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Remorse for slavery grows in Europe, but reparations are slow to follow

In the same week that the Dutch king apologised for the Netherlands’ part in the slave trade, France’s top appeals court dismissed a claim for compensation by the descendants of people enslaved under the French empire. As the latest developments illustrate, a new willingness in Europe to admit the crimes of slavery hasn’t translated into reparations.

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When King Willem-Alexander gave a personal apology for slavery last Saturday, at an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies, it was hailed as historic. 

“Today, on this day of remembrance, I ask forgiveness for the clear failure to act in the face of this crime against humanity,” he said, before an audience that included descendants of some of the roughly 600,000 people trafficked from Africa to Suriname and other Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. 

It was the second time they had heard an official apology for slavery, after Prime Minister Mark Rutte offered one in December on behalf of the Dutch state. That made the Netherlands the first – and so far, the only – European country to issue a full national apology.

The reluctance can be partly explained by governments’ fear that apologising will place them on the hook for reparations. 

But in reality, neither saying sorry as the Netherlands did, nor classing slavery as a crime like France does, has led to compensation for the descendants of the people those countries enslaved. 

The French case

France became the first country in the world to formally declare the slave trade and slavery crimes against humanity under a landmark law in 2001.

Since then, its courts have repeatedly denied the claims of descendants seeking compensation – most recently on Wednesday, when the top appeals court upheld a ruling against claimants in the former French colony of Martinique, today an overseas territory of France. It is the third time their case has been dismissed.

When the 2001 law was drafted, it originally contained provisions for some form of  reparations. But these were removed from the version eventually passed by parliament. 

As French law stands, people claiming damages must be able to demonstrate specific, reparable harm they have suffered as a direct result of a criminal act or event. There are also conditions related to the amount of time that has passed and whether the law sets a limit on how long you have to make a claim. 

No claimants to date have been able to meet those terms. 

European regrets

The European Parliament also recognised slavery as a crime against humanity in 2020, though no other European country has yet followed suit. 

Expressions of regret by European leaders have nonetheless become more common in recent years. 

In 2006 then prime minister Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s share in the slave trade – though the UK was one of the countries that opposed the EU making a formal apology for slavery under his leadership in 2001.

King Charles III and his heir Prince William have likewise voiced sadness over what Charles called “the appalling atrocity of slavery”. 

And in 2017, Denmark’s then foreign minister Anders Samuelsen apologised to Ghana for the country’s “shameful and unforgivable” participation in the enslavement of Africans. 

Even so, the national apology made by the Netherlands remains unique.

Earlier this year, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal – Europe’s biggest slaving nation – suggested making a similar one. He also acknowledged the need to go further.

“Apologising is sometimes the easiest thing to do: you apologise, turn your back and the job is done,” the president said, insisting that Portugal should “assume responsibility” for its past to build a better future.

A Dutch slavery fund, but not for descendants

When it first apologised last year, the Netherlands established a €200 million fund to address the legacy of slavery – but said it wouldn’t be used to compensate descendants, rather to fund educational initiatives and the like.

That decision has been criticised in its former colonies and at home. As King Willem-Alexander made his apology in Amsterdam last weekend, protesters marched with a banner that read: “No healing without reparations”.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander lays a wreath at the national slavery monument in Amsterdam after apologising for the royal family's role in slavery, on 1 July 2023.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander lays a wreath at the national slavery monument in Amsterdam after apologising for the royal family’s role in slavery, on 1 July 2023. © AP – Remko de Waal

Speaking to RFI from Amsterdam, Shirley, who ancestors were slaves in Suriname, said: “I think it’s really good that the king apologised. But I hope it doesn’t end there.”

She pointed to the profits generated by the exploitation of enslaved workers on Dutch plantations in the Americas. Research published last month revealed that the Dutch royal family earned the modern-day equivalent of €545 million from slavery and other colonial exploitation.

“It earned them a lot of money… For me, it’s important to have compensation, damages for the descendants,” Shirley said.

She would like to see financial reparations offered as part of a broader reckoning.

“We should also think about what might be possible beyond that – building a museum if necessary, so that people could get a sense of what went on. And so that schools and children learn about slavery because a lot of them don’t know,” she said.

“Many things happened, and the scars are still visible today.”

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