Slave trade 'a crime against humanity'

Historic declaration at anti-racism conference, but Africans urge more

By Jullyette Ukabiala
From Africa Recovery, Vol.15 #3, October 2001, page 5

Africa's campaign for reparations for the injustices of slavery and colonialism recently gained significant ground. "Slavery and the slave trade were appalling tragedies ... a crime against humanity, and should always have been so," declared the final declaration of the 31 August-7 September anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

"Something historic has indeed happened here," South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, president of the conference, proclaimed in her closing statement. "We have agreed that the depredation of the systems of slavery and colonialism had a degrading and debilitating impact on those who are black, broadly defined."

Ms. Amina Mohamed, Kenya's ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva and spokesperson of the African delegations in Durban, noted some of the document's shortcomings, especially the lack of an explicit apology from the former slave-trading nations or any commitment to specific reparations aimed at compensating those who suffered from the trade. Although the compromise agreement "is terribly imperfect," she said, it still "provides a good basis to build on."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who served as conference secretary-general, saw the outcome as positive. The document, she said, "sets out the issue in plain, unequivocal language for the first time" and "will resonate throughout the world and especially among those who still bear the scars" of slavery.

The last-ditch agreement on this language -- along with a separate compromise on the Middle East conflict -- saved the Durban conference from failure. Disagreements on the two sets of issues had already caused the withdrawal of the US and Israeli delegations on the fourth day and brought walk-out threats from some European delegates. Inability to reach agreement on the final document would have totally derailed the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, as it was officially known.

Campaign for reparations

The debates in Durban marked the latest phase of a decade-long campaign by African countries and representatives of the African diaspora to gain international recognition for the injustices perpetrated against them in the era of the slave trade. The issue was not just one of righting an historical wrong, they argued, but also of addressing the lasting legacy of poverty and discrimination suffered over centuries by Africa and its descendants.

In the early 1990s, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) officially embraced the idea of making claims for atonement, including specific reparations, for slavery and colonialism. African heads of state, during their 1992 summit, created an eminent persons group to explore the issue. Co-chaired by the late Nigerian pro-democracy leader Chief Moshood Abiola and former UNESCO Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, the group organized a pan-African conference on reparations in 1993.

Held in Abuja, Nigeria, it laid out Africa's main arguments on the issue. The Abuja Proclamation observed that the damage caused by slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism "is not a thing of the past, but is painfully manifest in the damaged lives of contemporary Africans from Harlem to Harare, in the damaged economies of the black world from Guinea to Guyana, from Somalia to Suriname." It argued that a moral debt is owed to African peoples and called for "full monetary payment ... through capital transfer and debt cancellation." Subsequently, demands that the slave trade be named a crime against humanity and that the former slave-trading nations apologize for it were woven into the case for reparations.

The campaign received support from some African-American groups in the US, which in a parallel effort were raising the notion of reparations from the US government for the persistence of slavery in that country until the second half of the 19th century. And on the specific issue of an apology, it also gained encouragement from the apology by Pope John Paul II "for the sins of Christian Europe against Africa" during a 1991 visit to Senegal's Gorée Island, one of the main transit centres for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Debate among Africans

From the beginning, the call for reparations has stirred controversy. Some have argued that the slave trade took place too long ago to make legal remedies possible, and that disagreements over who would pay reparations, to whom, where and in what form made the idea unworkable. Others noted that Africans themselves had colluded with foreign slave dealers by kidnapping and selling their people into slavery. Moreover, Africans also practiced slavery, and in some African countries they continue to do so.

In the months leading up to the Durban conference, differences emerged over how to proceed with the campaign. While there was general agreement on having the slave trade declared a crime against humanity, not everyone felt that an explicit apology or financial reparations were worth pursuing.

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade sparked a national debate by arguing that the demand for reparations trivialized the impact of slavery by suggesting that it could be compensated with money. He noted that some Africans, including his own ancestors, had owned slaves. At the Durban conference, he maintained that "the consequences of slavery are not the same in different regions. The problem of reparations has been raised in generic terms and we cannot have worldwide consensus on this." He proposed a case-by-case approach that also would consider the position of the African diaspora.

During the preparatory meetings for the conference, South Africa, trying to dampen the controversy over African calls for an apology, suggested instead that they accept a more modest expression of "regret," which the European delegations were prepared to back. It hoped that such flexibility would persuade European countries to be more accommodating on other issues of interest to Africa. Yet at the conference, South Africa joined the rest of the African Group in a common position on reparations and apology.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made it clear that his country stood firmly behind the demand for an explicit apology. "The wider international community has consistently failed to appreciate the reality that is particularly painful for us Africans.... Apology must be extended by states which practiced and benefited from slavery, the slave trade or colonialism.... For us in Africa, an apology is a deep feeling of remorse, expressed with the commitment that never again will such acts be practiced."

