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Africa, Caribbean unite in fight for reparations

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A member of the minstrels groups that celebrate the Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) in Cape Town, South Africa, in January this year. The celebration goes back to the period before slavery was abolished in the Cape Colony. Picture: Rodger Bosch / AFP / Taken January 2, 2024

By Reuters

Support is building among African and Caribbean nations for the creation of an international tribunal on atrocities dating to the transatlantic trade of enslaved people, with the United States (US) backing a United Nations (UN) panel at the heart of the effort.

A tribunal, modelled on other ad-hoc courts such as the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after WWII, was proposed last year. It has now gained traction within a broader slavery reparations movement, according to Reuters reporting based on interviews with a dozen people reveals.

Formally recommended in June last year by the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, the idea of a special tribunal has been explored further at African and Caribbean regional bodies, said Eric Phillips, a vice-chair of the slavery reparations commission for the Caribbean Community (Caricom) which groups 15 member states.

The scope of any tribunal has not been determined but the UN Forum recommended in a preliminary report that it should address reparations for enslavement, apartheid, genocide, and colonialism.

Advocates, including within Caricom and the African Union (AU), which groups 55 nations across the Continent, are working to build wider backing for the idea among UN members, Phillips said.

A special UN tribunal would help establish legal norms for complex international and historical reparations claims, its supporters say. Opponents of reparations argue, among other things, that contemporary states and institutions should not be held responsible for historical slavery.

Even its supporters recognise that establishing an international tribunal for slavery will not be easy.

There are “huge obstacles,” said Martin Okumu-Masiga, Secretary-General of the Africa Judges and Jurists Forum, which is providing reparations-related advice to the AU. Hurdles include obtaining the co-operation of nations that were involved in the trade of enslaved people and the legal complexities of finding responsible parties and determining remedies.

“These things happened many years ago and historical records and evidence can be challenging to access and even verify,” Okumo-Masiga said.

Unlike the Nuremberg trials, nobody directly involved in transatlantic slavery is alive. However, advocates for reparations say Western countries and institutions that continue to benefit from the wealth slavery generated should be held accountable, particularly given ongoing legacies of racial discrimination.

A tribunal would help establish an “official record of history”, said Brian Kagoro, a Zimbabwean lawyer who has been advocating for reparations for over two decades.

Racism, impoverishment and economic underdevelopment are linked to the longstanding consequences of transatlantic slavery from the US to Europe and the African Continent, according to UN studies.

“These legacies are alive and well,” said Clive Lewis, a British Labour MP and a descendant of people enslaved in the Caribbean nation of Grenada.

The proposal for a tribunal was discussed in November at a reparations summit in Ghana attended by African and Caribbean leaders. The summit ended with a commitment to explore judicial routes.

Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, is in favour of the push for a tribunal, Foreign Minister Yusuf Tuggar said in February, saying the country would support the idea “until it becomes a reality”.

Reuters could not establish how many more countries in Africa and the Caribbean were likely to support the idea.

Among the tribunal’s most vocal advocates is Justin Hansford, a Howard University law professor backed by the US State Department to serve at the UN forum.

He said the idea will be discussed at the forum’s third session, starting on April 16 and due to be attended by 50 or more nations.

Hansford then plans to travel to Africa to lobby for further support, to raise the proposal with stronger backing during the UN General Assembly in September.

“A lot of my work now is to try to help make it a reality,” he said of the tribunal, saying it could take three to five years to get it off the ground.

Phillips said the goal was to garner enough support by 2025. – Reuters