by Tony Best
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News
Even before the first legal briefs have been filed in a British or World Court seeking reparations for slavery in 14 Caribbean island nations, legal luminaries are squaring off publicly.
And the words of a former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the U.K.’s current Foreign Minister, William Hague, as well as former French president Nicholas Sarkozy may come back to haunt them as Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, St. Vincent, Haiti, St. Lucia, Belize and their Caricom neighbors continue to press their case for compensation.
But while Leigh Day, the London law firm retained by the Caribbean states to argue the region’s case in court against Britain, France and the Netherlands insists the countries in the region have a reasonably good case should the matter end up before the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Roger O’Keefe, Deputy director of the Lauteracht Center for International Law at Cambridge University in England, has cast serious doubt on the Caribbean states’ ability to be awarded any money for the victims of what is generally recognized as a crime against humanity.
“There s not the slightest chance this case will get anywhere,” O’Keefe was quoted as telling the New York Times. Indeed, he described the Caribbean’s claim for repartition as an “international legal fantasy”.
Not so, argued Martyn Day, senior partner of Leigh Day, who insisted that the Caribbean’s case could start at the ICJ as early as next year.
“What happened in the Caribbean and West Africa was so egregious we feel that bringing a case in the ICJ would have a decent chance of success,” said Day. “The fact that you were subjugating a whole class of people in a massively discriminatory way has no parallel.”
In the meantime, Caricom states have taken their case to the United Nations General Assembly, where heads of government or foreign ministers of several countries, including Baldwin Spencer of Antigua & Barbuda, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Portia Simson Miller, leader of Jamaica and Kamla Persad Bissessar, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister have thrown their collective weight behind compensation for slavery which ended in the 1830s when Britain paid 20 million English pounds sterling to slave owners for the loss of their assets. Dr. Nicholas Draper of the University College of London put the present day vale of that compensation package at about $21 billion.
Dr. O’Keefe says there is another reason why the case against Britain may not stand legal scrutiny. It is that while both the Netherlands and Britain have accepted the ICJ’s jurisdiction, the latter excluded disputes that arose before 1974.
“Reparations may be awarded only for what was internationally unlawful when it was done,” the Cambridge University legal expert argued. “And slavery and the slave trade were not internationally unlawful at the time the colonial powers engaged in them.”
There is more. Although there have been cases of reparations being paid for the “actions of long dead leaders and generals remain a touchy one all over the globe,” according to the New York Times, Turkey wouldn’t pay compensation for the mass deaths of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire but West Germany paid reparations to the Jews for Crimes during the Nazi regime. Just the other day Leigh Day succeeded in getting Britain to pay reparations to Kenyans for the brutality during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising.
“Critics contend that it makes no sense to try to redress wrongs that reach back through the centuries, and that Caribbean countries already received compensation through development aid,” stated the Times.
But what about the assessments of slavery and other crimes against humanity as outlined by different European leaders?
For instance, Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, Hague, called slavery “brutal, mercenary and inhumane from its beginning to end.” The Caribbean states are hoping that Hague who once led the British conservative party may be forced by the ICJ to put British money where its mouth is.
When Blair was Prime Minister, he called potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840s “something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.” That too could be cited in any court cases on slavery.
In France, former President, Sarkozy once linked a debt cancelation plan for Haiti with “the wounds of colonization.”
Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles, Principal of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies in Barbados, has argued that reparations were “Britain’s Black Debt” for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide.”
Baldwin Spencer, Antigua’s Prime Minister agreed with Sir Hillary.
“Our constant search and struggle for development resources is linked to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our people during slavery and colonialism,” asserted Spencer who insists reparations must be used to repair the damage done by a mix of slavery and racism.
It’s a position that is strongly backed by Dr. Gonsalves who told the UN General assembly during a session resided over by Dr. John Ashe, Antigua’s Ambassador to the UN that compensation was due the region and he invited the European nations to enter into deliberations with the Caribbean to resolve the issue amicably.
Indeed, the Caribbean has placed considerable emphasis on diplomacy and discussion while keeping the legal option open.