Reparations- The elephant in the room

The Public Economist Gold Mohur

As Malcom X rightly said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s also not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made”.
And former colonial powers don’t even admit the knife is there let alone the question of healing them. From a long time , idea of reparations has been a bone of contention. Reparations is the means of rectifying past injustices against an individual, group or an entire country through a compensation which could be in the monetary terms or others. It is a way for the former oppressors to atone for the past injustices and to solve the subsequent problems caused as a result of their sinful deeds. Colonialism and reparations are closely attached to each other. The article aims to analyse the validity of reparations and are they even practical.
Reparations have taken different forms depending on the context of crime committed like Formal apologies made by the perpetrators to the victims, Establishment of “truth and reconciliation” commissions to uncover the true extent of the crimes committed ,Financial compensation made by the perpetrators to the victims ,Establishment of social and/or economic programs to address problems that have emerged as a direct result of the crimes committed and to prevent their future occurrences, Repatriation and resettlement programs (for eg- thousands of African people were forcefully
brought as slaves in America in the name of trade ), community development and rehabilitation programs ( For eg- former European governments committed genocide on indigenous Caribbean population and a community of over 3,000,000 in 1700 has been reduced to less than 30,000 in 2000), cultural institutions, Public heath crises mitigation programs(The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the forms of hypertension and type two diabetes because of the malnutrition and extreme inaccessibility to healthcare during that time),technology transfer ( European colonists were infamous for their practice of converting their colonies into raw material exporting and finished products importing colonies as a result many were denied participation in the industrialisation process and till today also the manufactured incompetence prevails in the former colonised counties ) , debt cancellation programs etc.

To examine the validity of reparations, we need to analyse the extent of the damage caused. In case of India (a former British colony), India was de- developed under British raj. British policy was designed to destroy India’s domestic industries (like handmade textiles ) by imposing asymmetrical tariffs, by dismantling the institutions that trained up producers, and in some cases even by maiming skilled artisans – all to create captive markets for British goods. During the course of British rule, India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27% to 3%. British museum is full of stolen artifacts. . Britain paid reparations to the slave owners rather than the slaves. Much of the transatlantic trade which was introduced in America by European colonial powers has rendered today’s black people in America vulnerable to systemic racism and disproportionately poor than their white counterparts. When Europeans arrived in what is now Latin America in 1492, the region may have been inhabited by between 50 million and 100 million indigenous people. By the mid 1600s, their population was slashed to about 3.5 million. The vast majority succumbed to foreign disease and many were slaughtered, died of slavery or starved to death after being kicked off their land. It was like the holocaust seven times over.

Arguments given against reparations are , whether reparations are legal or not , former colonial powers argue that they cannot be held accountable for the actions taken by people in power before their lifetime or that reparations would do little to solve the problems faced by postcolonial states today. They argue that, unlike other cases in which reparations were issued, colonialism and actions taken under colonial rule were not explicitly illegal at the time they were committed and therefore cannot be judged by today’s legal standards. Furthermore, that too much time has passed since these crimes were committed and that current governments and their people cannot be held accountable for the actions taken by governments during the colonial era. The problem with this argument is , History shapes present. Unequal distribution of power and money during colonial times , still dictate the power dynamics of today for eg- Voting power in the world bank and IMF is monopolized by a small handful of rich nations: the US, Britain, France,
Germany, Japan. Meanwhile the global South, which has some 85% of the world’s population, has less than 50% of the vote. In other words, even if the vast majority of the world voted to change WB and IMF policy, they would not
be able to do so. Bargaining power in the WTO is determined by market size, so economies like Britain virtually always get their way. So, the point is ,if the descendants of colonial oppressors are enjoying the benefits accrued to them because of the discriminatory practices of their predecessors then why not those be compensated who are still bearing the psychological, social and economic repercussions of the colonial past.

Former colonial powers argue that colonialism brought property rights , rule of law, democracy , rail roads , technology and innovation etc. Even if we accept that useful things were shared during colonialism – universities, for instance – that is not the same as saying they were a benefit of colonization. Colonialism is not a necessary vector for the transfer of knowledge or technology. Britain has long enjoyed the Arabic numeral system, algorithms, and even algebra itself, without ever submitting to Arab invasion. We have become victims of one sided narratives , we praise the invention of steam engine and other machines but we fail to acknowledge the dark reality that the Industrial Revolution was built on state violence, slavery and colonization. Britain’s economic rise depended on cotton, sown and harvested by enslaved Africans on land expropriated from indigenous Americans; depended on the theft of agricultural products from Indian farmers.Not to mention the gruesome legacy of divide and rule by Britain which still is the foundation of the conflict like India – Pakistan and the argument is itself very morally incorrect because it implies that Nazism should be celebrated because of the good that came out of state capitalism . Another argument is, It is not possible to quantify reparations. If Britain actually paid reparations to India , Britain would not exist because Britain’s debt to India at today’s prices would easily cross £3 trillion (Rs 270 lakh crore) – more than Britain’s current GDP. This clearly highlights how gruesome the damage was because beneath this shining empire lies the uncountable sufferings and unmeasurable sorrow.

