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In the face of the past crimes of the European colonial powers and European neo-colonialism, reparations are needed
by ReCommons Europe
29 July 2020

Phase 2 of the ReCommonsEurope project: “The impact of European financial policies and development cooperation strategies on the South and possible alternatives”.

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter mobilizations that have been taking place in 2020 on an international scale against racism in general, and negrophobia in particular, more and more people want to know the truth about the dark past of the colonial powers and its neo-colonial continuation today. Statues of emblematic figures of European colonialism are being unbolted or are the object of salutary denunciations. The same is true of statues of people who, in the United States, symbolize slavery and racism. ReCommonsEurope praises all initiatives and actions which aim to denounce colonial crimes, seek to establish the truth about past atrocities, highlight the instruments of neo-colonialism and all forms of resistance from the past to the present, call for reparations and demand an end to all forms of discrimination against peoples who were victims of colonialism and neocolonialism.

This document is the first of the five texts that form part of the publication entitled “The impact on the South of European financial policies and development cooperation strategies and possible alternatives”, elaborated in the framework of the ReCommonsEurope project. Since 2018, this project engages the CADTM, in collaboration with the association EReNSEP and the trade union ELA, in a work aiming to feed the debate on the measures that a peoples government in Europe should implement as a priority. This work of elaboration concerns all social movements, all people, all political movements that want a radical change in favour of the 99% .

Thus, a first phase of this project culminated in 2019 with the publication of a “Manifesto for a new internationalism of peoples in Europe”, which was signed by more than 160 activists, militant peoples and researchers from 21 European countries. This manifesto, published in 4 languages (French, Castilian, English and Serbo-Croatian), expose the most urgent measures on the following issues: currency, banking, debt, labor and social rights, energy transition in order to build an eco-socialism, women’s rights, health and education, as well as more broadly international policies and the need to promote constituent processes.

With this second phase, we seek to define a set of clear proposals that a peoples government should implement in order to bring about a real and profound change in the unjust relations between the European states and the peoples of the Global South. To this end, we are carrying out a process of drafting texts, based on joint work between activists, politicians and researchers from the countries of the South and the North. This work concerns the following areas: the indebtedness of the countries of the South vis-à-vis the countries of the North, free trade agreements, migration and border management policies, militarism, the arms trade and the wars, and reparation policies regarding the spoliation of cultural goods.

In addition to this first text, we invite you to read the other articles that are part of this project:

- Abolish illegitimate and odious claims by European countries from third parties and give absolute priority to human rights

- Putting an end to the EU’s neo-colonial policies in the field of trade and investment

- End the inhumane migratory policies of Fortress Europe

- A project against militarist Europe

On 30 June 2020, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of Congo’s independence, the news went round the world: Philippe, King of the Belgians, in a letter to the Head of State and the Congolese people, expressed regret for the colonial past and in particular for the period during which Leopold II personally owned the Congo (1885-1908).

Here is the main passage of this letter: “At the time of the independent state of Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation. I would like to express my deepest regret for those wounds of the past, the pain of which is today rekindled by discrimination that is still all too present in our societies. I will continue to fight all forms of racism”[https://plus.lesoir. be/310315/article/2020-06-30/the king recognized the acts-of-cruel-commiss-to-congo-sub-leopold-ii]. This statement by the King of the Belgians is one of the results of the vast international movement of awareness and mobilization that has marked the end of May and all of June 2020 since the assassination of George Floyd by the police in the United States. This statement is totally insufficient because it does not explicitly name the culprits, King Leopold II is not even mentioned. Philip does not present apologies and does not propose that the royal family and/or the Belgian state pay reparations. Nor is there any question of retroceding the goods stolen from the Congolese people at the time of Leopold II’s domination of Congo and at the time of the colonial period during which Congo was part of Belgium (1908-1960). Some of these goods are in the Tervuren Museum or in private collections. Philippe does not propose to unbolt statues of colonizers and other symbols of the colonial period in the Belgian public space or at least to accompany them with plates publicly explaining the horrors of the colonial period.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, for his part, is opposed to the unbolting of statues of historical figures, such as Colbert, who promoted slavery and the slave trade.

