An in-depth UN report focused on reparatory justice for people of African descent urges States to show strong leadership and political will in tackling the lasting consequences of enslavement, the trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism.
The report to the UN General Assembly, by the UN Secretary-General, sets out a series of concrete steps for States and the international community to address the continued harms suffered by people of African descent – highlighting the intrinsic link between the legacies of colonialism and enslavement and contemporary forms of systemic racism and racial discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia faced by people of African descent.
“It is estimated that between 25 and 30 million people were violently uprooted from Africa for enslavement. The Trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans caused the largest and most concentrated deportation of human beings involving several regions of the world during more than four centuries,” the report states.
“Slavery and the slave trade are prohibited under international human rights law, and enslavement has been recognized among the acts constituting, under specific circumstances, a crime against humanity.”
The report stresses that the formal abolition of enslavement, and decolonization processes, did not dismantle racially discriminatory structures. Instead, they “gave way to racially discriminatory policies and systems, including segregation and apartheid, that perpetuated racial discrimination, oppression, and inequalities.”
For decades, people of African descent across the globe have called for accountability and redress for harms. The report highlights that these demands – including the right to adequate, effective, prompt and appropriate remedies, and reparation for victims of violations of human rights – are enshrined in international and regional human rights instruments.
Although some States have recently taken steps towards addressing past legacies, the report emphasizes that “no State has comprehensively accounted for the past and addressed its contemporary legacies and ongoing manifestations.”
The report provides an overview of a variety of measures that can contribute to achieving reparatory justice – with processes “tailored to the specificities of the situation in the country and to the demands of affected communities”.
While there is no one-size-fits-all model of reparatory justice, what is clear is that efforts must be guided by people of African descent, particularly women and youth, through their effective and meaningful participation, it states.
Those measures include truth-seeking and truth-telling processes, public apology and acknowledgment, memorialization, education and awareness raising, restitution, medical and psychological rehabilitation, compensation, as well as guarantees of non-repetition.
While assessment of economic damage can be complex owing to the length of time that has passed and the difficulty of identifying perpetrators and victims, “such difficulties cannot be the basis for nullifying the existence of underlying legal obligations.”
The report concludes that, ultimately, the greatest barrier to reparations for colonialism and enslavement may be that “the biggest beneficiaries of both lack the political will and moral courage to pursue such reparations.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said it was paramount that “strong leadership and political will from States and the international community be galvanized to finally, comprehensively address the entrenched legacies of colonialism, enslavement and the trade in enslaved Africans.”
“Reparatory justice is not just about addressing the wrongful acts of the past, it is about building societies that are truly inclusive, equal and free from racism and racial discrimination. A comprehensive approach should, therefore, address the past, present and future,” Türk said.
The report further cites examples of States and regional bodies that have acknowledged the need for reparatory justice for people of African descent, such as the CARICOM, the European Parliament and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The report also encourages States to actively engage in the elaboration of a draft UN declaration on the promotion and full respect of the human rights of people of African descent, which could provide a global framework to address the systemic nature of racism and racial discrimination.
It adds that private actors, including business enterprises, the media and educational institutions, should also consider their own links to enslavement and colonialism in their ongoing and past operations and examine possibilities for reparations.
“It is high time reparatory justice is made a priority, to address one of the biggest injustices in human history, and one that continues to negatively impact the daily lives of people of African descent across the globe,” Türk stressed.
The report builds upon contributions and recommendations made by United Nations bodies and experts over decades, as well as the High Commissioner’s reports and Agenda Towards Transformative Change for Racial Justice and Equality.