Yet President Obasanjo also questioned the merits of reparations. Once an apology was obtained, he said, continuing to seek reparations would no longer make sense. Not "every apology must be followed by monetary compensation.... We must not forget that monetary compensation, as it is being proposed, may further hurt the dignity of Africa."

President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde likewise wondered how reparations could reasonably be assessed, while President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo thought that declaring slavery a crime against humanity would be adequate reparation.

Others, however, persisted in calling for both an apology and reparations. Zambian Vice-President Enoch Kavindele argued for an "international compensation scheme" for the victims of the slave trade, along with a "development restoration fund" for countries that were affected by colonialism. Mr. Martin Belinga-Eboutou, Cameroon's UN ambassador (and currently president of the UN Economic and Social Council), said that reparations "should not be considered compassion or charity," but an "affirmation of basic human rights."

A few delegations raised particular national concerns. Angolan Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georges Chikoti noted that his country had not only suffered from the slave trade and European colonialism, but following its independence in 1975 was also "invaded by troops of the apartheid regime." Despite a UN Security Council resolution calling on South Africa to pay reparations, "to this day not a penny was given, nor apology made." Rwanda's Minister of Justice and Institutional Relations Jean de Dieu Mucyo drew attention to the 1994 genocide in his country, stating that "effective justice for the victims is needed. That means not only prosecution of the perpetrators, but assistance to the victims to help them reintegrate into society."

European reluctance

One factor that complicated the African campaign was the reluctance of the 15-member European Union (EU) to agree to outright recognition of the slave trade as a crime against humanity. Some EU members are former slave-trading nations, and feared that such a declaration could open them up to legal action.

Once the conference issued its declaration and Programme of Action, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, speaking on behalf of the European delegation, sought to minimize their potential significance. They are "political, not legal documents," he said. "These documents cannot impose obligations or liability or a right to compensation on anyone. Nor are they intended to do so." Reportedly, such concern about future liability was a reason that both the US and the EU had tried to keep the issue of slavery and reparations off the conference agenda in the first place.

Several European countries that had been heavily involved in the slave trade also strongly resisted Africa's call for a straight apology. As a result, the conference agreed only that it "profoundly regrets the massive human suffering and the tragic plight of millions." It noted that some countries had already "taken the initiative to apologize and have paid reparation where appropriate," suggesting that precisely what to do should be left to countries' discretion.

Among the few European delegates who seemed to lean towards the African view was Mr. Roger van Boxtel, the Netherlands' minister for urban policy and integration of ethnic minorities. While expressing "deep remorse" for his country's involvement in the slave trade, he added that "an expression of remorse is not enough and cannot be used as an excuse for taking no action in the present. It is important to implement structural measures that benefit the descendants of former slaves and future generations."

Ultimately, the conference deflected the call for specific reparations. The declaration did acknowledge arguments that the historical injustices of the slave trade "have undeniably contributed to poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion, economic disparities, instability and insecurity in different parts of the world." It recognized, in vague terms, the need for remedial measures, "programmes for the social and economic development" of affected societies and Africans in the diaspora. These would include "debt relief, poverty eradication, building or strengthening democratic institutions, promotion of foreign direct investment and market access." It also urged the UN and the developed countries to support the continent's New African Initiative (see article "New African Initiative stirs cautious hope").

Pressing on

Not fully satisfied with the compromise reached in Durban, a number of African countries have pledged to continue pressing for an outright apology and reparations. The process had only begun in Durban, stated Ms. Mohamed of Kenya, and "it must continue."

According to Ms. Dlamini Zuma, the South African foreign minister, "an apology is necessary, not for monetary gain, but to restore the dignity and humanity of those who suffered." South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also pressing for reparations, declared that payment was a way for the former slave traders to say, "We are sorry for what happened."

Prof. Ali Mazrui, an internationally known Kenyan academic, cautions that it will be difficult for Africa to press its case. "It is not politically realistic at this stage," he told Africa Recovery, "to expect the concerned Western states to make a commitment to reparations and an apology, due to the highly political nature of the issue." A member of the eminent persons group on reparations established by the OAU in 1992, he is nevertheless optimistic over the long term. "An apology is on the way," he says. "The crusade is one that will take a while to reach its objectives." In the short term, Prof. Mazrui regards the outcome of the Durban conference as "a major step forward." The issue "is now receiving more and more global attention, even if it is still nowhere near implementation."