CHOGM 2013 – Establish Commission of Inquiry into Trans-Atlantic slavery, genocide and crimes against humanity committed by Britain during colonial rule of former colonies

CHOGM - 2013

– by Shenali D Waduge –

Though there has been a number of initiatives in recent times relating to the theory and the practice of reparations for human rights and humanitarian abuses committed in various parts of the world, many of the violations committed of genocidal proportions in Asia, Africa, and North and South America, during colonial times remain unresolved. Reparations for such abuses pose a huge challenge today for people seeking justice domestically and internationally.

Criminal accountability is now a reality at both the international and domestic levels. The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has resulted in criminal accountability for gross human rights violations being subject to legal proceedings.

Apology and reparations for violations committed during colonialism, particularly slavery and genocide are now high on the agenda of an increasing number of third world countries. During the years of white colonial rule countless numbers of human rights abuses occurred in the competition among European Christian countries to seize and exploit both the human and natural resources of the colonized countries. The crimes committed during the colonial era include crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, mass murder, extermination, disappearances, torture, forced removals, slavery, racial discrimination, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and much more.

The issue of compensation for victims of human rights abuses has become a critical concern for these countries and the individuals who live there. Reparations for these abuses have become an issue of considerable significance due to a growing awareness and acceptance by the international community of the need for and right to reparations for victims of human rights violations. Many human rights statutes and international conventions recognize without qualification that a victim is entitled to a remedy, which includes the means for full rehabilitation. In fact, the payment of some reparation for harm inflicted is a well-established principle of international law. Such a right is now recognized in regional human rights instruments and in the jurisprudence of regional human rights courts. The latest trend is the notion in international human rights law that, in principle, this law governs the conduct of state actors as well as private parties, including juridical bodies such as corporations.

The expansion of both the criminal and civil jurisdictions since the Nuremberg War Crimes trials (1945 – 1946) have been bolstered by claims and payments made recently in a number of cases related to the Holocaust. Further a growing number of civil cases are being filed in relation to these types of violations. The majority of these types of cases are in the United States under the Alien Torts Claims Act.

In addition there are also at least three major cases against multinationals pending in the courts of the United States for violations committed during the colonial and apartheid periods. One suit has been filed by the Herero people of Namibia, for violations committed in that country in the early twentieth century, and two claims have been filed by South African victims for violations committed during the apartheid era.

It is also important to note that the matter of reparations for slavery and colonialism was a much discussed agenda item at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), held in Durban (South Africa) from August 31, until September 8, 2001. A substantial part of the World Conference was committed to an in depth examination of these themes. African countries demanded a formal apology, coupled with an undertaking from Western Christian nations and USA who were the main beneficiaries of slavery and colonialism, to effect reparations in specific ways.

Caricom – Caribbean regional organization suing European nations

14 Caribbean nations are coming together for the first time to sue Britain, France and Netherlands for their colonial crimes. Mainstream media especially those in Sri Lanka have conveniently chose to put a lid on its coverage. This is shameful media conduct of newspaper proprietors of Sri Lanka. It strengthens the case for de-colonization of the mass media in Sri Lanka. This news is all the more poignant because the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Mr. Ralph Gonsalves declared at the UN General Assembly that European nations must pay for their misdeeds and crimes. Our own President Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse speaking at the UN General Assembly voiced concern over ‘the growing trend in the international arena, of interference by some, in the internal matters of developing countries, in the guise of security, and guardians of human rights’ and went on to conclude that the ‘world needs no policing by a few States’ and these States coincidentally happen to be the former colonial rulers with a shameful track record of crimes against humanity during the colonial era.

Caricom is preparing to bring the lawsuit to the UN International Court of Justice based in The Hague and will focus on Britain’s role in slavery in the Caribbean, France’s role in slavery in Haiti and the Netherlands’ role in slavery in Suriname. The law firm hired to take on the task is the same firm Leigh Day that succeeded in obtaining a court directed settlement to compensate hundreds of Kenyans tortured by Britain during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s. That settlement was $21.5million to the surviving Kenyans.

