Fourteen Caribbean nations are suing the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands for reparations over what the plaintiffs say is the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. Caribbean officials have not specified a monetary figure for the lawsuits, but Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves and Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica, both mentioned the fact that Britain at the time of emancipation in 1834 paid 20 million pounds – the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today – to British planters in the Caribbean. “Our ancestors got nothing,” Shepherd said. “They got their freedom and they were told ‘Go develop yourselves.'”
In a speech Friday at United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves said the European nations must pay for their deeds.
“The awful legacy of these crimes against humanity – a legacy which exists today in our Caribbean – ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all our peoples,” Gonsalves said. “The European nations must partner in a focused, especial way with us to execute this repairing.”
The lawsuits – which are likely to amount to a lengthy battle – are being brought by The Caribbean Community, or Caricom, a regional organization that focuses mostly on issues such as economic integration. They will be brought to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, based in The Hague in the Netherlands. It is not immediately clear when court proceedings will begin.
The countries will focus on Britain for its role in slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean, France for slavery in Haiti and the Netherlands for Suriname, a Caricom member and former Dutch colony on the northeastern edge of South America.
They have hired British law firm Leigh Day, which waged a successful fight for compensation for hundreds of Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government as they fought for the liberation of their country during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.
According to Martyn Day, a lawyer from the firm, the first step will be to seek a negotiated settlement with the governments of France, Britain and the Netherlands along the lines of the British agreement in June to issue a statement of regret and award compensation of about $21.5 million to the surviving Kenyans.
“I think they would undoubtedly want to try and see if this can be resolved amicably,” Day said of the Caribbean countries, speaking to The Associated Press in July. “But I think the reason they have hired us is that they want to show that they mean business.”
Caribbean countries Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda already have national commissions on reparations, and each country that does not have a commission has agreed to set one up. The 14 Caricom nations voted unanimously to wage the joint campaign, saying it would be more ambitious than any previous attempt. [. . .]