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?

Show Hide image

A loyalist rebranded: will Ségolène Royal run again to be the French President?

The French press is speculating about Ségolène Royal replacing François Hollande as the Socialist candidate.

“I will lead you to other victories!” Ségolène Royal told the crowds gathered in front of the French Socialist party’s headquarters on 6 May 2007.

Many at the time mocked her for making such an odd statement, just after losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election. But nearly ten years on, she might just be the candidate the French left needs to win the upcoming presidential election.

There is growing speculation that the current President François Hollande – who was Royal’s partner for 30 years and the father of her four children – will not be in a position to run again. His approval ratings are so low that a defeat in next May’s election is almost inevitable. His own party is starting to turn against him and he can now only count on a handful of faithful supporters.

Royal is among them. In the past, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity to stand for election again, but she has learned from her mistakes. The 63-year-old has very cleverly rebranded herself as a wise, hard-working leader, while retaining the popular touch and strong-willed character which led to her previous successes.

Royal has an impressive political CV. She became an MP in 1988 and was on several occasions appointed to ministerial positions in the 1990s. In 2004, she was elected President of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. In 2006, Royal won the Socialist party’s primary by a landslide ahead of the presidential election.

She went on to fight a tough campaign against Sarkozy, with little support from high-ranking members of her party. She ended up losing but was the first woman to ever go through to the second round of a French presidential election.

After that, it all went downhill. She split up with Hollande and lost the election to be party leader in 2008. She was humiliated by only getting 6.95 per cent of the votes in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary. She hit an all-time low when in 2012 she stood as the Socialist party’s official candidate to become MP for La Rochelle on the French west coast and lost to Olivier Falorni, a local candidate and Socialist party “dissident”. Royal then took a step back, away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. She continued to serve as the Poitou-Charentes regional President but kept largely out of the media eye.

Royal was very much the people’s candidate back in 2007. She drew her legitimacy from the primary result, which confirmed her huge popularity in opinion polls. She innovated by holding meetings where she would spend hours listening to people to build a collaborative manifesto: it was what she called participatory democracy. She shocked historical party figures by having La Marseillaise sung at campaign rallies and Tricolores flying; a tradition up until then reserved for right-wing rallies. She thought she would win the presidency because the people wanted her to, and did not take enough notice of those within her own party plotting her defeat.

Since then, Royal has cleverly rebranded herself – unlike Sarkozy, who has so far failed to convince the French he has changed.

When two years ago she was appointed environment minister, one of the highest-ranking cabinet positions, she kept her head down and worked hard to get an important bill on “energy transition” through Parliament. She can also be credited with the recent success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Above all, she has been impeccably loyal to the President.

Royal has reinforced her political aura, by appearing at Hollande’s side for state occasions, to the extent that French press have even labelled her “the Vice-President”. This has given her a licence to openly contradict the Prime Minister Manuel Valls on various environmental issues, always cleverly placing herself on virtue’s side. In doing so, not only has she gained excellent approval ratings but she has pleased the Green party, a traditional ally for the Socialists that has recently turned its back on Hollande.

The hard work seems to have paid off. Last Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche’s front-page story was on Royal and the hypothesis that she might stand if Hollande does not. She has dismissed the speculations, saying she found them amusing.

Whatever she is really thinking or planning, she has learned from past errors and knows that the French do not want leaders who appear to be primarily concerned with their own political fate. She warned last Sunday that, “for now, François Hollande is the candidate”. For now.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.