Settling the Historic Debt for Slavery

By Xiomara Cecilia Balanta Moreno*

 

This blog was originally published in Spanish on the Racial Discrimination Watch’s blog.

If slavery is not wrong,
then nothing is wrong.”

Abraham Lincoln

 

 

I believe the time has come for European countries and the rest of the world to make reparations to the descendants of African slaves. Recently the world witnessed the British Prime minister, David Cameron, make the first official tour by a British Prime Minister to Jamaica in 14 years. His visit was intended to highlight the positive impact of the multi-million dollar fund provided by the United Kingdom for the construction of infrastructure and other contributions to benefit the Caribbean island. Unlike any other visit, this visit created expectations among the Afro-Caribbean population that this was the opportune moment for the United Kingdom to settle debts for the barbaric history of slavery. Ninety percent of the population of Jamaica is of African descent. However, when this long-awaited day arrived, the Minister said many things, but with respect to the history of slavery, he only said, “I hope that we, as friends, who have been through so much together can leave this painful legacy behind.”

I read these phrases from the other side of the world: Colombia, specifically in Cali, located in the department of Valle del Cauca that has an Afro-descendant population of 1,092,169, which is 26% of the department’s total population. This makes it the city with the largest population of Afro-descendants in Latin America, second only to Salvador Bahia in Brazil. All these populations were formed through the exploitation of the labor force of African and indigenous peoples, which formed the basis of the colonial economy. As described by Emigdio Cuesta Pino in one of his writings about the aftermath of slavery: “for the colonies, enslavement became a profitable organization, known as the trafficking of blacks.” This makes it one of the largest genocides of mankind, because they generated profit with the human lives captured on the shores of Africa by selling them in the American colonies as guaranteed cheap labor.

It is impossible to not go back to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and other Related Forms of Intolerance, when Pino declared that, “Slavery and the slave trade, in particular transatlantic trafficking, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity, not only because of its abhorrent barbarism but also by its magnitude, its organized nature, and especially the denial of the humanity of the victims.” Pino also recognized that slavery and the slave trade, especially the transatlantic trafficking of slaves, constitutes and should have always been constituted as a crime against humanity and one of the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and other related forms of intolerance, and that Africans and people of african descent (…) were victims of these acts and continue to be due to the consequences.” I pause at this point, because I believe that, just as indicated by UNESCO in its Slave Route Project, “the ignorance and the suppression of important historical events constituted an obstacle to mutual understanding, reconciliation, and cooperation between peoples.” Therefore, if we want to talk about reconciliation, we must reinforce what the UN General Assembly established when it  proclaimed that 2014-2025 the international decade of Afro-descendants. This recognized slavery’s victims and their descendants by establishing monuments in countries that benefited or were responsible for slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and other past tragedies. Monuments were also placed in places of departure, arrival, and relocation of slaves. The Resolution also vowed to protect relevant cultural sites.

In the same vein, in Colombia, in an intervention before the Constitutional Court, Dejusticia and Racial Discrimination Watch argued that “the Colombian State has a duty to grant collective reparations to the Afro-descendant population for the crime of enslavement that their ancestors suffered and whose consequences persist in discrimination affecting this population (…) It is the duty of Congress and the Government to draw up a policy of reparation for the crime of slavery to be fulfilled in a reasonable term after consulting directly with these ethnic communities; and it must be a comprehensive and collective policy that serves the interests of the Afro-descendant population.” In other words, reparations must be made in a comprehensive manner and be in accordance with the international standards of protection and not be limited to economic reparations. Thus, at the international level, reparations include debt of the affected countries in Africa and the Caribbean, or financial contributions to their health and education systems (Caricom), etc.

I believe that reparations are a just and fair claim Afro-descendants may make of not only Europe, but any part of the world that benefited from slavery. As the director of the Commission of Reparations to the Caribbean Community, Hilary Beckles says, “in reality, a fifth of all the fortunes accumulated during that period were amassed with slave money.” This is not a recent claim. For years, various human rights organizations including the Santa Sede have defended the idea of compensating countries that suffered from the slave trade. And finally, as experts such as Claudia Mosquera and Ferne Brennan explain, that even if claims for reparations for slavery do not reach courts, it is important to demonstrate to the public that this discussion is politically important.

The discussion about reparations and the historical debt owed to people of African descent is an interesting and sensible discussion. Although many do not believe it, it is important to heal scars, as a beautiful song recorded in 1985 by the Grupo Niche states. The song says, “it was years of a hard fight searching for a morning, and I thank the people, the brothers and sisters, who gave their blood for my cause, for my rights, and it’s wrong that anyone tries to forget these facts. Only time will tell when this will end. But for now it continues!

And the fight will continue because the debate is just beginning, and because there are many questions that remain unanswered, such as: (i) What are the effects of slavery that currently affect people of African descent in America? (ii) Why must all of Europe provide reparations to people of African descent for slavery if those who profited from trafficking were not “all” Europeans, but those belonging to certain social classes, such as the monarchy and aristocracy? (iii) Are Europeans the only ones responsible for trafficking or were others also responsible? (iv) Whose responsibility is to make reparations to people of African descent in America? These are all valid questions that deserve to be discussed and analyzed in any academic and political scene.

 

*Xiomara Cecilia Balanta Moreno is a member of the Racial Discrimination Watch Semillero, a Ph.D. candidate in social and legal sciences at the University Rey Juan Carlos, and a professor at the University of San Buenaventura Cali, where she coordinates the Law School’s Proyección Social Program.