human rights & business (and a few other things)

Caribbean Slavery Reparations Plan: What about the Private Sector?


Fort George, Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago)


On Monday 10 March 2014, Caribbean leaders gathered in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for a CARICOM meeting adopted a 10-point plan “to achieve reparatory justice for the victims of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid.”

The plan consists in: (1) demanding a full formal apology from European governments for the colonization of the region and the slave trade; (2) seeking help in setting up a repatriation plan for those Caribbean people of African descent who wish to “return” to Africa; (3) setting up an indigenous peoples development programme, as they remain “the most marginalized social group within the region”; (4) developing cultural institutions such as museums and research centres to help educate Caribbean people (and visitors) about their past; seeking European participation to address (5) public health issues deriving from poverty, itself deriving from past enslavement; and (6) illiteracy; (7) developing an African knowledge programme in order to build “bridges of belonging” between Caribbean people of African descent and the African continent; (8) initiating a process of psychological rehabilitation to overcome the collective trauma of slavery, for example through the development of stronger inter-Caribbean political institutions; (9) actively calling for technology transfers as the Caribbean were deliberately excluded from industrialization by colonizing nations; and last but not least (10) demanding debt cancellation.

Martyn Day from the London-based law firm Leigh Day provided legal advice to the Reparations Commission who drafted the plan. The firm is well-known to the business and human rights community for having acted on behalf of several thousand Nigerian claimants in a claim against Royal Dutch Shell, and on behalf on the claimants in the Trafigura case regarding the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire. Perhaps more immediately relevant to the slavery reparations issue, in 2013 Martyn Day acted on behalf of Kenyan people tortured by British forces in the 1950s and managed to secure compensation as well as a ground-breaking expression of regret from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Although the 10-point plan does not include litigation, the firm is therefore no stranger to historical claims.

The slave trade and the use of slave labour in the Americas and the Caribbean is a widely-known historical human rights violation, and it is one in which businesses, along with governments, played a major role. While a number of the companies engaged in the slave trade itself, such as the Royal African Company (see the recently published book by my colleague, historian Dr William Pettigrew), were chartered (i.e. partly public by modern standards), slave trading and the sugar plantation economy hugely benefitted the private sector, in particular businessmen of 16th , 17th, 18th and 19th century Europe. With that in mind, and if the “travail de mémoire” is to be properly done, then the private sector should not be forgotten in the implementation of this plan.

Realistically, it is hard to see why modern companies should be formally called to account in any way since, unlike European nations, the companies involved are likely to have disappeared long ago. Nevertheless, I can think of different ways in which the private sector’s more than marginal implication in the crimes committed could be acknowledged. Businesses could be mentioned in (forthcoming?) apology statements by European governments. Furthermore, a virtuous “coalition of the willing” from the private sector could participate, as an act of philanthropy, to the funding of a state-of-the-art history museum in the Caribbean, which would tell the stories of the various communities of the region.

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