Should Arab countries pay reparations for the slave trade too?

Fourteen countries of the Caribbean are seeking reparations from three European nations for the slave trade. While the British responsibility for the Trans-Atlantic trade rightly remains high on the agenda, perhaps there are other countries which should b

The decision of the 14 countries of the Caribbean to engage British lawyers to seek reparations from three European nations for the slave trade has made the headlines. In June the Caricom leaders voted to pursue a claim against Britain, the Netherlands and France.

The firm they have engaged, Leigh Day and Company, had just won compensation for elderly Kenyans who were caught up in the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950’s. As the Guardian reported, Caribbean officials have not mentioned a compensation figure but they noted that at the time of emancipation in 1834 London paid £20m to British planters in the Caribbean, the equivalent of £200bn today.

"Our ancestors got nothing," Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica said. "They got their freedom and they were told 'Go develop yourselves'." While it is still unclear what the legal claim involves, some are thinking in terms of very large settlements.

The pending action raises a number of questions. For a start one could ask why the United States is not included in the list, since the cotton plantations of the South clearly benefitted from the trade in human lives.

But the issue is far wider. Why is the proposed claim focussing only on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and only on the past? The role of what is today the Arab world is of far greater antiquity and continues to this day.

In February 2003 a UNESCO Conference on “Arab-Led Slavery of Africans” was held in Johannesburg. The Conference’s final communiqué condemned slavery in all its forms, but went on to declare that “the Arab-led slave trade of African people predates the Trans-Atlantic slave trade by a millennium, and represents the largest and, in time, longest involuntary removal of any indigenous people in the history of humanity.” Since then a silence has descended on the debate.

Professor Robert O Collins, a historian at the University of California, presented a paper describing the transportation of Nubian slaves down the Nile to Egypt as early as 2900 BC.  He says that raids on African communities continued for the next five thousand years.

Leaving aside some of the deeds of antiquity, and drawing on the works of other scholars, Collins concludes that some 12,580,000 slaves were exported from Africa between 800 AD and 1900. This was the human traffic that was taken across the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Sultan of Zanzibar continued the trade until 1873, when the British navy intervened to end all slavery by sea, although the practice continued on the Sultan’s plantations in East Africa.

Collins points out that: “The historic obsession with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas has often obscured the trade to Asia and slavery within Africa.” One look at the UNESCO website on slavery indicates that this bias has not diminished. 

What is far more worrying is the almost total silence from the African Union, the United Nations and almost all other international bodies about the continuing scandal of modern Africa slavery.

A report into the practice in Sudan carried out by Anti-Slavery International (established in 1839 and the world’s oldest human rights organisation) in 2001 spoke of “thousands” of Africans being held in conditions of servitude. The Sudanese authorities bridled at the term ‘slavery’ being applied to their condition. But the report contained interviews with men and women who had been abducted at gunpoint and forced to work for their masters for years on end in the most brutal conditions.

Anti-Slavery concluded by quoting from their statement to the United Nations in 2000. “When women and children have been abducted, whether in the course of civil war or as a result of longer term conflict between different communities, and subsequently forced to work, or forced to marry, in the community where they are held captive, their treatment constitutes an abuse under terms of the UN's conventions on slavery."

Nor is Sudan alone. In Niger, Mali and Mauritania, Anti-Slavery believes the condition is perpetuated as what it describes as ‘descent based slavery’. The organisation says that this is the result of strict caste systems, which place people at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. “Typically people born into slavery are not allowed to own land or inherit property, are denied an education and are not able to marry outside of the slave caste. Any children born are automatically considered ‘property’ of the masters and can be given away as gifts or wedding presents.”

In theory, Mauritania banned slavery in 2007 – the last country in the world to do so. Since then just one person has been successfully prosecuted for owning another human being. Attempts to campaign against the practice have met with repression and campaigners jailed.

Terrible as the consequences of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade have been, and heavy as the British responsibility undoubtedly remains to this day, they should not blind us to responsibility of the Arab community  - both for the past and for the present.

Shackles for slave children on display at the New York Historical Society. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.