Colonialism: Compensation for
Should former colonial powers pay reparations to former colonies for their past activities?
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Colonial-era activity was morally wrong and indefensible. Colonising countries justified their acti...
Colonial-era activity was morally wrong and indefensible. Colonising countries justified their actions on the basis of cultural and racial superiority. This ethnocentric approach overvalued western traditions and undervalued those of the countries which were colonised. They undermined the property and social rights of the countries that were colonised and also promoted the success of military might in ordering world affairs over more peaceful resolution. These are all core elements of a colonial mindset. They are not simply a by-product of colonialism, but rather they form part of the very nature of colonial thinking. They are completely out of step with what is now regarded as appropriate or desirable behaviour in world affairs and in terms of indigenous property and social rights. Reparations would provide a meaningful act of apology for such wrongs.
Payments to developing countries or others would not be actual reparations. It is possible to accept the case for historical wrongs having been committed without accepting that this creates any reasonable justification for reparations. Reparations are something that is given to a victim to correct a past wrong. