Caribbean nations seek reparations for slavery trade from The Hague

The 14 nations argue the barbaric legacy of their past affects them to this day and eye court action for reparations from colonial powers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 3:33am


William Hague, the British foreign secretary, called the slave trade an indefensible barbarity, "brutal, mercenary and inhumane from its beginning to its end" in a biography he wrote of a famed abolitionist in 2008.

Now 14 Caribbean countries that once sustained that slave economy want Hague to put his money where his mouth is.

We are saying that, ultimately, historical claims have been resolved politically, although I think we will have a good claim in the ICJ
Senior lawyer Martyn Day

Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for two centuries, the countries plan to compile an inventory of the damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from their former colonial rulers: Britain, France and the Netherlands.

To present their case, they have hired a firm of London lawyers that this year won compensation from Britain for Kenyans who were tortured under British colonial rule in the 1950s.

Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but its legacy remains. In 2006, Tony Blair, then prime minister, expressed his "deep sorrow" over the slave trade; the Dutch social affairs minister, Lodewijk Asscher, made a similar statement in July.

Britain has paid compensation over the abolition of the slave trade once, but that was to slave owners, not their victims.

Britain alone transported more than three million Africans across the Atlantic, and the effect of the trade was vast.

Historians estimate that, in the Victorian era, up to 20 per cent of all wealthy Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from the slave economy.

Yet the issue of apologies, let alone reparations, for the actions of long-dead leaders remains a touchy one all over the globe.

Caribbean nations argue that their brutal past continues, to some extent, to enslave them today.

"Our constant search and struggle for development resources is linked directly to the historical inability of our nations to accumulate wealth from the efforts of our peoples during slavery and colonialism," Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said in July.

Reparations must be directed towards the damage inflicted by slavery and racism, he said.

Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, the London law firm acting for the Caribbean countries, said a case could start next year at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, a tribunal that adjudicates legal disputes among states.

"What happened in the Caribbean and West Africa was so egregious we feel that bringing a case in the ICJ would have a decent chance of success," Day said.

Some Caribbean nations have begun assessing the lasting damage they suffered, ranging from stunted educational and economic opportunities to dietary and health problems, Day said.

The legal terrain is not encouraging. Although several global companies have apologised for links to slavery, efforts by descendants of slaves to seek reparations from corporations in US courts have so far come to little. And, unlike the successful case made in Britain by Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau uprising, there are no victims of slavery to present in court.

Even lawyers for the Caribbean countries hint that a negotiated settlement 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 ICJ," Day said.