Address by Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission to the NAARC’s Reparations Town Hall in Atlanta
(Delivered by Don Rojas on behalf of Sir Hilary)
Dr. Ron Daniels, President of the Institute of the Black World and Convenor of the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC),
Cong. John Conyers,
Members of the Local Organizing Committee,
Members of the National African American Reparations Commission,
Sisters & Brothers,
Friends and Comrades.
Most historians, scholars and activists agree that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the institution of chattel slavery in the Americas in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were without doubt the most heinous crimes against humanity in modern history.
These crimes have gone unpunished up to this day and justice for the millions of native people and the millions more of enslaved Africans who perished during these dark days has yet to be rendered.
The social, economic and psychological wounds of slavery have been passed on down through the generations; open wounds that remain raw and continue to fester.
Between the 16thand 19th centuries some 15 million captured Africans were shipped to the Caribbean, Latin America and North America on 36,000 slaving voyages. Millions more perished on the long and tortuous boat trips from Africa to the Americas.
The vast majority of the enslaved Africans were transported from major slave ports up and down the Western coast of Africa, from a vast region that today encompasses the countries of Senegal, the Gambia, the Republic of Guinea, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and others.
Today, the realization is emerging that only a process of reparations can begin to fully heal these wounds. Repair, restitution and recompense for historical crimes is a profound moral obligation both on the parts of the perpetrators and the victims of these crimes and a revived movement for reparative justice is taking shape in the Caribbean and around the world where African people live and continue to struggle for their inalienable human rights and basic dignity.
Reparation is not just an issue of repaying the enormous debts owed to the descendants of enslaved Africans. Reparation is part and parcel of the global movements for racial justice, for social justice and for economic justice. It occupies a crucial space in the movement against growing income and wealth inequalities around the world, what President Barack Obama has described as “the defining issue of our time.”
This newly energized reparations movement is yet another manifestation of that spirit of resistance and willingness to fight for freedom that expressed itself in the numerous slave rebellions in the Caribbean and the USA during the times of slavery, from Sam Sharpe in Jamaica, to General Bussa in Barbados to Cuffy in Guyana to Nat Turner and Denmark Vescey in the USA.
The greatest and ultimately most successful of these slave rebellions in the Caribbean culminated in Haiti in 1804 with the victory by enslaved Africans who rose up and defeated the mighty armies of France, Spain and Britain and declared Haiti the first independent Black country in the Americas.
Echoes of a reparations movement could be found in different forms of Black struggle and resistance throughout the Americas in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
From the rise of the Garvey movement all across the African diaspora, to the Rastafarians and their relentless demand for reparations and repatriation back to their African motherland, to the struggle for independence in the Caribbean in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, to the civil rights and Black Liberation movements in North America and Europe, through Pan-African movement of the 20th Century led by such luminaries as George Padmore, CLR James, Dr. Eric Williams, WEB DuBois, Paul Robeson, Queen Mother Moore, James Foreman to the civil and human rights struggles of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X , Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Tomas Sankara, Frantz Fanon, Bob Marley, Walter Rodney, Maurice Bishop etc, and now in the post-independence period of nation-building to cleaning up the royal mess left behind by our former slave masters.
Contrary to what we’re being told by some European leaders like Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, ignoring history won’t make it go away. Getting over slavery and moving on is not an option for people of good will in the Caribbean, Europe and around the world.
The present is a living continuation of our historical past. Our history lives and breathes in our day-to-day lives and the legacies of our slave history are evident for all to see—persistent poverty, economic underdevelopment, high unemployment, public health crises, low self-esteem, alienation of youth etc. We must reclaim our history. We must own our history and the lessons from our history must guide us as we navigate our futures.
To understand our present-day realities in all their complexity we must learn to connect the dots in our collective history, dots that link the continents of Europe, Africa and the Americas.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the first huge economic globalization project in modern history and the enormous profits yielded from this global enterprise were invested in the industrialization and modernization of Western Europe and North America and in the enrichment of thousands of families in Britain and other European countries, Prime Minister David Cameron’s family being one of them. Chattel slavery and the Trans-Atlantic trade in captive Africans was a global economic enterprise, one of the first examples of globalization but at its core and in its essence it was also a profoundly criminal enterprise.
Over the past three decades or so, there have been a number of organizations, associations, countries, regions, and conferences on reparations for African slavery in the Americas. However, for the most part, the call for reparations was uncoordinated and fragmented among the aforementioned institutions and agencies. Not until the UN conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001 that a sound platform for reparations became a serious issue.
Government officials, delegates, activists, representatives as well as academicians from the world over, including Africa, the Caribbean, North America, Latin America and Europe, attended this conference. Various positions for and against reparations were discussed and debated. The Caribbean representation at the Durban conference included a number of prominent Pan-Africanists and reparations activists like Hilary Beckles and David Commission of Barbados and Dudley Thompson of Jamaica.
