REPARATIONS FOR CLIMATE damage. Reparations for the transatlantic slave trade. Reparations for the genocide of the Aborigines in Australia. Reparations for the near-extermination of indigenous Indians in North and South America. Reparations for colonial plunder in Asia and Africa. Reparations for Apartheid in South Africa.
The R-word—Reparations—terrifies the West. The rich world knows it got rich by usurping other peoples’ land, employing African slave labour, taxing the colonies, and polluting the atmosphere.
The reckoning is at hand. The red line was crossed at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt when developing countries forced the rich West to set up a “loss and damage” fund to right a historical wrong for the centuries-long damage caused by Europe and the US to the Earth’s environment.
But the rich world, which industrialised and built its wealth by contributing to over 90 per cent of carbon emissions since the 18th century, had the last word. The loss and damage fund—a form of reparations— has an inbuilt escape clause. It commits to offering reparations only to those severely affected by climate change—mostly island nations, hence limiting the scale of compensatory payments.
That’s not all. The loss and damage fund tries to make some developing countries pay equally for past pollution in which they played a negligible role. India escaped this chicanery because even Western delegations realised how incongruous it would be to punish a country whose contribution to global pollution, both historically and contemporaneously, represents a fraction of the West’s.
Nonetheless the loss and damage fund, despite its caveats, is the thin edge of the wedge that opens up reparations claims for other Western atrocities.
One of the most compelling arguments for reparations was made in 2014 in a landmark article, running into over 15,000 words, in the Atlantic magazine by the Black American author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Vox, the US news site, wrote at the time: “Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long, deeply researched and beautifully written case for reparations to African-Americans for slavery has ignited a long-dormant conversation about what the US government owes to a population it abused for centuries, and which faces discrimination and economic disadvantage to this day.”
Western politicians and historians are deeply concerned about the direction the reparations debate is taking. As Kenneth Mohammed noted in the Guardian on March 29, 2022: “Britain has been remorseful in words but not emphatic in action. In August 2020, the UK government’s response was: ‘The UK deplores the human suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade. They are among the most abhorrent chapters in the history of humanity.’
“Sound familiar? Prince William reiterated this in Jamaica: ‘While reparations are not part of the government’s approach, we feel deep sorrow for the transatlantic slave trade, and fully recognise the strong sense of injustice and the legacy of slavery in the most affected parts of the world.’
The R-word—Reparations—terrifies the West. The rich world knows it got rich by usurping other peoples’ land, employing African slave labour, taxing the colonies, and polluting the atmosphere
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“But hey, let’s move on! Reparations are not part of our approach and neither is a formal apology or, worse yet, making things economically right.”
Western historians advance three principal arguments against reparations.
First, atrocities during colonialism and slavery have to be judged by the standards of the era.
Second, why punish today’s Europeans for the crimes of their ancestors?
Third, who would the reparation payments go to? There is no mechanism to ensure the money goes into the right hands.
Each of these arguments is defective.
One, Europe’s colonial atrocities, Apartheid in South Africa, and racial segregation in parts of the US all took place in the 20th century in an era when Europe and North America had supposedly set the global civilisational standard.
Two, countries liable for reparations are continuing “entities”—for example, Britain and the US. These national entities profited from higher living standards on the back of colonialism and transatlantic African slavery. Reparations would lead to a reverse financial drain back to their victims.
Three, key African-American business leaders like the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) Bob Johnson have suggested a detailed mechanism to funnel reparations from the US government to over 40 million disadvantaged Blacks who are descendants of African slaves.
The loss and damage fund reluctantly agreed to by the rich world to pay reparations (though they blanch at the very use of the word) for historical climate damage is only the start. The door to secure justice for centuries of European and American atrocities has been prised open, but only just. The work has barely begun.
About The Author
Minhaz Merchant is an author, editor and publisher
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