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Friday 13 December 2019
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Return of reparations

YOU may never have heard of it. But you should.

This past Monday was the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Despite being a mouthful, the observance was probably forgotten by most. That ought not to be the case. About 15 million men, women, and children were enslaved over a period of 400 years under the transatlantic slave trade. It was the largest forced migration in history. Experts say the worth of black labour during this period was anywhere from billions to trillions of dollars. Additionally, exploitative low-income work post-slavery means the figures could be even higher.

Reparations – an apology and repayment to black citizens whose ancestors were forced into the slave trade – is a policy notion that has long been called for. It’s one politicians have often sidestepped or ignored. But judging from recent developments globally it’s clear the issue is about to return to the forefront. With only one year to go before the US presidential election, many major candidates have made the question a key campaign issue, calling for a conversation.

The legacy of slavery is a profound matter that demands discussion not just at the political but also at the social level. Our history has affected us in tangible ways, even in the most seemingly banal things. For example, poor dietary practices have been fingered in relation to a report which this month found us to be among the unhealthiest countries in the world.

It hasn’t escaped the attention of many that some of our contemporary eating habits reflect our slave past. Our colonial legacy is intertwined in this nasty business. From slaves, we moved to indentured labourers. Various races were brought here, perhaps under terms that might today qualify as human trafficking.

The Caricom Reparations Commission (CRC), chaired by Barbadian historian Sir Hilary Beckles, was established in September 2013 to address the fallout from the enslavement of African peoples. It unveiled a ten-point plan for reparatory justice including repatriation and psychological rehabilitation. Sir Hilary has not had much success in winning over international actors.

Some states, however, have acknowledged the issue. Denmark last year apologised to Ghana for its role in slavery. Even when nations have not warmed to the idea, important institutions have stepped forward.

After discovering it had received £198 million in donations from people tied to the slave trade, Glasgow University announced a reparative justice programme.

The University of East London has also called for a £100 million fund to support ethnic minority students.

Clearly, there is a range of innovative ways in which the debt could be repaid to all who were wronged under our colonial past.

We need to join this discussion.

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