wronged other nations or individuals, should make reparation to repair the damage which has been suffered. This is particularly so when the wrongs amount to a crime against humanity. In recent years the term “reparations” has come to be used specifically in the context of the wrongs done to people of African descent in the period of the transatlantic trade in Africans and the system of enslavement in the Americas.
Q. So, is it all about getting money?
A. No, the issue goes far beyond a request for payment in monetary terms. It involves a process of reconciliation. It may include an acknowledgement by those whose countries were enriched by the profits of slavery that a crime against humanity was committed and the making of a solemn apology. And a natural consequence of all this may include monetary compensation in various forms, to repair the damage done.
Q. Even if reparations were paid, how would the people of the Caribbean benefit? Would all the money go to the Government?
A. This is one key question which the CARICOM Reparations Commission will address. This is one of the reasons why we will reaching out to the public of Jamaica in different ways. It is crucial that ordinary people see this cause as one from which they will benefit.
Q. But isn't it too late to be talking about slavery days?
A. No. In principle people are entitled to reparations they are still suffering from the wrongs which were done to their ancestors. The Commission is gathering evidence that the slavery system throughout the Caribbean had traumatic consequences in terms of poverty, destruction of family life and social structured racism, and the use of violence and that these consequences affect our society seriously to this day.
Q. Didn't slavery end with emancipation in 1838?
A. Emancipation meant that all our people were legally free but the former enslaved people received no compensation for decades of forced labour under inhuman conditions, On the contrary, it was the former enslavers who were massively compensated by the British Government for the loss of their “property”.
Q. What about the African chiefs who sold our ancestors into slavery? Weren't they just as much to blame?
A. It is true that many people in Africa collaborated in the transatlantic trade in Africans and made profits from it. This is an issue which the Reparations Commission will address. But it must be remembered that the driving force behind the trade was the insatiable demand of the plantation system for enslaved labourers, and the greatest profits were made by the European nations whose economies boomed because of the slavery system.
Q. What has the movement for reparations achieved so far?
A. Many Africans and Caribbean leaders have called for reparations to be paid by the former enslaving nations. The issue was raised at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in 2001, which resolved that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so. There are active organisations in the United States which have filed lawsuits against companies which profited from slavery. There has been a debate in the House of Lords in Britain. There has been a growing movement for reparations in countries all over the world where black people are to be found.
Q. Has there been any response from Britain and other European countries?
A. The official response is that reparations are not going to be paid. The UK government has said that there is no evidence that people are still suffering from the effects of the transatlantic trade in Africans. Both Tony Blair and David Cameron, former prime ministers of the UK expressed “our deep sorrow that it happened” but added that Caribbean people should “get over it”, stop dwelling in the past and instead focus on the future. The President of France has admitted France’s responsibility for the tragedy that was the slave trade, and established May 10 as a national day to honour those who suffered from enslavement.
Q. So why should European countries take any notice of the claim for reparations?
A. European societies have also suffered from the history of slavery. Enslavement gave rise to pernicious doctrines of white supremacy which still have their legacy in the shape of racial prejudice and racial violence. Reparations is about reconciliation. Facing up to a shameful past and taking measures to repair the damage. It will be a healing process for black and white alike. Those who commit crimes against humanity must make amends for such crimes and slavery was a crime against humanity.
Q. Have Jamaicans been involved in the movement for reparations?
A. Definitely. Jamaican Rastafari have been forefront of the call for reparations and have petitioned the Queen of England. Jamaica’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ambassador Dudley Thompson, was one of the organisers of the First Pan African Conference on Reparations in 1992. Honourable Mike Henry, Minister of Transport, initiated a debate on reparations in the House of Representatives in 2007. And now Jamaica has been the first Caribbean country to set up a National Commission on reparations.
Q. What is the role of the National Commissions on Reparations?
A. They have been set up by the governments of the Caribbean who have recommended the form or forms which reparations may take, and to receive testimony from the public and from experts, with the aim of guiding a national approach to reparations.
Q. Is reparations the same as repatriation?
A. No, but they are linked. One of the forms which reparation could take would be giving assistance to those who so desire to return to the continent from which their ancestors were forcibly removed.