UN human rights expert calls on States to make reparations for colonialism and slavery

NEW YORK (29 October 2019) – Reparations for racial discrimination rooted in colonialism and slavery are essential to the fulfillment of human rights, a UN human rights expert said today, calling on States to accept they have obligations and responsibilities to make reparations to victims and their descendants.

“Reparations are a vital aspect of a global order genuinely committed to the inherent dignity of all, irrespective of race, ethnicity or national origin,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, presenting her thematic report on reparations and racial justice to the General Assembly.

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“Ultimately, the difficult truth is that the greatest barrier to reparations for colonialism and slavery is that the biggest beneficiaries of both lack the political will and moral courage to pursue these reparations.”

Achiume emphasised that modern racism and discrimination were inseparable from their historic roots. “Legacies of colonialism and slavery persist as myriad contemporary structures of racial discrimination and oppression,” she said.

“Slavery and colonialism allocated rights and privileges on a racial basis, and they also entrenched economic, social and political inequalities along racial lines. Formal abolition of slavery and colonialism was by no means sufficient to undo these racial inequalities that were consolidated over centuries.”

The UN expert said that in one North American country,  for example, researchers have demonstrated that historic injustices related to slavery as well as the adoption of law and policy that fails to address these injustices contribute significantly to persisting wealth disparities among blacks and whites. “Equality today depends on confronting the past,” Achiume said.

She also noted that discrimination in allocation of reparations has perpetuated colonial racial hierarchies. “To date, the individuals who have benefitted most from reparations related to the end of slavery have been perpetrators and their descendants — that is, slave-holding families and their descendants,” Achiume said. “Descendants of people who were enslaved and traded as property, on the other hand, remain unheard, and in some cases even vilified for seeking to relief from racial injustice.”

The Special Rapporteur’s presentation to the General Assembly briefly canvassed forms of political and legal resistance to reparations. Criticising overly-formalistic approaches that have obstructed reparations and racial equality, she exhorted States not to “privilege technical rules over racial justice and human rights: we must recognise that a genuine commitment to equality and justice requires states to take bolder, more ambitious action”.

Achiume also contested narratives that suggest that reparations for racial discrimination rooted in colonialism and slavery were unprecedented. “Too often, debates about reparations for racial injustice frequently begin with the premise that reparations are an inherently exceptional or unusual remedy,” she said. “But reparations — as a holistic and effective remedy for those who have suffered a wrongful act — are not novel in practice or in law.

“State practice, international tribunal decisions, and other sources of international law have repeatedly affirmed that State breaches of legal obligations entail a responsibility to provide reparations. International human rights law, including article 6 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, has further entrenched this obligation.”

The Special Rapporteur called on States to accept they have obligations and responsibilities to make reparations to victims and their descendants. She also beseeched States to exercise their inherent power to reform and decolonise international laws that obstruct reparations and other means of achieving racial equality.