A tremendous work remains to be accomplished.

1. Neo-colonialism and the Europe’ heavy past of colonialism and slave trade: historical, moral and colonial debts

The triangular trade (Europe, Africa, the Americas) was motivated by the search for capitalist development the colonizing countries [1]. For more than 400 years, over 12 million men, women and children were the victims of the dramatic transatlantic slave trade. Women slaves, in particular, bore a triple burden: in addition to forced labour in the hardest of conditions, they suffered extremely cruel forms of discrimination and sexual exploitation as a result of their gender and skin color.

After the abolition of slavery that ocurred in a number of stages over the 19th century, European countries, through massacres, colonized the African continent and divided it at the Berlin Conference held in 1884-1885. The colonization of Africa resulted in genocides, the exploitation of populations, an extractivism devasting resources and biotopes, a cultural and religious oppression.

But that is not all: the colonial powers have resorted to the debt mechanism to keep the former colonies in a coercive economic situation. The World Bank was directly involved in some colonial debts. During the 1950s and 1960s, it granted loans to the colonial powers for projects allowing the European centers to maximize the exploitation of their colonies. Part of the debts contracted with this bank by the Belgian, British, and French authorities for their colonies were then transferred to the countries that gained independence without their consent. Thus, the former colonies were required to repay the debts that the colonizing states had contracted to exploit them. This was done in violation of international law. However, these debts were not cancelled. Furthermore, the World Bank refused to follow a 1965 UN resolution requiring it to stop supporting Portugal as long as Portugal did not renounce its colonial policy [2].

One of the most striking cases of colonial debt is that of Haiti. In 1804, independence was gained from French imperialism by the slave rebellion led by Toussaint Louverture among others (the case of Haiti is particularly emblematic as it was the slaves themselves who snatched their freedom). Twenty-one years later, in 1825, France imposed on its former colony an indemnity of 150 million gold francs, threatening it with a military invasion and the restoration of slavery. The burden of this debt still weighs on Haiti and its people. France wanted financial compensation for the loss of income resulting from the abolition of slavery in Haiti. It was therefore the former slaver owners who obtained “reparations” and not the enslaved people.

The United Kingdom did not act otherwise. After the abolition of slavery in its colonies from 1833 onwards, some 3,000 slave-owning families received £20 million, that is, more than £16 billion today, for their loss of “goods”, the good in this case being African slaves. Far from being a thing of the past, this episode is very topical as the British government completed the final payments of the Slavery Abolition Loan on February 15, 2015, even as Prime Minister David Cameron, in a speech to the Jamaican Parliament on September 30, 2015, called on Jamaicans to consider slavery a thing of the past and that it was time to “get over it” [3]. Spain has also claimed substantial compensation from Morocco for its withdrawal from the territory of Tetouan in 1860, which had been under Spanish occupation for years.

2. The urgent need for reparations and restitution of cultural property

Louis-Georges Tin legally defines reparations as “legal, moral, material, cultural or symbolic measures set up to compensate a social group or its descendants, individually or collectively, after large-scale damage” [4]. Reparations for large-scale damage such as genocides, war crimes, crimes against humanity are provided for by international law. The notion of reparation was born out of the need to do justice to the populations that suffered those damages. However, the demand for reparations raises important questions, since the market thus becomes the main mediator of these policies, which can become a means of putting a price on those sufferings.

The requests for reparations are not recent. They date back to the beginning of the enslavement of black populations. On several occasions, as early as the 17th century the French missionary Épiphanie de Moirans and the Spanish missionary José de Jaca condemned the slave trade and the keeping of Blacks in slavery for the benefit of the colonial economy in America.

