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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Is it time for the colonizers to pay back trillions of dollars they looted?

The shadow of colonialism still haunts more than half of the world in the form of neo-colonialism. It manifests itself in very tangible ways across countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Colonialism in the form of cultural neo-colonization, technological, and economic neo-colonialism is a harsh reality many people live with. In the much-touted globalized world, unfortunately, it’s still a few developed countries that call the shots and set the rules for the global order.

Although the supremacy of the former colonizers has undergone a rapid dent over the past decade. The rising power of developing countries such as Bharat, and the coming together of the global south has pushed many skeletons out of the cupboard. One such uncomfortable skeleton that the developed countries would rather push back into the cupboard is the issue of colonial reparations.

The issue of colonial reparations is a hot topic in the world right now. Simply put, it means that the former colonizers need to financially compensate the former colonies for damages inflicted on their economy and the tortures inflicted on their citizens during the period of colonization. The demand for colonial reparations is made more explicitly in the form of a demand for reparations for slavery. Many countries in Africa and the Caribbean are now demanding colonial reparations from former imperialist powers like the UK and France.

According to an article published in the British Daily Guardian a couple of days back, a draft resolution to lay out a mechanism for supporting a reparations programme to undo the lasting impacts of European colonialism is all set to be presented to the European Parliament’s development committee.

This is reportedly the first formal attempt to make reparations for slavery and colonialism a part of the EU agenda. This comes across as a radical resolution considering the fact that many European nations including the UK, haven’t even apologized for the horrors of colonization and slavery. Considering the high-handed attitude of European countries on this matter, it seems highly unlikely that they would be willing to part with huge sums of money to compensate former colonies. But if such a resolution indeed gets debated in the European Parliament, it would definitely be some sort of a beginning.

The African Union has formed a united front along with the Caribbean countries to step up pressure on European countries to pay for the horrors and crimes of colonialism and slavery. The African Union and the 20-member Caribbean nations have jointly created the “United Front”.

A first-of-its-kind Reparations Conference was also recently held in Accra, the capital of the African country Ghana. The delegates of the Accra Reparation Conference reportedly built consensus on establishing a global reparation fund.

“It’s time for Africa – whose sons and daughters had their freedoms controlled and sold into slavery – to also receive reparations”, said Ghana’s President Nana Addo Akufo-Addo at the conference. The African nations called for an action plan to support slavery reparations at the Ghana Slavery Reparations Conference.

Calls for colonial reparations have become so strong over the past 2-3 years that European countries can no longer afford to outrightly ignore their demands. That is why the increasing refrain in European media is that Europe is now acknowledging the horrors and ill effects of slavery. But this seems like mere diplomatic sweet talk at the moment. Whether European countries will actually take any concrete steps to consolidate a mechanism for initiating colonial reparations, remains to be seen.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley gave a speech in London a couple of days ago in which she raised the issue of colonial reparations for countries that saw their people enslaved and emphasized the need to initiate a global conversation on reparations.

Barbados has officially demanded 4.9 trillion dollars from European nations to compensate for the horrors of slavery and colonization. According to a recent article published in Bharatiya media publication Firstpost, approximately 4,50,000 enslaved individuals were trafficked to the island, with only 3,75,000 able to survive. The article further states that tens of thousands of slaves lost their lives due to the difficulties encountered during the journey and the harsh and inhospitable conditions of plantation life.  According to the Firstpost report, the 4.9 trillion US dollar sum demanded by the Barbados PM is based on precise calculations based on a comprehensive report by the Brattle Group, a US-based company specializing in complex calculations. Barbados’s demands for colonial reparations are reportedly not just from the UK but other European Nations like France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

It’s perhaps apt to mention here that the Caribbean Island Barbados severed its ties with the British crown in 2021 and declared itself a republic. The movement to become independent of the nominal authority of the British crown has strengthened in many Caribbean nations after the passing away of Britain’s ex-monarch Queen Elizabeth II. Countries like Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda are also reportedly discussing and debating the possibility of detaching themselves from the British crown and becoming a republic.

