Reimagining reparations for African enslavement

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The impact of the slave trade can still be seen today. Redefining what reparatory justice looks like could be the key to begin repairing what was broken, writes Charlotte Davidson, Publications Officer in Communications and Marketing.

The UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination provided an opportunity to shine a light on important work being done by University of Edinburgh researchers. They aim to advance the struggle for reparatory justice, in partnership with grassroots activist organisations, by creating an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice.

Dr Nicola Frith is Senior Lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures at the University of Edinburgh and Co-founder of the International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations (INOSAAR). The network is encouraging institutions across the world, including the UK Government, to rethink how we define reparations.

“I have long believed that you cannot be a historian or scholar of slavery and not recognise the centrality of the need for reparatory justice,” says Dr Frith.

Sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–24), INOSAAR was created in 2017 to help unite scholars and activists across the world working to highlight and fight for African reparations.

“We all have a shared responsibility for the past, present and future,” continues Dr Frith. “Broadly speaking, the Global North is more responsible than the Global South for historic forms of oppression that continue to play a foundational role in shaping global relations and geopolitics today.

“It is only by understanding how historical roots continue to shape the present that we can build a future in which we are working jointly across communities of reparations interest to repair the psychological, socio-economic, structural and environmental damage caused.”

Legal contortions

There has long been a stalemate on global reparations. Academics, activists and politicians have been unable to find a suitable course of action to make up for past atrocities. But the problem itself is much older as Dr Frith explains: “The impasse has existed since the abolition of slavery laws, which performed the legal contortion of financially rewarding the enslavers for their crimes.

“The refusal of those responsible to pay reparations to those formerly enslaved was also established in the nineteenth-century debates over abolition,” Dr Frith continues. “For example, although the question of paying reparations to the formerly enslaved population was briefly raised by the abolitionist Victor Schœlcher in France, it was pushed aside in favour of indemnity payments to the enslavers in line with the precedent set by the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act in Britain.”

Examples can be found in other European countries as well as the USA. Dr Frith explains exactly what this means for us today: “The impasse is connected to the need to address the failings of the abolition acts, which means that governments need to recognise that the harms of African enslavement continued – and still continue – long after its abolition.”

This is just one of the aims of the INOSAAR, which highlights, along with organizations such as the Stop the Maangamizi: We Charge Genocide/Ecocide campaign, the need for governments to begin by stopping the harm.

Healing past crimes

The work of INOSAAR has been vital to broadening the conversations, and therefore actions, around reparations and ensuring that all voices are heard in the discussions about solutions. Today they boast a large membership, but Dr Frith is keen to stress that numbers are not their ultimate goal: “We continue to grow with each event that we do. However, our aim is not how many members we have, but rather how can we mobilise our membership and support each other in our various reparatory justice works.”

When creating the network, Dr Frith and her co-founders Professor Joyce Hope Scott of Boston University, and Esther Stanford-Xosei and Kofi Mawuli Klu of the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE), wanted to understand the meaning of reparation and reparatory justice from African community perspectives and find creative ways to heal the longstanding legacies of African enslavement. Dr Frith elaborates: “We highlighted a lack of research into models of reparation that seek to heal the crimes of the past through cultural, spiritual and environmental means. Existing reparative models tend to favour top-down, state-led approaches and the use of the international law courts and monetary repayments; whereas we identified the equal importance of bottom-up, community-led models focused on repairing the loss of African culture and spirituality.

“The project recognises that the long-term effects of slavery and colonial exploitation on the loss of African culture and environmental degradation are only just beginning to be understood.”

INOSAAR has worked to identify two areas that can help address the losses suffered. Dr Frith explains more: “The first relates to the processes by which the descendants of those who were forcibly displaced from Africa are able to return culturally, spiritually and physically to the African continent; a process known as rematriation.

“The second relates the ways in which struggles for reparative justice are underpinned by the need for planet repairs – a term that brings reparatory and cognitive justice together with decolonial approaches to the climate emergency and environmental justice – and the role that African culture and knowledge can play in contributing to ecologically-focused social movements.”

Redefining reparatory justice

Dr Frith’s research was vital to the creation of INOSAAR. She focuses on the inability for economic recompense to ‘solve’ the atrocities of African enslavement and encourages the development of creative solutions. “Reparatory justice has never been simply about financial compensation,” explains Dr Frith. “There is a strong tendency in the UK or France, and elsewhere, to read or hear the word reparation and jump to the need for economic compensation, as if this crime against humanity could be financially repaid and the debt closed.

