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Getting Serious on Slavery

As Max Boot noted yesterday, fourteen Caribbean nations are banding together to demand reparations from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in a case that has no legal foundation. As the New York Times explains:

But the prospects for a modern-day legal case for reparations by victims are far from clear. Roger O’Keefe, deputy director of the Lauterpacht Center for International Law at Cambridge University, said that “there is not the slightest chance that this case will get anywhere,” describing it as “an international legal fantasy.” He argues that while the Netherlands and Britain have accepted the court’s jurisdiction in advance, Britain excluded disputes relating to events arising before 1974. “Reparation may be awarded only for what was internationally unlawful when it was done,” Dr. O’Keefe said, “and slavery and the slave trade were not internationally unlawful at the time the colonial powers engaged in them.”

The plaintiffs acknowledge their legal case is little but an attempted shake-down:

Even lawyers for the Caribbean countries hint that a negotiated settlement, achieved through public and diplomatic pressure, may be their best hope. “We are saying that, ultimately, historical claims have been resolved politically — although I think we will have a good claim in the I.C.J.,” [Plaintiff’s lawyer] Mr. [Martyn] Day said.

In effect, the Caribbean nations hope to use slavery as a means to gain a windfall payment to compensate for years of mismanagement, corruption, and incompetent leadership.

The tragedy is that the same 14 governments—and many more—do not expend their diplomatic energy tackling modern-day slavery. The Walk Free Foundation has recently unveiled a new “Global Slavery Index” that makes for truly shocking reading. While the foundation defines slavery broadly, it does not diminish the basic point that perhaps 30 million people today—1 in 230—find themselves trafficked, in domestic servitude, or traded as property. Regionally, Haiti is a major offender, as are Cuba, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. Internationally, India and Pakistan, Mauritania, Ethiopia, and much of sub-Saharan Africa score poorly.

That the International Criminal Court becomes the forum for diplomatic nonsense such as suing over 18th century offenses while at the same it turns a blind eye to 21st century slavery does much to illustrate why the international legal regime has become such a self-parody. Kudos, however, to the Walk Free Foundation for shining a spotlight on the problem; let us hope that they continue to produce the Global Slavery Index annually, and that what international diplomats won’t seek to accomplish, public shaming might.