The Caribbean countries will set up national commissions on reparations but what is noteworthy is that these 14 Caricom nations have voted unanimously to wage a joint campaign to sue Britain, France and Netherlands for slavery and the genocide of native people in what is likely to be a land-mark battle. This is grist to the mill for other former British colonies to follow suit.

CHOGM 2013 in Colombo

If 54 former nations are to meet in Colombo, Sri Lanka along with their former ruler Britain that meeting must be meaningful to all participants. Setting the pace is a collection of 14 Caribbean countries who are suing the governments of the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands for reparations over what the plaintiffs say is the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. Sri Lanka must not be left behind. President Rajapakse must ensure that he does not find himself on the wrong side of history despite several dangling carrots being offered by some of his erstwhile advisers to take him along that path; the same path that Don Juan Dharmapala took nearly 450 years ago and Ranil Wickremasinghe has taken in wanting to celebrate the arrival of the Portuguese which cost him an election. It would be foolish to overlook the gathering developments in our neighbouring India. Narendra Modi looks set to become the next Prime Minister of India. Further Modi is likely to be on the right side of history bringing heritage pride to India once more.

Thus with Caricom giving the impetus, Gambia showing the rest of the former colonies that there is little point worshipping former colonial rulers under the banner of the Commonwealth unless they apologize, compensate and treat the former colonies as equals there is little point being a member of the Commonwealth.

With UK spearheading most of the calls to set up international investigations/inquiries and accusations against countries like Sri Lanka often without basis and with ulterior agendas, it is no better a time for African nations, Asia and Latin American nations to also group together and create Caricom type unions to officially press for reparations but most of all to correct history by setting up an international commission of inquiry so that posterity will be aware of the type of crimes that were committed by order of the State on behalf of the King/Queen.

Britain aware of its guilt ensured thousands of documents detailing some of its shameful acts and crimes were systematically destroyed or kept hidden from historians and members of the public.

These crimes cover slavery, genocide, prostitution, sex slaves, mass murder, destruction of property, killing of animals including elephants, destroying agriculture, conversion of natives, diluting cultures, ethnic labelling, ethnic divisions, cunning boundary/territory mapping to create future conflicts – all these crimes need to be listed and the former colonies must be made to disclose all documents most of which has been kept classified while some have been burnt.

Therefore, there is no better a time than now for Sri Lanka, on behalf of the 54 former colonies meeting in Colombo, to create history by

  • preparing a position paper to be distributed to all members of the Commonwealth calling for the Establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into Trans – Atlantic slavery, genocide and crimes against humanity committed by Britain during colonial rule of former colonies, and
  • placing this item on the Agenda paper of CHOGM for member nations’ discussion

When Britain, Canada and the like can call for inquiries against member nations, member nations should also have the right to do the same – after all Commonwealth values must be applied equally.

Britain and their North American cousins i.e. Canada and USA, must stop pretending that the reason the world is so sharply divided between “developed” and “developing” nations is just a natural consequence or matter of happenstance. No, it is not so. They must now accept unequivocally and understand that the “Third World” is very much their creation.

They must acknowledge that they still, to this day, benefit from almost 500 years of colonialism.

The tendering of an apology to one’s victim is only a first step. Acknowledgement of one’s culpability, participation in and deriving ongoing benefits from a historical, systemic, structural and institutionalized oppression must be admitted. The acceptance that one has a problem is always the first step in recovery from that problem. The physical, psychological, political, cultural and economic damages perpetrated against people of color i.e. black, brown and yellow, down through the long, dark centuries can then be expected to be “repaired.”

“We are not a young people with innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves — an altogether disproportionate share of wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seem less reasonable to others than to us” –

so said Winston Churchill denoting the mindset of all imperialists.