The payment of reparations by the former slave holding powers was perhaps the most contentious issue debated during the Durban conference. While the European nations and the United States were forced to concede that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery were, indeed crimes against humanity, they argued erroneously that it would be unrealistic to discuss compensation for the victims of these historical crimes.
The Europeans lobbied furiously behind the scenes for support. It was closed, backroom politics in place of open historical and intellectual discourse. Truth was buried in the silence. The Caribbean delegates vigorously objected and led the opposition to this European negativity. They declared that the historical evidence showed that slave trading and slavery were understood as crimes then, as they are now, and as such are subject to reparatory justice.
What is sad and disappointing when reading the conversations for and against reparation is that the delegates who represented and spoke on behalf of former slave regimes (the United States and Britain) were of African descent. For example, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, a national security advisor in the George Bush Administration, spoke out stridently against reparations.
But, in spite of the setbacks, the UN’s conference in Durban, SA did inject considerable new energy and excitement into the reparations movement across the globe and especially in the Caribbean and the United States.
However, this new energy evaporated quite swiftly in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York which ushered in the so-called War on Terrorism in the US and around the world, followed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This war on terrorism cast a chilling and intimidating atmosphere on reparations activism around the world. The reparations movement was lulled into a period of dormancy.
In July, 2013 at the CARICOM heads of government summit in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad all the region’s prime ministers and presidents passed a unanimous resolution to establish a CARICOM Reparations Commission under the chairmanship of Prof. Beckles and to set up national reparations commissions and committees in each of the CARICOM member states.
Two months later in September, 2013, the first regional reparations conference since the establishment of the Commission was held in St. Vincent and hosted by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, himself a long-time reparations advocate.
Over the next several months the momentum sparked by the historic resolution adopted at the Trinidad summit, followed by the successful St. Vincent conference picked up pace when St. Vincent’s PM Gonsalves delivered the keynote address at a Symposium on Democracy and Development in Africa and the Caribbean organized by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century in October, 2013 in Washington, DC.
In October, 2013, the 2nd Regional Reparations Conference was held in Antigua and in April, 2014 a major reparations conference organized by the Institute of the Black World was organized at the Chicago State University.
On July 16th, 2014, I addressed the British Parliament in which I said, “the government of Great Britain, and other European states that are beneficiaries of enrichment from the enslavement of African people, the genocide of indigenous communities and the deceptive breach of contract and trust in respect of Indians and other Asians brought to the plantations under indenture have a case to answer in respect to reparatory justice.”
In September, 2014, SVG’s foreign minister Camillo Gonsalves, celebrated author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and I addressed a packed reparations forum hosted by Cong. John Conyers, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and author of HR40, the Reparations Study bill.
In April, 2015 the Caribbean Reparations Commission along with reparations and Pan African activists from across the region traveled to New York to participate in an International Reparations Conference organized by the US-based Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
This historic gathering brought together delegations from 22 countries in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and from 19 states across the US for three days of dialogue, information exchange and collective strategizing on how to re-energize and expand the global movement for reparatory justice in the 21st Century.
At this international conference, it was announced that a National African American Reparations Commission had been recently formed modeled on the CARICOM Reparations Commission and that a European Reparations Commission and similar formations in Britain and Canada were being organized.
In March, 2016, Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who is the chair of the CARICOM Primeministerial Sub Committee on Reparations, sent a letter to the leaders of Great Britain and other former slave-holding European nations on behalf of his fellow CARICOM leaders calling on London and other European capitals to formally acknowledge the crimes of native genocide and African enslavement in the Caribbean and urging them to come to the negotiating table to hammer out a reparatory justice agreement. To date, CARICOM still waits for a formal response from the European powers.
In February, 2016, the Working Group of experts for the UN’s Decade for People of African Descent led by Mereille Fanon-France, daughter of the Martiniquan-born pshchiatrist and freedom fighter, Frantz Fanon, issued a report on their investigation into the human rights conditions in several African-American communities across the US.
The group of experts said it was “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans,” and it urged the US government to address the legacy of slavery with “reparatory justice,” a national human rights commission, and ongoing criminal justice reform.
“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” it said at the conclusion of a 10-day trip to the United States.
On May 20th in a stirring speech on the occasion of Guyana’s 50th Anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, President David Granger said:
“The Caribbean is not begging for hand-outs or aid. The Caribbean is not soliciting sympathy. The Caribbean is not seeking favors. The Caribbean is demanding ‘reparative justiice’ for the greatest crime against humanity in the history of the world—the trans-Atlantic trade in captive Africans. The Caribbean’s case for reparative justice is righteous. The struggle for reparative justice will be long but every just cause is worth fighting for.”