Opponents argue that ,Britain already gives a tremendous amount of aid to poor nations, most of which are former colonies. So reparations are, in effect, already being paid. Indeed, isn’t this kind of development assistance vastly better than simply handing out reparations?
Narrative of aid is entirely different because it paints the picture countries like Britain attained this prosperity solely because of their hardwork and excellence and now they are giving back to the society by helping poor countries. In reality, the aid that the North gives to the South is vastly outstripped by financial resources that flow the other direction, in the form of interest on external debt, profit repatriation, illicit financial flows and so on. Infact, for every dollar of aid that the North gives to the South, the South loses up to $24 in net outflows because of how the global economy is structured.

Reparations have been given in the past as well ,for example- between the end of the world war 2 and 1992 , USA authorised about $1.6 billion in payments to approximately 80,000 Japanese American survivors of internment camps. In addition to the individual payments , both president Ronald Reagon and President George Bush issued apology to the survivors of internment and a 1988 congressional bill included funding for investment in Japanese cultural centers and the placement of landmarks on all internment sites reminding visitors that “this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice , greed , and political expediency.”

Role of international organisations in supporting Reparations
Individual postcolonial states could bring a legal case against a former colonial power, as long as they are both members of the UN, for damages occurred under colonial rule. After examining the international legal precedence and evidence for the case, the court would then issue a binding judgement that would permanently settle the dispute between the two countries. The drawback to such an approach is that because the UN has no mechanism to enforce these decisions, it would be up to individual member states to enforce the decision or to impose penalties, such as economic embargos, on states that refuse to implement the court’s decision. The CARICOM group of Caribbean states have expressed their intention to bring a lawsuit against former colonial powers in this forum, however, court proceedings have yet to begin. A second option would be to have an authorized UN body, such as the General Assembly or the Security Council, request an advisory opinion on the question of reparations to postcolonial states. In this context, the ICJ would consider testimonies by different UN bodies and member states as well as consider any international laws or norms on the issue. Because these cases are advisory, any decision reached in this forum is not considered binding on individual countries. However, the decision can be used to buttress other UN activities such as the passing of resolutions or add support for future individual state-to state cases both at the international and the domestic level. A final option would be to create an ad hoc tribunal, which would be independent of the ICJ, and would consider all cases related to the question of colonial reparations.The establishment of such special tribunals have been rare but have been created by UN Security Council Resolutions or through international treaties in which individual states agree to abide by the decisions of the tribunal. Due to the global scale of colonialism and the volume of potential cases of states, groups, and individuals seeking reparations for colonialism, this may be the appropriate forum for deciding who has rights to reparations and who is legally obligated to issue those reparations. The problem with this approach is that it requires individual states to agree to abide by the judgements of the tribunal which places constraints on states’ domestic governance. Thus, many states may refuse to agree to the establishment of such a tribunal.Many countries like China are also eligible to get reparations but their own history of state sponsored violence and human rights violations after colonialism further weakens the position and that is why it is difficult to gather international support for this.


Bottomline
When a thief steals something from your home, you can sue him for the burglary committed and you have the right to take your stuff back then why not the same thing applies to these colonisers who illegitimately accumulated wealth from their colonies? It was not just a mere burglary, it was more than that. So, this is clear that damages done in the past have their bearings today as well and clearly no amount of monetary compensation can ever match the lived
experiences of the victims and horrors inflicted upon them but this does not imply that former colonial powers can simply get away by issuing condolences and apologies, this is just the first step in solving the problem. It is very hypocritical of countries like Britain to confine their teachings in educational institutions to just nazis, civil wars in Arab countries etc and concealing the oppressive history of British rule , and celebrating leaders like Winston Churchill who was responsible for the man made Bengal famine in 1943. These former colonial powers should work to make the global economy fundamentally fairer for the world’s majority.Let’s not only remove the knife but also heal the wound.

Archi Gupta
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Archi Gupta is a student of the University of Delhi. She is a passionate debater and believes in breaking stereotypes because well-behaved women seldom make history. Governance and law, politics, social movements interest her besides economics.

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