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Reparations for Europe’s Slave Trade?

There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

The problems with this legal action hardly end there. Reparations are generally accorded when nations take actions which are illegal and unethical under prevailing standards of international law. This, for example, is why it is appropriate for Germany to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust or for Japan to pay reparations to former comfort women. But slavery was hardly against international law when it flourished in the Caribbean in the 18th century. In fact, slavery had been widely accepted since antiquity and practiced not only by Europeans but by Africans, Arabs, Asians, and many other cultures. It still exists in many places today.

Slavery only came to be accepted as a moral abomination—and eventually banned—thanks to the efforts of Western abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. The international slave trade was repressed through the action of the Royal Navy, with a small assist from the U.S. Navy. The moral opprobrium that clings to countries such as Britain which benefitted from the slave trade must be weighed against the moral approbation they earned by campaigning against slavery. Also on the plus side for the colonial powers is the fact that they invested in considerable physical infrastructure—roads, ports, railroads—that continue to benefit Caribbean nations to this day.

How one balances all of this out is impossible to say, and it is not a job for a court to address. We should learn from the past, but it is a stretch to try to benefit from misdeeds that occurred hundreds of years ago by and against people who are long dead.


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