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What Constitutes Reparations? - 2001-09-03

One of the most contentious issues at the World Conference Against Racism is reparations for slavery and colonialism. Part of the problem is defining what exactly Western nations might have to do to make amends.

Reparations for slavery and colonialism: it means different things to different people and different nations. For some, it means money. For others, reparations could be as simple as an apology.

Congressman John Conyers has introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives on reparations every year since 1989, and every year it has died in committee. His proposal would not commit the United States to pay reparations to its own citizens or anyone else, just to study the idea and determine how to handle it. "Let me begin by telling you that many people who support reparations do not have the vaguest idea precisely what they want," he says. "Reparations carries with it the concept of an apology, of redemption, of compensation, of restoration of things that were deprived. There may be dozens, if not hundreds, of proposals about what reparations is."

In the United States, the Caribbean region, and South America, the word reparations is largely used to describe making amends to the descendants of slaves brought from Africa. They would be compensated not only for their ancestors' suffering, but for the continuing inequality suffered by those of African descent.

Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree is putting together a lawsuit, trying to force the U.S. government to make reparations to African-Americans. "The problem is this: The individuals who were promised 40 acres and a mule in the 1860s had a firm promise that 'we will compensate you'," he says. "That was never paid. So you cannot say, 'it is too late because we violated your rights and we decided not to pay you then.' It is not too late. The time is really right."

Mr. Ogletree's lawsuit aims to set up a trust fund that will improve educational and job opportunities for the poorest, most disadvantaged African-Americans.

But many nations in Africa have a different idea about what reparations are. Some African countries want the mainly Western nations who benefited from the slave trade to apologize.

But the West, and particularly the United States, is afraid that apologizing for slavery, or even admitting it was a crime against humanity, would leave it vulnerable to lawsuits over their past policies - lawsuits just like the one Mr. Ogletree wants to file.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says money is not the core issue. "Apology closes the door against bitterness and anger in the heart of the victim, and does not connote any reprisal or litigation, nor should it lead to one," he says. "I must however disabuse the minds of those who believe that every apology must be followed by monetary compensation for the victims. For us in Africa, an apology is a deep feeling of remorse, expressed with the avowed commitment that never again will the individual who offered the apology have recourse to such a reprehensible act. And the recipient of the apology forgives."

Mr. Obasanjo says a monetary award could further hurt the dignity of Africans, and he says it could widen what he calls the division between Africans on the continent and Africans elsewhere. However, the African plans for reparations do include some sort of monetary compensation, mainly in the form of debt forgiveness and development aid.

Both sides admit there are significant differences between African and African-American ideas about reparations for slavery; but both sides also downplay the significance of the gap.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledges the Durban racism conference is not likely to produce a final solution to the problem. He says the question of reparations is very complicated. And, he says, "I do not think this conference alone can settle it. The question is not going to disappear."