RIGHTS-JAMAICA: Conference to Continue Fight for Reparations for Slavery

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, Jan 21 2003 (IPS) - Though busy organising a national conference on reparations for the African slave trade, and helping to collate information on its economic impact in Jamaica, Barbara Blake Hannah is very clear that the project will not be completed any time soon.

Though busy organising a national conference on reparations for the African slave trade, and helping to collate information on its economic impact in Jamaica, Barbara Blake Hannah is very clear that the project will not be completed any time soon.

”It’s not a tomorrow thing. I’m talking about for my grandchildren, (but) it has to begin now,” she stresses.

Blake Hannah, a journalist, Rastafarian and coordinator of the Jamaica Movement for Reparations, is among a growing community of people worldwide who are determined to press the case for reparations for slavery at the highest levels.

”The world conference (on racism) in Durban in 2001 gave us instructions to put in more or less a reparations invoice covering 17 different areas in which reparations can be awarded, and make our case to the United Nations. We have been working towards this,” Blake Hannah says.

The upcoming national conference, to be held at the University of the West Indies in the next month or two, will be a significant step in preparing this invoice, but she points out that much more material will have to be collated.

Meanwhile the reparations movement has been building steam in Jamaica and throughout the world.

Last October, more than 500 delegates meeting in Barbados created the Pan African Movement, which voted to launch lawsuits this year against former slave-trading nations, including Britain, Germany, Belgium and France.

In Jamaica, the Rastafari Brethren of Jamaica, through the office of Public Defender Howard Hamilton, sent Queen Elizabeth II a letter requesting reparations for slavery and repatriation to Africa. Though the response received earlier this month from the British High Commission was negative, Hamilton believes there is room for optimism.

”I am, for my part, not disappointed by it, I’m very encouraged by it,” he says, citing a passage referring to the slave trade as ”barbaric and uncivilised” and ”one of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man”.

The High Commission went on to note that while slavery constitutes a crime against humanity under the statute of the International Criminal Court, ”the historic slave trade was not a crime against humanity or contrary to international law at the time when the U.K. government condoned it”.

”We regret and condemn the inequities of the historic slave trade. But these shameful activities belong to the past. Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 150 years ago,” the High Commission said.

”What I had extracted from this letter is that it’s an admission, and the language, couched in the Queen’s English, is in the strongest terms of condemnation,” Hamilton says.

He believes that the U.K. Government has admitted a wrong, while trying to absolve itself by citing the laws of the time.

”Once there has been the admission of a wrong, what must be done now,” Hamilton adds, is ”the minds must be put together to determine how can we achieve a remedy”.

”Debt relief is one method that could go a long way.”

But attorney-at-law Michael Lorne notes that the British Government has used similar expressions of regret in response to several previous petitions for reparations, to no practical effect.

For example, a letter dated Aug. 4, 1998 from the British High Commission to the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress, in Bull Bay Jamaica, said in part, ”We can all agree that slavery was a deplorable chapter in world history and a major human tragedy. The question of responsibility is complex. The said reality is that all too many parties made slavery possible, including indigenous rulers and traders in Africa”.

On Aug. 26 1999, a letter from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office to Guyanese attorney-at-law Saphier Husain repeated assertions about the involvement of African traders and indigenous rulers in the slave trade, and pointed out the difficulty in determining how reparations would be paid.

For his part, Lorne tried to bring a case for reparations on behalf of the Marcus Garvey People’s Political Party and the Ethiopian International Unification Committee against the Queen of England, the Governor General of Jamaica and the Prime Minister before the Jamaican court last year. But the case was thrown out on the basis that it did not fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

Lorne maintains that a legal remedy should be pursued, preferably at the international level.

”The black world is looking at how we can go about it. I know in Zimbabwe, in Nigeria, ourselves, black lawyers in America, we’re all looking at ways we can coordinate our actions now to bring action against the Queen and against the British Government for the atrocities committed during slavery,” he says.

But Hamilton believes that going through the United Nations would be a more effective initiative.

”I don’t agree with a route through the courts at this time,” he says. ”It has to be moral suasion that’s spread throughout the world,” adds Hamilton.

Lorne argues that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and that public education, legal action and moral suasion would be an effective multi-pronged approach, as discussed at last year’s Barbados Conference for Reparations for Slavery.

Whatever the next move, it must mobilise and unify those fighting for reparations, Hamilton believes.

”It has to be a groundswell. It has to be something which the big powers feel, and will feel obliged to respond to, and I believe that that groundswell is already developing,” he says.

”What we need to do is get together with all these forces that are talking; it has to be a voice that starts out small and ends up in a crescendo”.

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