Naomi Klein: Durban was a critical turning point in reparations debate

Roundup: Talking About History

... When the World Conference on Racism arrived in Durban [in 2001], many delegates were shocked by the mood in the streets: tens of thousands of residents joined protests outside the conference center, holding signs that said landlessness = racism and new apartheid: rich and poor. South Africa's disillusionment, though particularly striking given its recent democratic victory, was part of a much broader global trend, one that would define the conference, both in the streets and in the assembly halls. Around the world, developing countries were increasingly identifying the so-called Washington Consensus economic policies as little more than a clever rebranding effort, a way for former northern colonial powers to continue to drain the southern countries of their wealth without being inconvenienced by the heavy lifting of colonialism. Roughly two years before Durban, a coalition of developing countries had refused to further liberalize their economies, leading to the collapse of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. A few months later, a newly militant movement calling for a debt jubilee disrupted the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Durban was a continuation of this mounting southern rebellion, but it added something else to the mix: a new accounting.

Although it was true that southern countries owed debts to foreign banks and lending institutions, it was also true that in the colonial period—the first wave of globalization—the wealth of the North was built, in large part, on stolen indigenous land and the free labor provided by the slave trade. Many in Durban argued that when these two debts were included in the calculus, it was actually the poorest regions of the world—especially Africa and the Caribbean—that turned out to be the creditors and the rich world that owed a debt. All big U.N. conferences tend to coalesce around a theme, and in Durban the clear theme was the call for reparations. The gathering's overriding message was that even though the most visible signs of racism had largely disappeared—colonial rule, apartheid, Jim Crow-style segregation—profound racial divides will persist and even widen until the states and corporations that profited from centuries of state-sanctioned racism pay back some of what they owe.

African and Caribbean governments came to Durban with two key demands, hashed out at a series of preparatory meetings. The first was for an acknowledgment that slavery and even colonialism itself constituted "crimes against humanity" under international law. The second demand was for the countries that perpetrated and profited from these crimes to begin to repair the damage. Most everyone agreed that reparations should include a clear and unequivocal apology for slavery, as well as a commitment to returning stolen artifacts and to educating the public about the scale and impact of the slave trade. Above and beyond these more symbolic acts, there was a great deal of debate. Dudley Thompson, former Jamaican foreign minister and a longtime leader in the Pan-African movement, was opposed to any attempt to assign a number to the debt: "It is impossible to put a figure to killing millions of people, our ancestors," he said. The leading reparations voices instead spoke of a "moral debt" that could be used as leverage to reorder international relations in multiple ways, from canceling Africa's foreign debts to launching a huge development program for Africa on a par with Europe's Marshall Plan. What was emerging was a demand for a radical New Deal for the global South.

These ideas were not new, but they were advanced in Durban with a distinctly new attitude: African countries would not beg for charity any longer, nor would they ask for their debts to be "forgiven"; they would negotiate with the rich world as equals. Before 2001, Thompson, now ninety-two, told me, reparations were a mere "footnote." But "Durban put it on the table once and for all."

Of course there were plenty of African governments represented in Durban that had little moral prerogative to be making this demand. Robert Mugabe's corrupt regime in Zimbabwe, for instance, exploited a just call for reparations by forcibly handing over land to his cronies, and some other African countries, like Sudan and Gabon, condemned the transatlantic slave trade even as they allowed a flourishing traffic in humans. Yet despite the inevitable hypocrisies, there was a genuine injustice being put on trial in Durban, one simply articulated by the African negotiating bloc: "Other groups which were subjected to other scourges and injustices have received repeated apologies from different countries, as well as ample reparations." The transatlantic slave trade, though widely acknowledged as a terrible wrong, had yet to be treated as a crime. ...

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Randll Reese Besch - 9/13/2009

I see good things that could happen if this trend should be able to continue.