It’s hard to imagine that even in the 21st century, there exist countries where the British Monarch is the nominal head of the State. Customary as it might be, it’s a definite embarrassment to these independent countries and a badge of colonialism hanging around their neck. While countries like Australia and New Zealand haven’t shown any intent to dissociate themselves from the monarchy, Caribbean countries are taking the lead. It’s perhaps the first step towards playing a proactive role in undoing the historical injustices of colonialism.

 Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter recently called on Britain’s royal family to pay colonial reparations to South Africa.

Ndileka Mandela, an author and a climate activist, reportedly voiced her opinion on a TV show urging Britain to acknowledge its role in colonizing many parts of Africa. She was speaking at the Cop28 climate conference in Dubai. She first said that the UK should issue an acknowledgment of the role played by them in colonization and then when asked if she would want the British royal family to give colonial reparations, she replied in the affirmative.

Even as the global movement to seek colonial reparations grows strong, western countries seem to be least interested in the topic. In April 2023, British PM Rishi Sunak openly rejected calls to apologize for Britain’s colonial legacy and the demand for colonial reparations. He was questioned by Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy in the Parliament if he would make an apology for Britain’s excesses vis-à-vis colonialism and slavery and commit to delivering justice through reparations. British PM simply ignored the question by saying that there was no use unpicking history.

King Charles III, the British Monarch, while acknowledging the negative impact of slavery and colonialism, hasn’t issued a formal apology. That’s the scenario with all European countries. They have started acknowledging the wrongdoings of colonialism but stopped short of issuing a formal apology.

In July 2023, France’s highest court of appeal, The Court of Cassation rejected a claim for reparations to be paid to the descendants of people enslaved under the French empire. It’s the same hypocritical refrain as other European countries that while France recognizes the historical injustices of slavery, it cannot offer financial compensation to the descendants of victims of slavery. How convenient it is to issue diplomatic niceties and look the other way around when it comes to matters of money. The whole colonial project was about money. It involved looting and plundering of the resources of more than half of the world to aid the economic development of a few select nations. Even then it was about money, and even now, it revolves around money. That is why the developed countries think they can get away with saying a few nice words and the former colonies will be perennially grateful. But the times have changed. The global south is forging a united front like never before, and the demand for colonial reparations will only get stronger with time.

While Bharat has never officially demanded colonial reparations, Bharat’s leadership of late has been critical of Britain’s former colonial empire and hasn’t shied away from voicing these opinions publicly. Bharat’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has voiced an unequivocal critique of colonialism many times. He once said that Bharat would liberate itself from a colonial mindset, speaking in the context of laying out the roadmap for a new and resurgent Bharat taking pride in its rich civilizational heritage. He also remarked a couple of months back that Bharat staunchly supported African countries in their quest to attain independence and fight against apartheid and colonialism.

Bharat is playing a pivotal role in challenging western hegemony and paving the way for the global south to reclaim its rightful place. The movement to demand colonial reparations being initiated by the African Union and the Caribbean countries is a bold beginning in the right direction. If one has to keep neocolonialism under check, the first step is to pressure the western countries to take concrete steps to undo the damages caused to the developing and underdeveloped world due to slavery and colonialism.

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Rati Agnihotri
Rati Agnihotri
Rati Agnihotri is an independent journalist and writer currently based in Dehradun (Uttarakhand). Rati has extensive experience in broadcast journalism having worked as a Correspondent for Xinhua Media for 8 years. She was based at their New Delhi bureau. She has also worked across radio and digital media and was a Fellow with Radio Deutsche Welle in Bonn. She is now based in Dehradun and pursuing independent work regularly contributing news analysis videos to a nationalist news portal (India Speaks Daily) with a considerable youtube presence. Rati regularly contributes articles and opinion pieces to various esteemed newspapers, journals, and magazines. Her articles have been recently published in "The Sunday Guardian", "Organizer", "Opindia", and "Garhwal Post". She has completed a MA (International Journalism) from the University of Leeds, U.K., and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Miranda House, Delhi University.

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