History of Reparations

There is a long history of military reparations, when the defeated party pays the victor of a war, as in the case of World Wars I and II. However, we are learning from other cases in which reparations are paid for different reasons in different ways.

In many cases, reparations is a frame of justice that benefits the oppressor by setting a price to buy silence, erasing the past, or failing to reach the people most impacted by a violation. However, reparations can also benefit victims of violations by offering a forum for truth and reconciliation, compensation for loss, and sometimes restorative models of justice that account for collectivity, interdependence, and the value of memory.

Here are a few examples of reparations being paid other than for military losses:

Africa and the Global Slave Trade: Reparations for slavery is based on a call for compensation to be paid to the descendants of those who have been enslaved by the Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1999, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission called for “the West” to pay $777 trillion to Africa within five years. In 2004, Lloyds of London was sued by the descendants of African slaves. The case was not successful.

United StatesTa-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations offers a historiographic case for reparations, not only for slavery, but for the discriminatory policies that deprived African Americans of property, rights, and inheritances long after slavery was abolished. Coates also mentions HR 40, a bill that –if ever passed– would open up space for research and exploration on the topic of reparations to African Americans.

Canada: In 1991, the Canadian government established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) to investigate the state of Canada’s removal of indigenous Canadian children from their families and placement in church-run Indian Residential Schools (IRS) in an effort to homogenize Canadian society. As a result of the commission’s recommendations, the government issued a symbolic apology in a “Statement of Reconciliation,” admitting that the schools were designed on racist models of assimilation. In addition, the government provided a $350 million fund for those affected by the schools. In 2006, the federal government signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, agreeing to provide reparations to the survivors of this program. The Settlement totals $2 billion, and includes financial compensation, a truth commission, and support services.

Chile: In 1990, president Patricio Aylwin created the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the human rights abuses of the 1973-1990 regime of General Augusto Pinochet. The commission resulted in the 1991 Rettig Report, which documented disappearances, political executions, and torture. The National Corporation for Reparations and Reconciliation then recommended reparations for the victims, including: monthly pensions, educational benefits for the children of the disappeared, exemption from military service, and priority access to health services. These initiatives have been criticized for protecting the identities of perpetrators and failing to recognize all victims to whom reparations are owed.

Morocco: From the 1960s and 1990s, the “years of lead,” massive human rights violations were carried out in the government’s campaign of political oppression:  executions, torture, and the annihilation of other civil liberties. King Mohammed VI formed the Independent Arbitration Commission (IAC) to compensate victims of forced disappearances and arbitrary detention. The IAC saw about 5,000 cases and awarded a total of $100 million. Victims and their families complained of a lack of transparency in the tribunal’s procedures and demanded truth-seeking measures in addition to financial compensation. Thus, in 2004, an official truth-seeking initiative, the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) was formed. The IER issued a reparations policy considered ground-breaking for upholding gender equity. It resulted in roughly $85 million, paid to almost 10,000 people. The IER’s recommendations also led to a collective reparations program that blended the symbolic recognition of human rights violations with a development program in 11 regions of Morocco that had suffered from collective punishment. As of May 2010, implementation of the collective reparations program was ongoing.

Other reparations programs have been proposed and/or implemented in: Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, El Salvador, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Iraq, Malawi, Liberia, South Africa, Kenya, the United States, and others.

Guyana: In 2007, Guyana called for European nations to pay reparations for the slave trade, with no success. In 2013, in the first of a series of lectures in Georgetown, Guyana, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Berbice Slave Revolt, the principal of University of the West Indies, Sir Beckles, urged Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries to emulate the position adopted by the Jews who were prosecuted during WWII and organize for pursuit of a reparations fund.

In 2011, Antigua and Barbuda called for reparations at the United Nations, claiming “that segregation and violence against people of African descent had impaired their capacity for advancement as nations, communities and individuals.”

Barbados: In 2012, the government of Barbados established a Reparations Task Force responsible for sustaining the local, regional and international momentum for reparations.Barbados is reportedly “currently leading the way in calling for reparations from former colonial powers for the injustices suffered by slaves and their families.”

Jamaica: In 2004, a coalition of Rastafari groups argued that European countries formerly involved in the slave trade, especially Britain, should pay 72.5 billion pounds sterling to resettle 500,000 Jamaican Rastafarians in Africa. The claim was rejected by the British government, which said it could not be held accountable for wrongs in past centuries.In 2012, Jamaica revived its reparations commission, to consider the question of whether the country should seek an apology or reparations from Britain for its role in the slave trade.