In both the North and the South, many attempts have been made to obtain restorative justice for enslaved and colonized populations. In 1993, the first pan-African conference was held in Abuja in support of the demand for reparations for the descendants of the victims of African slavery, colonization, and neo-colonialism. This event revived the struggle for reparations within the African and Afro-diaspora community. The conference explicitly called on “the international community to recognize that there is a unique and unprecedented moral debt owed to African peoples that has yet to be paid”.

In May 2001, the French law on the recognition of the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity was adopted by the National Assembly and the Senate. It provides that “the French Republic recognizes that the transatlantic slave trade and the slave trade in the Indian Ocean on the one hand, and slavery on the other, perpetrated from the fifteenth century onwards, in the Americas and the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe against the African, Amerindian, Malagasy and Indian populations constitute a crime against humanity”. The initial proposal for this law, known as the Taubira law, included a paragraph on reparations: “A committee of qualified personalities shall be set up to determine the harm suffered and to examine the conditions for reparation due in respect of this crime”. However, the article was repealed in the law commission and it was only after the section on reparations was deleted that the law was adopted unanimously by the Assembly. That same year, at the Durban World Conference against Racism, boycotted by the United States, the French delegation did not, however, join those calling for the slave trade and colonialism to be recognized as a crime against humanity, and no European country has since followed the French example.

More recently, since 2010, Haitian social movements have been calling for reparations in the face of the cholera epidemic caused by soldiers of the mission MINUSTAH (2004-2017), an occupation mission under the aegis of the UN. It should be remembered that the territory of Haiti was previously occupied by the United States army between 1915 and 1934.

In Belgium, within the Decade of afro-descendants, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD), visiting Belgium in February 2019, organized meetings with representatives of the State and its institutions, as well as the civil society of African descent, in order to learn about the situation of people of African descent in the country. In its report, WGEPAD recommends that Belgium implement restorative justice and use the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) ten-point plan of action for restorative justice as a guiding framework [5]. Recently, the NGO Human Rights Watch urged Belgium to provide for reparations, meaning “financial compensation, but also recognition of past atrocities and the damage they continue to cause, and an end to ongoing abuses [6].”

Thus, despite the actions taken in this direction for several years, the responses to requests for reparations have changed very little. Moreover, pressure is often exerted on former colonized countries to abandon claims for reparations, with the result that initiatives in this direction are often limited to declarations, indignation and claims but are generally not accompanied by binding measures (which will remain difficult as long as a political body that is independent of the current balance of power is not established) [7].

In addition to requests for reparations, in several European countries (particularly in France and Belgium) campaigns have been conducted for the restitution of cultural property and human remains stored in museums or universities. These mobilizations have moved the lines and were accompanied by numerous announcements of restitution to countries of origin by the French and Belgian authorities. Restitutions - a taboo word only a few years ago - are now mentioned or even announced. However, speeches are rarely accompanied by concrete actions, as the French situation shows, where the serious work of Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr has only led to renunciations since the submission of their report to the French president in 2018 [8] . Despite the multiplication of claims, the former colonial powers are very reluctant to proceed with outright repatriation and sometimes content themselves with promising to set up an inventory, or even simply to “lend” the looted treasures [9].

In 2018, the question of the restitution of cultural goods and human remains looted in Africa was raised in Belgium on the occasion of the reopening of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium). A collective composed mainly of members of the diaspora and researchers published an article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir calling for the restitution not only of cultural property but also of human remains [10].

As in the question of reparations, the actual actions of the Belgian and French States towards restitution will have to be audited in order to avoid the implementation of mechanisms that would mask a false reparation. We must avoid reproducing what happened with the treaty of friendship between Libya and Italy signed in 2008 by President Muammar Gaddafi and the head of the Italian government Silvio Berlusconi. It provided for compensation from Italy to Libya for the colonial period [11]. This gesture by Italy was in fact guided by economic and political interests. The apology was accompanied by “reparations” in the form of “tied” investments, obtaining contracts, control of natural resources and conditionalities such as the control of migration flows, etc., which amounted to imposing and perpetuating a neo-colonial relationship of domination.

