09-12-2014

From Enslavement To Empowerment

Gudrun Rath

The International Day for Reparations Related to Colonialism brings together activists and academics in London

On October 12th 2014, the International Day for Reparations Related to Colonialism, an event in London’s Black Cultural Archives brings together activists and academics to discuss reparations for the crime of European enslavement of African Peoples. MALMOE met Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, initiator of the project “Enriching public discourse– empowering African people”, and Jeanette Ehrmann, project participant for an e-mail-interview.

MALMOE: One of the motives of your event is the lack of a public discourse about reparations for enslavement and slave trade, which in GB are not considered to be a possibility. What are the objectives of your project?

To begin with, our objective is to open a space for a public discourse on reparations. 12th of October is traditionally celebrated as “Columbus Day” in the United States and “Día de la Raza” in the Spanish-speaking Americas to remember the European colonization of the Americas. Against this official politics of memory, the “International Day for Reparations” was proclaimed at the World Social Forum in Tunis in 2013. Its goal is to remember the crimes connected to colonization, i.e. the genocide of the indigenous populations and the enslavement of African people, and to call for compensation. The project builds on the “International Day for Reparations” to create a broad academic and political public that deals with the question why and how colonial and racist crimes should best be redressed and repaired.

One of the central ideas of your project is to establish a dialogue between academics and activists to initiate new forms of knowledge production. Where do you think are the usual problems within this context? What kind of strategies can we develop here? And how can they lead to new forms of working together in the future?

So far, the academic and the activist production of knowledge mostly take place separately from each other. On the one hand, activist production of knowledge about reparations is hardly perceived in academic contexts, let alone acknowledged as legitimate knowledge. On the other hand, academics have failed to grapple with the issue of reparations. Thus, the project aims to launch an academic discussion that gains substantial depth by taking seriously the epistemological value of political praxis and the arguments developed by activists. At the same time, it is vital to make use of this knowledge for the empowerment of African and Diasporic African people in Europe.

You argue very clearly in favour of reparations for the European colonizing crimes. What does “reparation” mean for you, apart from refunds?

First of all, we understand reparations very broadly as the possibility and as the necessity of “repairing wrongs”. This implies a serious engagement with the crimes of colonization and enslavement and the acknowledgment that their effects continue until today. The academics and activists who participate in the project have very different positions regarding why, how and what for reparations should be made. Having said that, we agree that an adequate way of dealing with the abduction, enslavement and degradation of African and Diasporic African people – that laid the foundation of Europe’s wealth – requires more than ritualized memories and memorials. It requires an apology of substance and political consequences in the here and now.

I’d like to come back to the refunds once again. Supposing European countries would agree to such reparations, what would happen to the funds? Where or who should they go to?

First of all reparations is not just about monetary compensation although compensation is a necessary part of redressing the historical and contemporary wrongs for which reparations is being sought. We insist on these funds not going only to governments but rather into an international fund for African reparations controlled and administered by legitimate representatives of African peoples mainly from the grassroots of our communities of resistance. We are still discussing and consulting on how best this can be done in an inclusive way in accordance with the best principles of participatory democracy. This is still a work in progress.

In the past there have repeatedly been discussions about whether former colonizing countries such as France, England or Germany, should accomplish reparations for enslavement. However, in the individual countries attention for those discussions was flamboyantly humble. In your project, you use the term “European” reparations. Has there been a statement on reparations on behalf of the European Union?

The European Union acknowledged enslavement and the so called Slave Trade, more correctly referred to by African heritage activists as the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans (TTEA) as crimes against humanity subsequent to the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban in 2001. Nevertheless, the EU invokes the “Ex post facto law” that precludes the retroactive implementation of international law. Thus, the EU categorically rejects paying compensation or acknowledging the right of descendants of the enslaved to holistic reparations – although Art. 7 paragraph 2 of the European Human Rights Convention leaves a margin to condemn and prosecute retroactively grave actions such as crimes against humanity. The EU member states follow the EU’s stance on reparations. France has eliminated the question of reparations from the Loi Taubira, the law for the remembrance of enslavement. In Great Britain, a discussion about reparations has been denied. Germany has not yet acknowledged, let alone apologized for the genocide of the Herero and Nama and rejects demands for compensation by Namibia with reference to the development aid paid for Namibia. Thus, Europe escapes from a political debate about reparations. At the same time, the official politics of memory appropriates the history of Black resistance against enslavement and the history of the abolition of enslavement and domesticates it in a Eurocentric narrative of Enlightenment and moral progress.

Part of your project is a “reparations tool kit” to achieve the empowerment of African people and people in the African Diaspora. What does this tool kit concretely comprise? How is it going to be passed?

The Reparations Toolkit is a toolkit for use by a broad range of activists especially young people in their communities, educational institutions, places of work, worship sports and leisure in order to educate themselves and others on reparations and its relevant issues. The aim being to come up with the best possible ways of arguing and working to secure reparations so that reparations cannot be ignored by politicians and other makers and implementers of policy. The toolkit will include guidelines for advocacy and action on reparations to influence political campaigning for elections to the UK and European Parliaments.

Power structures of colonial societies still continue to have effects today, amongst other things in racism and neocolonialism. Given those continuities, how could an extensive programme look like, that does not only address and “repair” crimes of the past, but also commits to ongoing inequalities?

The perspective on the continuing forms of colonization and enslavement are central to the project. On the one hand, an extensive programme requires a critique of the structural and everyday racism that is prevalent everywhere in Europe. On the other hand, after the juridical abolition of enslavement in most countries of the world we are confronted with working conditions and exploitation – also in the EU – that can be labelled as neo-enslavement or contemporary enslavement. However, it is vital that the EU strategies to combat enforced labour and human trafficking are not instrumentalized in order to legitimize the EU’s repressive migration and border regime that is itself neocolonial and racist at its heart. One of the key areas the project seeks to address is promoting effective educational repairs with particular focus on how to counteract the expression of the coloniality of power in Eurocentric education systems which predominate in and beyond Europe.

This interview was first published in Malmoe

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