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Caribbean can win reparations fight

Bert Wilkinson | 2/13/2014, 11:07 a.m.

The Feb. 18-19 meeting is being held in Kingstown, the home capital of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves. Gonsalves has been among the regional leading lights in getting his fellow heads of governments to add their weight to decades of lobbying from the Rastafari Movement and other civil society groups, which had been fighting the case without any support whatsoever from governments in the region.

All that changed at the main July summit Trinidad last year when the leaders issued a statement officially backing the fight to get colonial European powers to compensate millions of Africans whose ancestors worked on sugar and other plantations under brutal conditions and were never paid a single cent.

The leaders pointed a regional oversight reparations committee to the British law firm of Leigh Day & Co., which had forced the British to compensate the Mau Mau tribe in Kenya for decades of abuse at the hands of the English.

In recent weeks, the committee has stepped up its work as the law firm begins months of intense research and preparation for the case and as the issue is set to be the subject of an in-depth discussion at the two-day summit in St. Vincent.

Lead attorney Martyn Day told the island’s Voice newspaper that the firm signed on to the issue after it was contacted by Gonsalves on behalf of the governments of the islands. He thinks it is a winnable case.

“Reparations for slavery is an issue of its time, one that is resonating in British society. Having concluded the Mau Mau case, it seemed to me it was an issue that needed airing significantly. Although it’s a tough case legally, it’s one I felt was a fight worth fighting.

“The fact that it is a case involving issues that are 200 to 400 years old is a massive impediment to a victory. But we feel the morality of the whole thing is very strong, and I think there is a real prospect that we will be able to persuade the British government and other governments of the Western powers to sit around the table and try to resolve it. The morality of the case is massive, and I think it will be very well-recognized,” he said.

He also said that current British Foreign Secretary William Hague has written one of the best and most comprehensive books on slavery and reparations, so he hopes that “we get a very sympathetic ear from the British government and have some chance of resolving it.”

The big question remains, Day said, as to what form the compensation will take. He said that every family impacted by slavery will not necessarily get compensation, but the issue might be looked at from the perspective of the debt and impact of slavery on society, so compensation might come in the form of welfare and education payments as well as cultural contributions.

When asked how optimistic the law firm is about winning, he said, “You must expect a fight, so it’s for us to persuade the British government that they are wrong and that this is an issue that needs to be resolved now. I’m pretty optimistic that we can do that. I haven’t yet had a case where, at the beginning, the defendant—whoever that may be—turns around and says, ‘Yeah, we totally agree with you and are going to pay everything that you ask.’”