How could countries finance reparations for historical injustices?

Calls are mounting for governments to pay reparations for slavery, colonialism and other crimes, but such projects are often dismissed as unworkable. New research explores the options for making reparations a reality, including debt cancellation and redirecting financial sanctions.

Debt relief is one of the most viable ways to deliver restitution to African countries in particular, according to Nasim Salad, senior associate at The Advocacy Team, which co-authored a report on different financial mechanisms that could be used for reparations.

“It’s something of real concern at the moment,” she says. “Debt relief can free up a lot of resources and allow countries to spend their money on their own social sectors.

“Debt cancellation is something that’s already been done, that can be easily done and that can be seen as a form of reparations. That’s in our top three recommendations.”

A collaboration with international development consultants Development Reimagined, the report ranks financing options according to their effectiveness, cost, implementation time, the political will needed and other criteria.

As well as cancelling debt, it recommends repurposing financial sanctions to channel assets from perpetrators to victims.

For instance, fines collected from companies that violate sanctions could be used to fund development projects in the countries harmed.

Billion-dollar potential

Taxes represent the biggest opportunity to generate reparations, the report found.

In particular, financial transaction taxes (FTTs) were rated as having the highest potential to achieve large-scale financial reparation for different contexts.

“An FTT is essentially a tax that’s applied to the purchase or sale of financial instruments such as stocks or bonds,” Salad explains.

“And the report itself looked at a really interesting figure, where if, based on the $16 trillion traded every single day on the global financial market, with a moderate financial transaction tax at 0.1 percent, it could generate up to $16 billion.”

The most sustainable impact, though, would come from adopting a combination of different measures, the report concludes.

Growing global movement

Advocates for reparations argue that the financial markets of today arguably were built on the backs of historical slavery and colonisation, which helped merchant banks, insurance companies and individuals in Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and other countries accumulate massive wealth.

Meanwhile other nations continue to live with the harm wrought – such as Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world today, which was forced to pay steep compensation to France after it successfully overthrew French colonisers in 1804.

The African Union has declared 2025 the year of “Justice for Africans and People of African Descent Through Reparations”.

Exploring legal and judicial options for reparations for trans-Atlantic enslavement, colonialism and apartheid will become the bloc’s flagship issue next year.

It comes after African and Caribbean leaders met in Accra, Ghana, last November and agreed to jointly increase the pressure on former slave-owning European nations to pay compensation.

In April, UN human rights chief Volker Turk urged countries to enter “a new era” on reparations and take tangible steps towards addressing past injustices.  

It echoes growing support for the reparations movement from grassroots activists, academic scholars and some politicians. 

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