By Lord Anthony Gifford
This year has already seen some important and potentially historic developments in the campaign for reparations. On January 27, the House of Representatives passed a motion proposed by Mike Henry, which contained three resolutions. First, that the House “make the political decision that the Government of Jamaica is entitled, on behalf of the former slaves and via the basic tenets of labour law and human rights, to receive payment from Great Britain, equivalent to the sum paid to the British slave owners as compensation for their loss of slave labour”.
Second, “that the payment be used to clear off all the debt of Jamaica and to the education, infrastructural development, and health sectors, and a portion be set aside for the repatriation of African Jamaicans to Africa.”
The third resolution encouraged other CARICOM countries to make similar decisions, and instructed the Government of Jamaica to take this case of genocide to the International Court of Justice.
In 2009, Jamaica had been the first government to set up a National Reparations Commission to advise on reparations. Now, Jamaica has seen the first parliamentary vote on the issue. Great credit must go to Mike Henry for taking the lead on this issue over many decades.
The support was bipartisan and unanimous. Minister Lisa Hanna said, “Reparations are about social and economic development … . It is about healing spiritual and psychological wounds left unhealed.” Former Minister ‘Babsy’ Grange said, “International law recognises that those who commit crimes against humanity must make reparation.” The whole debate has been poorly reported, but should be widely studied.
On February, Justice Patrick Robinson, a judge of the International Court of Justice, was honoured by the UWI, and gave a brilliant lecture on ‘A Triad of Identity Issues’. The issues were the abolition of the monarchy, the replacement of the Privy Council by the CCJ, and “a claim for reparations for the enslavement of our ancestors”.
After tracing the history of the atrocities committed and the heroes who resisted, Justice Robinson said, “There must be a remedy for the grotesque wrong of transatlantic slavery. Why would anyone be surprised that a claim for compensation for the greatest crime against humanity in history would be made on behalf of its victims? And why should a country in which 92 per cent of its population are descendants of those victims not have an interest in making such a claim?” The views of Jamaica’s pre-eminent international jurist deserve the greatest respect, and the whole lecture is available from the UWI.
On March 2, representatives of the government of the United Kingdom met with the chair and other members of the National Committee on Reparation (NCR). The UK delegation included the high commissioner, who had requested the meeting, and the head of the Caribbean team in the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. They were left in no doubt that the claim for reparations was serious and was gathering momentum. There was no change in the UK’s policy of opposition to reparations, but it said that through discussions like this, there could be greater understanding, and change could only come through understanding.
Other initiatives on the issue will happen in 2015. The NCR is committed to a campaign of public education and awareness throughout the island before publishing its final report due in December. As the governments of the Caribbean do the groundwork on the claim which they are mandated to make, and as they fine-tune the 10-point action plan which the CARICOM Reparations Commission has drafted, public support and participation need to grow. For once, our Parliament, our Government, our civil society and our people can speak with a united voice.