3. Some recommendations to kick start the issue of reparations and restitutions in European countries

The recommendations can be drawn from the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Committee for Reparations 10-point plan, this group of 15 Caribbean countries whose mobilization is the most successful with regard to reparations for the crimes of slavery and colonialism. The recommendations that we are going to reproduce below concern France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, which, in addition to a public and sincere apology, are called upon to cancel the external debt of CARICOM member States. That being said, these recommendations constitute good guiding principles for the development of “road maps” for all European countries responsible for slavery and colonialism.

ReCommonsEurope will pursue its work by extending it as far as possible to ongoing debates and proposals in other countries.

The following are the key measures proposed in the CARICOM committee:

1) A full and formal apology, as opposed to the “expressions of regret” that some countries may have expressed. Nevertheless, apologies - which have therefore always remained on the fringes of memorial reflections linked to slavery - are largely insufficient since it is known that they are often expressed to serve more strategic ends, set in a political agenda of circumstance and power relations [12].

2) The repatriation of the descendants of more than 12 million Africans abducted and deported to the Caribbean as slaves, reduced to livestock and chattels, to return to where they came from.

3) A development program for indigenous populations who have survived a genocide. In this case, it will be necessary to ensure that the priority of this development model is not the market but the improvement of the living conditions of the inhabitants, particularly in terms of public services.

4) Cultural institutions allowing the transmission of memory of victims and their descendants.

5) Resources allocated to the “public health crisis” that is rampaging in the Caribbean. The Caribbean being the region with the highest incidence of chronic diseases that emanate directly from nutritional experience, psychological violence and more generally from forms of distress associated with slavery, genocide, and apartheid.

6) The eradication of illiteracy, as black and indigenous populations were left in a situation of widespread illiteracy after independence, particularly in the English colonies.

7) An African Education Program, to inform people of African descent about their roots.

8) A psychological rehabilitation program for the care and reparation of people of African descent populations.

9) Technology transfer to get a better access to science and to the global technological culture. This transfer plays a particularly important role in the need to deal with the consequences of global warming as well as to enable the implementation of an energy transition.

10) The cancellation of all debts to put an end to the “tax chains” that the Caribbean has experienced since the liberation from slavery and colonialism.

ReCommonsEurope, echoing the demands of social movements in the Caribbean region, supports the demand for financial compensation for the economic exploitation and racist dehumanization of enslaved Africans. It is estimated that the payment of reparations from Britain to Caribbean Africans would be in the order of £7.5 billion. The £20 million paid to African slavers after the abolition of slavery in 1834 in the British Empire would be worth about £200 billion in present value [13]. These funds must be capitalized for an alternative, solidarity-based development model... and be controlled by the people.

In addition, other measures are important in the area of repairs:

• Reparations for ecological crimes that result in convictions and financial compensation.
• Include the history of slavery and colonialism in education in the broadest sense, i.e. not only in the school curriculum (through teaching) but also promote it in cultural policies (awareness-raising, support for associations, events, etc.).
• The calculation of what the colonizing countries owe their former colonies in terms of stolen goods, looted resources, exploited labor force, etc., is not a simple matter. To do this, a group of economists, lawyers, tax specialists must be created to produce knowledge on reparations. The objective is to find a precise figure that the colonizing country will have to pay to its former colonies for the crimes committed, and to define to what communities, schools, foundations the money should go.
• The establishment of quotas for representation within the institutions.
• The effective condemnation of racist comments and acts.

4. Conclusion

The findings are glaring. Racist and xenophobic statements as well as acts have been on the increase in recent years in Europe. The structural racism that is a system in the global North, accompanied by an uninhibited white supremacy, encourages uninhibited racist behavior. Moreover, the vast majority of these crimes go unpunished. However, the structural nature of racism - and the discrimination that results from it - is no longer to be proved.

