African and Caribbean nations agree move to seek reparations for slavery
A global movement to seek reparations for slavery has been forged during a summit in Ghana this week, with the African Union partnering with Caribbean countries to form a “united front” to persuade European nations to pay for “historical mass crimes”.
The partnership between the 55-member African Union and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) of 20 countries will aim to intensify pressure on former slave-owning nations to engage with the reparations movement.
Delegates also announced the establishment of a global fund based in Africa aiming to accelerate the campaign.
A draft proclamation circulated at the end of the four-day conference did not specify what form the reparations should take but announced that the African Union would explore “litigation options” and work with the United Nations to assess “whether acts of enslavement against Africans constituted serious violations of human rights at the time they were committed”. A finalised version of the document, the Accra proclamation, is expected to be released this weekend.
Opening the conference, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, said: “The entire period of slavery meant that our progress, economically, culturally, and psychologically, was stifled. There are legions of stories of families who were torn apart … You cannot quantify the effects of such tragedies, but they need to be recognised.”
The “entire continent of Africa deserves a formal apology from the European nations involved in the slave trade”, he said, adding: “No amount of money can restore the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences. But surely, this is a matter that the world must confront and can no longer ignore.”
African Union delegates travelled to Barbados in July to begin discussions on how to work jointly with Caribbean nations.
Carla Barnett, Caricom’s secretary general, told the conference: “We are at an important inflection point in the global movement for reparatory justice.” She said it was critical to “speak with one voice to advance the call for reparations”.
The British Foreign Office said an official attended the conference “as part of standard diplomatic engagement”, but the UK government remains resistant to the concept of reparations.
Asked earlier this year by the Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy whether he would offer a “full and meaningful apology for our country’s role in slavery and colonialism” and commit to reparatory justice, the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, replied “no”, adding that while it was important to have an inclusive and tolerant society, “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward and is not something we will focus our energies on”.
His approach is shared by the new foreign secretary, David Cameron, who travelled to Jamaica when he was prime minister in 2015 and acknowledged that slavery was “abhorrent in all its forms” but said he hoped “we can move on from this painful legacy”.
Advances have been made elsewhere. The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, recently expressed “shame” for the colonial atrocities his country inflicted on Tanzania and in 2021 Germany officially acknowledged committing genocide during its occupation of Namibia and announced financial aid worth more than £940m. Last year the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, offered a formal apology on behalf of the Dutch state for the Netherlands’ historical role in the slave trade, which he recognised as a crime against humanity.
On a trip to Nairobi last month, King Charles acknowledged the “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans” during their independence struggle. However, he stopped short of making a formal apology.
Delegates said they felt buoyed by evidence of growing willingness to accept the need to pay reparations – citing Glasgow University’s promise to pay £20m to atone for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade, the Church of England’s pledge of £100m to “address past wrongs” after its investment portfolio was found to have historic links to the transportation of enslaved people, and also the new Heirs of Slavery movement, formed by descendants of some of Britain’s wealthiest enslavers, which supports the call for reparatory justice.
Ribeiro-Addy, who attended the Ghana conference and who chairs an all-party parliamentary group on reparations, said it was significant to witness the African Union joining forces with Caricom. “It’s a huge step forward. They’ve sent a very clear message that this is something that can’t be ignored any more,” she said.
David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to Caricom and deputy chair of the country’s national taskforce on reparations, said: “I think everybody felt they were experiencing something very historic; people feel encouraged by the amount of work that has been done to create a global reparations movement.”
Delegates visited Elmina Castle on Friday, a major European slave-trading post in Ghana where enslaved people were held before boarding ships to the Caribbean, Brazil and North America. At least 12 million Africans were forcefully taken by European nations between the 16th and the 19th century and enslaved on plantations.
Caricom’s 10-point plan for reparatory justice asks for a full formal apology, debt cancellation, and for former colonial powers to invest in countries’ health and education systems. The recent Brattle report commissioned by the University of the West Indies estimated the UK owed £18.8tn in compensation to Caribbean islands for hundreds of years of exploitation.