“Moreover, when reparations are viewed solely through the lens of financial compensation, the conversation tends to shut down before it even gets started,” she continues. “To see reparations as money, or a pay cheque, is a highly reductive and misleading interpretation that echoes the cold economics of the system of slavery itself.”

Dr Frith shares how she came to focus on this area and why it means so much to her: “I wanted to understand the aftermath of African enslavement and what its legacies mean for contemporary society today. After all, the effects of slavery did not end in 1833 or 1848 with abolition. The system upon which slavery was built was based on the premise of labour exploitation for maximum profit, which is also the foundation of the capitalist system in which we are enmeshed today.”

Hearing from those involved and communicating with them directly has always been a key part of Dr Frith’s work: “I wanted to speak directly to activist groups to understand why it was so important to commemorate this crime and what they perceived to be the key legacies that needed addressing in today’s society, among many other things. After the first few interviews, I quickly understood that the question of reparations was central to exploring the memory of African enslavement, and that there is little point in commemorating slavery and celebrating abolition when people continue to live with its unrepaired harms today.

“Reparations are not simply a long-overdue pay cheque, but a call for holistic repairs that seek to heal those within Black and African communities. They’re a move to guarantee the equal participation of all members of the human race, an eradication of the effects of African enslavement and the subsequent histories of colonialism and racial oppression, including its systems, and a route to finding ways to rebuild respectful and egalitarian relations between all communities, through the recognition of responsibility for the wrong committed and the harm inflicted. This is what is owed.”

Going green

Since its inception INOSAAR has worked to highlight the need for holistic forms of reparation. The network has been involved with a range of prominent institutions across the globe, the most notable being the UN in 2019, where they were invited to a range of events. These included an expert workshop on Reparations, Racial Justice and Equality convened by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and the UN Regional Meeting for Africa on the International Decade for People of African Descent, in Dakar, Senegal, which was organised by the UN Human Rights Office and African Union Commission.

More recently, INOSAAR has been working with the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) as an advisor and as part of a group called Green Action for Afrikan Reparations Dialogue (GAARD). This work is supporting the creation of the All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice (APPCITARJ) to commit the UK government to atone and make reparations to the descendants of enslaved African people, in accordance with international human rights law.

Councillor Scott Ainslie, former Green Party MEP and currently a member of Lambeth Council, said INOSAAR’s expertise “has been key to successfully getting the Green Party of England and Wales to be the first national party to call on the UK parliament to establish the APPCITARJ. With INOSAAR’s help, we were able to not only get agreement on the wording of the motion, but their assistance in patiently dealing with the questions and concerns of the members of GPEW helped persuade and gain the support of the Greens of Colour, the Young Greens and a majority at conference. This would not have happened without them.”

INOSAAR’S work with the Green Party, Scott Ainslie continued, “has engaged a whole new generation in the need to atone and begin a process of reparatory justice in the UK and in the US.”

First-hand accounts

Working closely with the Stop the Maangamizi Campaign and with Bell Riberio-Addy, MP, a major step forward was taken in October 2021, with the establishment of the All-Party Parliament Group for African Reparations (APPGAR) in the UK. Dr Frith explains more: “The aim of the APPGAR is to prepare the way for an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice. It will call for submissions from all those with knowledge of the nature and impacts of enslavement and colonialism to provide testimony.

“At a practical level, it is the process of conducting this Commission that is of the utmost importance,” she continues. “In order to be able to hear all voices on this matter, we need a mechanism that will act as a conduit for that conversation. This process cannot be bypassed because there are so many different constituencies and communities of reparations interest that need to be heard.

“The Commission will provide the basis for affected communities and individuals to voice their own self-determined solutions in effecting reparatory justice. It will identify the steps needed to facilitate their participation in any reparatory process in which the United Kingdom is engaged going forwards.”

For Dr Frith the work is difficult, but it’s milestones like these that remind her of how important the work of this community is: “I work collectively with reparations activists and together we have seen some really important steps being taken in the past few years. The work is exhausting and non-stop, and requires full commitment and collective endeavour, but it is the wonderful people that I work with that make it all worthwhile.”

This piece was originally published on the Edinburgh Impact website.

Images: GettyImages