UNITED NATIONS -- There are no shortages of challenges facing sun-soaked Caribbean countries — burgeoning unemployment, high crime, a chronic health crisis.
But for almost every Caribbean leader who took the podium at the world’s leading global forum in New York last week, one issue came up time and again: compensating descendants of enslaved and oppressed Africans in Europe’s former colonies for the generational and, arguably, irreparable damage of slavery.
“The legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean has severely impaired our development options,” Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer told leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. “Reparations must be directed toward repairing the damage inflicted by slavery and racism.”
For decades, cultural leaders, black scholars and others across the United States, Caribbean and Africa have unsuccessfully sought reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands for sponsoring and endorsing kidnapping, enslaving and selling Africans. But their calls have always lacked a groundswell of support from a majority of citizens, and political leaders — until now.
In recent weeks, the movement for reparations has been gaining momentum, occupying the attention of leaders of the 15-member Caribbean Community regional bloc, who have unanimously agreed to make a moral, ethical and — if necessary — legal case for the former colonial powers to pay up.
They have consulted with a British law firm, called for apologies and even talked of going to the International Court of Justice should efforts to bring their former colonizers to the negotiating table fail.
The leaders say their focus is funding for development programs.
“It has to go beyond an apology,” Spencer said in an interview. “We have to recognize this genocide.”
Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who earlier this month hosted a three-day, first-ever Regional Reparations Conference, is helping to lead the movement.
“It’s a historic wrong that has to be righted,” Gonsalves told the Miami Herald. “Look, the Germans paid the Jews. There were reparations for the Japanese and the Maori in New Zealand.”
A regional reparations commission was launched at the gathering. Sir Hilary Beckles, a leading historian on the issue of slavery and reparations and head of the University of West Indies at Cave Hill in Barbados, was selected as its chair.
It is Beckles’ recently published book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, from which the conference’s title was drawn and momentum is being generated across the region. The book argues that Britain built its economic empire on slave labor, and the legacy of slavery continues to play out in the region’s ongoing development challenges.
The conference, Gonsalves said, “is the first step in the Caribbean’s quest to address and redress a psychic, historical, socio-economic and development wound” that is 400 years deep and Caribbean-wide.
“It’s not a confrontation, it’s a conversation,” Gonsalves said the Caribbean is seeking. “It’s not a protest, it’s an engagement.”
It is unclear whether other nations will join the Caribbean’s call. On Monday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and newly elected General Assembly President John William Ashe joined global leaders in a lounge for the unveiling of the winning design of a permanent memorial at U.N. headquarters to honor victims of slavery.