UN rights chief urges states to act on slavery reparations

By Thomson Reuters Apr 19, 2024 | 12:21 PM

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights chief called for countries to take concrete steps on reparations for people of African descent at a U.N. meeting on Friday, adding his voice to calls for justice for slavery atrocities.

Support is building among Africa and Caribbean nations for the creation of a tribunal to address reparations, which might include financial payments and other amends, for crimes dating back to the transatlantic trade of enslaved people.

“I join your demands for action now,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in an address at the closing of the four-day U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent (PFPAD).

“On reparations, we must finally enter a new era. Governments must step up to show true leadership with genuine commitments to move swiftly from words to action that will adequately address the wrongs of the past.”

Turk, who supports the forum but is not one of its 10 members, did not specifically say how reparations should be addressed.

While the idea of paying reparations has gained traction, it remains divisive and has not been accepted by most former colonial powers.

The Netherlands has apologised for its role in the transatlantic slave trade and plans a 200 million euro fund to address that past.

A British Foreign Office spokesperson acknowledged the country’s role in transatlantic slavery but said there was no plan to pay reparations, saying the focus should be on learning the lessons from history and on “today’s challenges”.

The PFPAD, which has no powers of enforcement but makes recommendations to other U.N. bodies, announced its conclusions on Friday. It reiterated a 2023 call to set up a slavery tribunal, adding this time that it should be sought via the U.N.’s policy-making organ, the General Assembly.

And it specifically called on the proposed tribunal to analyse the situation in Haiti “and provide reparations and restitution and compensation appropriately” after Haitian groups at the forum urged France to repay billions of dollars that formerly enslaved people were forced to pay in return for recognition of the island’s independence two centuries ago.

The forum also voiced support for a reparations fund announced in Ghana last year.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; additional reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrew Heavens)