Sisters and Brothers, the notion of reparatory or reparative justice as a viable and legitimate strategy for sustainable development is being embraced more and more by Caribbean governments and by a wide range of civil society organizations and public intellectuals throughout the region.
Our ancestors are calling on us to make this struggle for reparatory justice an imperative of our time. When we demand “reparations now” we are discharging our moral responsibility to demand restitution and recompense for the unspeakable injustices inflicted on our ancestors by the brutal and inhuman system of chattel slave labour.
When we talk about reparations, we are speaking about repairing the horrendous damages to our people wrought by the crimes of chattel slavery and later by the crimes of colonialism and imperialism. Those who say to us that slavery was a thing of the past, that we should put it behind us and move on, are, in essence, asking us to devalue the sacrifices of our ancestors.
Our collective history does matter. Black and brown lives have always and continue to matter in the Caribbean, in the USA and across Latin America.
We in the Caribbean quite rightly concern ourselves with the challenges that freedom and independence are posing. We are pre-occupied with the pressing problems of budget deficits and burdensome national debts, in some cases at levels larger than our gross domestic products, but in our search for solutions to these problems we must also recognize, analyze and understand these challenges within the broader historical context of the enormous social and economic deficits that we inherited from centuries of slavery and colonialism.
50 plus years ago, our former colonial masters left us a legacy in the Caribbean that can only be described as a “royal mess.” After sucking out the wealth that our enslaved and colonized forefathers and mothers created with their blood, sweat and tears, the colonialists left our countries with little or nothing upon which to build and develop prosperous and vibrant economies.
Having thus left us with this mess, we are now saying to the former European colonial powers that they have a moral responsibility as supposedly civilized and highly developed nations to come to the table and negotiate a partnership with us, one that will help us clean up the mess that they left behind.
These European powers have a case to answer in the courts of international public opinion and as countries that pride themselves as embodiments of integrity, democracy and respect for fundamental human rights, they must take seriously and respond adequately to the CARICOM demands as articulated in its 10-Point Reparations Program, a program that today enjoys the unanimous support of all the member states of CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas).
Today, CARICOM awaits a positive response to the letters sent earlier this year to the heads of government in Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden requesting that they meet with the heads of government in CARICOM to begin negotiations around the 10-Point reparations program.
The legacies of white supremacy and racism, both of which are vestiges of slavery and colonialism are still prevalent throughout our region and they continue to be serious impediments to the full realization and practice of democracy, racial equality and access to economic opportunity in our respective nation states and these vestiges must be confronted and expunged from our societies as we forge ahead with implementing reparatory justice.
Most African countries have followed the position of Caribbean countries but some have rejected the idea on the basis that there are pressing issues to be dealt with in Africa. Some African countries have taken a neutral position on reparation. The United States and former slave regimes of Europe and the European Union have rejected reparation. They stated that they will not apologise or pay reparations for African slavery in the Americas because slavery was a legal institution, and therefore they should not be held accountable for a situation that occurred a long time ago. They argued also that slavery was too remote for any recuperative strategy.
The United States condemned African slavery but refused to accept one nation holding another financially liable for a historical situation that happened a long time ago. Britain has offered a statement of regret and deep sorrow but still refuses to apologise or pay reparation for African slavery in the Americas. In a recent speech at the Harvard University School of Law, I said that I envision a day in the future when President Barack Obama, himself a graduate of Harvard Law, will join with CARICOM in its fight for reparations and will help to shape the 21st Century around the principles of reparatory justice.
The call for reparation is the newest common thread that binds Africa and the African Diaspora. Later this year the government of The Gambia, a country in Africa from whence countless numbers of enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas, will host a reparations conference on its soil.
Indeed, the call for reparations will persist and will grow in the months and years ahead, and perhaps someday it will be decided in the international court of justice and the victimized peoples and nations who suffered from these crimes against humanity will be justly compensated.
What the Caricom Reparations Commission has done over the past three years is to help grow a regional initiative into the revival of a global movement for reparatory justice, one that will become the greatest political movement of the 21st Century.
The building of this global reparations movement will continue this weekend here in Atlanta and in the months ahead, the reparations conversation will move to other cities across the USA and in the Caribbean the reparations relay will continue to carry the torch of reparatory justice from country to country in the region.
In the months ahead, all of us working together must build a mighty international army of reparations advocates and activists. We must strengthen the inter-connections and inter-relations between the component parts of this emerging global reparations movement. We must learn from each other, influence each other, encourage each other and inspire each other. We will prevail and no matter how long it takes victory will be ours because our cause is a just and righteous cause and reparations is an idea whose time has come.
Forward Ever, Backward Never!!