On the 26th of March 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the “Fundamental Rights of People of African Descent” recognizing that “[...] racism and discrimination against people of African descent are structural [...]” and that “[...] this form of racism is the result of the historically repressive structures of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade [...]”.
slaves" [14].

Similarly, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) concluded the following regarding Belgium in its 2019 statement: “The underlying causes of contemporary human rights violations lie in the lack of recognition of the true extent of the violence and injustice of colonization. As a result, public discourse does not reflect a nuanced analysis of how institutions can lead to systemic exclusion in the areas of education, employment, and opportunities. The Working Group concludes that inequalities are deeply entrenched because of overlapping and mutually reinforcing structural barriers. Credible efforts to combat racism require first overcoming these structural barriers.” [15].

Yet, despite the above statements, no significant progress has been made in deconstructing these structures. Thus, while apologies and reparations must be taken into account for any project of society that is truly committed to the human dignity of each individual, without distinction of race, ethnicity or national origin, they are not sufficient to achieve the elimination of structures that sustain discrimination. In other words, each of the recommendations listed above is a necessary but not sufficient condition if it is not considered in the context of a wider implementation of all of them.

However, there are bright spots on the horizon: the death of George Floyd in the United States has given a real boost to the Black Lives Matter movement and triggered protests all over the world. Since the 30th of May, numerous rallies have taken place: in Belgium, 10.000 people have demonstrated against racism and police violence; more than 20,000 marched in France, where the story of the death of young Adama Traoré has resurfaced. In the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of protestors all over the country. In the United Kingdom statues are being unbolted. In Australia, important mobilizations also took place. In Brazil, “Vidas Negras Importam” is the slogan that was chanted by the hundreds of inhabitants of the favelas of Rio who gathered on the evening of Sunday 31st of May in front of the headquarters of the regional government. The infamous death of George Floyd had the effect of making a large part of public opinion, particularly among young people, aware of the need to denounce and fight institutional racism.

Footnotes :

[1On the subject, see. P. PLUCHON, La Route des esclaves. Négriers et bois d’ébène au XVIIIe siècle, Hachette, 1980.

[2“to all the Specialized Agencies of the United Nations, in particular the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (=World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund [...] to refrain from giving Portugal any financial, economic or technical assistance until such time as the Portuguese Government renounces its colonial policy, which constitutes a flagrant violation of the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations”. UN Doc. A/AC. 109/124 and Corr. 1 (June 10, 1965).

[3CARICOM, « The CRR Media Conference on the British Treasury’s Slavery Loan »,

[4TIN, Louis-Georges, 2013, Esclavage et Réparations, Éditions Stock.

[5Media statement of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on the outcome of its official visit to Belgium from 4 to 11 February 2019, available at NewsID=24153&LangID=E, item 47.

[8During his speech at the University of Ouagadougou on 28 November 2017, the President of the Republic expressed the wish that “within five years the conditions will be met for the temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage in Africa”. Following this declaration, two academics, Bénédicte Savoy, professor at the Technische Universität of Berlin, holder of the chair Cultural History of Artistic Heritage in Europe, 18th-20th century, and Felwine Sarr, professor at the Gaston-Berger University of Saint-Louis (Senegal) were commissioned to submit a report on this subject. The report was submitted to the President of the Republic on 23 November 2018.

[10Carte blanche: “Belgium is lagging behind on the restitution of colonial treasures” - published by Le Soir on 25 September 2018, traine-sur-la-restitution-des-tresors-colonialsv

[11Chiara Filoni, “False Reparations and New Italian Colonization in Libya”: Libya

[12R. HOURCADE, “The Politics of Apology. Repentir officiel et gestion stratégique de la culpabilité dans un ancien port négrier (Liverpool)”, Ethnologie française, n° 177, 2020/1, p. 20.

ReCommons Europe