Posted on April 5, 2024

Africa, Caribbean Unite on Reparations

Catarina Demony, Reuters, April 4, 2024

Support is building among Africa and Caribbean nations for the creation of an international tribunal on atrocities dating to the transatlantic trade of enslaved people, with the United States backing a U.N. panel at the heart of the effort.

A tribunal, modelled on other ad-hoc courts such as the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War Two, was proposed last year. It has now gained traction within a broader slavery reparations movement, Reuters reporting based on interviews with a dozen people reveals.

Formally recommended in June by the U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, the idea of a special tribunal has been explored further at African and Caribbean regional bodies, said Eric Phillips, a vice-chair of the slavery reparations commission for the Caribbean Community, CARICOM, which groups 15 member states.

The scope of any tribunal has not been determined but the U.N. Forum recommended in a preliminary report that it should address reparations for enslavement, apartheid, genocide, and colonialism.

Advocates, including within CARICOM and the African Union (AU), which groups 55 nations across the continent, are working to build wider backing for the idea among U.N. members, Phillips said.

A special U.N. tribunal would help establish legal norms for complex international and historical reparations claims, its supporters say. Opponents of reparations argue, among other things, that contemporary states and institutions should not be held responsible for historical slavery.

Even its supporters recognise that establishing an international tribunal for slavery will not be easy.
There are “huge obstacles,” said Martin Okumu-Masiga, Secretary-General of the Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF), which is providing reparations-related advice to the AU.

Hurdles include obtaining the cooperation of nations that were involved in the trade of enslaved people and the legal complexities of finding responsible parties and determining remedies.

“These things happened many years ago and historical records and evidence can be challenging to access and even verify,” Okumo-Masiga said.

Unlike the Nuremberg trials, nobody directly involved in transatlantic slavery is alive.

Asked about the idea of a tribunal, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Office acknowledged the country’s role in transatlantic slavery, but said it had no plan to pay reparations. Instead, past wrongs should be tackled by learning lessons from history and tackling “today’s challenges,” the spokesperson said.

However, advocates for reparations say Western countries and institutions that continue to benefit from the wealth slavery generated should be held accountable, particularly given ongoing legacies of racial discrimination.

A tribunal would help establish an “official record of history,” said Brian Kagoro, a Zimbabwean lawyer who has been advocating for reparations for over two decades.


Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, is in favour of the push for a tribunal, Foreign Minister Yusuf Tuggar told Reuters in February, saying the country would support the idea “until it becomes a reality.”


Phillips said the work to establish a tribunal would have to take place through the United Nations system and include conversations with countries, including Portugal, Britain, France, Spain, Netherlands and Denmark, that were involved in trading enslaved people to the Caribbean and other regions.


The United States, which has financed the U.N forum, “will make a decision on the tribunal when it has been developed and established,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said. “However, the United States strongly supports” the forum’s work, the spokesperson added.

Regarding reparations, “the complexity of the issue, legal challenges, and differing perspectives among Caribbean nations present significant challenges,” the spokesperson said.

The U.N. leadership has now come out in support for reparations, which have been used in other circumstances to offset large moral and economic debts, such as to Japanese Americans interned by the United States during World War Two and to families of Holocaust survivors.


The Netherlands apologised for its role in transatlantic slavery last year and announced a roughly $200 million fund to address that past. A spokesperson for the foreign ministry said it was not aware of the discussions around a tribunal and could not respond to questions.


Ghana led efforts to get African support for formally pursuing reparations, with Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa also taking up the cause, said Kamara.

Most discussion has focused on transatlantic trafficking, Hansford and Phillips said, rather than the older trans-Saharan trade to the Islamic world, estimated to have transported several million enslaved Africans.

What reparations would consist of in practice is debated. Some, including in the United States, have pushed for individual payments to descendants of enslaved people. CARICOM, in a 2014 plan, called for debt cancellation and support from European nations to tackle public health and economic crises.

The AU decision to join CARICOM has given new heft to the campaign, said Jasmine Mickens, a U.S.- based strategist for social movements who specialises in reparations.

The AU is now developing Africa’s own white paper on what reparations might look like, said Okumu-Masiga.