What do former colonial powers owe to the descendants of those who colonized them?
Is it enough to apologize and return cultural goods? If restitution is to be financial, how does one calculate the debt for generations of exploitation, plunder and slavery?
These have become topical questions as activists and governments in previously colonized countries, in courts and in diplomatic talks, push for restitution of both past abuses and their ongoing consequences.
For example, under mounting pressure, France last year repatriated 26 stolen works of art to Benin, and Germany pledged $1.35 billion in aid to Namibia, in addition to formally recognizing the colonial-era German genocide there.
But these are exceptions for a reparations movement, mainly concentrated in Africa and the Caribbean, which has a long and difficult road ahead of wary European governments.
And even these successes show how far the cause has to go.
An audit by the French government estimated that the country’s museums contain 90,000 objects looted from Africa alone, making the return of several dozen feel, to activists, as an insult.
And Germany’s apology was carefully covered up, ostensibly to set a precedent that could potentially apply to other colonial abuses, let alone to the act of colonization itself.
These talk about what for activists and political leaders is a more immediate question than estimating what’s owed: figuring out how to force former colonizers to make amends.
“Time is on the side of the restorers,” Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian historian and chair of the restoration commission for CARICOM, an organization of Caribbean states, said in a recent public lecture.
The goal, he said, is to push for something more than excuses: the repayment of the stolen labor and resources that propelled Europe’s rise at the expense of the colonized world.
The Caribbean reparations group has called on European governments to pay $50 billion and sees this as just a starting point. dr. Beckles has estimated Europe’s debt to the region for “200 years of free labour” at £7 trillion.
The cause gains strength as it gains more tangible victories. But it also faces tough questions about politics, legality, and most importantly, leverage.
A multi-generational quest
Today’s drive for colonial reparations can often be traced back to a United Nations conference against racism held in South Africa in 2001. It was the first time that governments—rather than activists—had organized on such a massive scale to confront the legacy of colonialism, giving it diplomatic power.
But the cause is based on ideas that predate the end of colonialism.
“Colonialism and imperialism have not paid their debt to us once they have withdrawn from our territories,” wrote Frantz Fanon, a leading intellectual from Martinique, then a French colony, in 1961. “The wealth of the imperialist nations is our wealth too. Europe is literally the creation of the third world.”
W. Arthur Lewis, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from St. Lucia, had argued since the 1930s that colonialism had eroded the economies of colonized societies for generations to come, not only repaying the debt, but also restoring it.
Haiti is an example of this. Troublesome French loans, sometimes forcibly imposed, triggered a cycle of underdevelopment that has made present-day Haiti tens of billions of dollars poorer, some scientists estimate.
A pan-African conference held in 1993 compared colonial reparations to those paid to victims of the Holocaust, a precedent that has become central to activists’ cause.
At first, governments of former colonies were hesitant to push the issue through. Many retained political ties to, and a degree of economic dependence on, their onetime settlers.
Some have tried. For example, the president of Haiti demanded reparations from France in the early 2000s, but had little influence.
Activists in former colonies have raised the issue in recent years, often through European public opinion and courts.
Survivors of an infamous 1950s British crackdown in Kenya lobbied for years for the right to sue in British courts, and eventually succeeded. In 2013, the UK government settled their claim for $30 million and issued a rare, albeit succinct, public apology.
Activists representing a Namibian ethnic group targeted by the colonial-era German genocide took a similar approach.
Public pressure within Germany led to a motion in 2015 by the Bundestag, the German parliament, to begin formal talks with the government of Namibia over reparations.
In France, a wave of activism, often led by French racial justice groups, joined a push by African-based groups and governments for colonial restitution.
Emmanuel Macron became president in 2017 after campaigning for promises to return thousands of cultural items and address historical grievances with former colonies.
Yet Mr Macron has sometimes presented this as a matter of soft power competition in Africa, where Chinese and Russian influence is increasing. These more realpolitik motifs may help explain why France has returned only a small fraction of the artifacts promised.
These successes, along with activism within former colonies, have encouraged those governments to raise awareness about the issue.
Caribbean countries issued a 10-point reparations plan in 2014. Organizing at the UN has led to symbolic statements highlighting such claims.
International law can be of limited use, some legal scholars argue, for the simple reason that colonialism was not illegal at the time. As a result, in practice settlements are reached directly between governments or within European political systems.
The precedent problem
Recovery talks increasingly bumped into an important question: whether individual settlements or apologies could set a precedent for more of them.
Matthias Goldmann, a German legal scholar, said German leaders initially resisted settling the Namibian claim out of “grave concern that it would lead to a rule”.
Officials, he said, feared that offering reparations for one colonial-era abuse could mean legal responsibility for all of them.
Berlin eventually offered relief payments, which it does not call reparations, to Namibia and an apology so tentative that many Namibian activists and politicians urged their government to reject it.
“The statement is hollow,” Emsie Erastus, a Namibian researcher, wrote in a UKTN essay, adding that the settlement was drafted “apparently to avoid legal guilt.”
Britain and France, each of which has dozens of former colonies, have become particularly wary of any move that could set a precedent in international or domestic law. But activists argue that precedent is exactly what they need to force European governments.
As reparations groups have expanded their claims from individual atrocities to colonialism itself, proponents and governments alike have come to a realization: If colonialism built Europe’s wealth, total repayment could mean giving it up.
“Get up the billions of hours enslaved Africans worked on British plantations and pay for it at a living wage. Add up the compensation for the 60 million souls sacrificed to famine,” Jason Hickel, a British scholar, said in a 2018 lecture. “And you realize that if Britain paid reparations – real, fair, courageous reparations — there would be nothing left.”
One at a time
Since a global standard for colonial debt is unlikely, former colonies pursue claims individually.
Jamaica is demanding $10.6 billion — equivalent to the fees Britain paid slave owners to populate the island, a lawmaker said, arguing Britain’s descendants would at least pay the purchase price of their ancestors is owed.
Burundi has demanded $43 billion from Germany and Belgium, a figure it says is calculated based on the economic toll of decades of forced labor and colonial violence.
But because claims are settled instantly, they are often decided by both leverage and merit. Absent political pressure within the former colonial power, or a diplomatic incentive such as the threat of a former colony joining China, often causes claims to stall.
In Kenya, another group of plaintiffs is pleading their case: descendants of families forcibly evicted to make way for British tea companies, who still own much of what was once their land. The families, struggling to gain traction in Britain, appealed to the UN
A UN investigation last year concluded that Britain had a responsibility to settle the claim, although the investigators have few mechanisms to enforce it.
Congolese officials have demanded that Belgium pay restitution for its rule, marked by massacres and forced labor so brutal that some historians estimate a death toll in the millions. Nine of Belgium’s 23 richest families still trace their fortunes to the Belgian Congo, a study shows.
In 2020, protests against racism in Belgium led the parliament to set up a recovery commission.
But public pressure has eased. And Congolese officials have little influence.
When the Belgian king traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, he personally carried one of the 84,000 returned cultural objects. But he and his government offered no reparations — and, despite demands from local activists, no apologies.
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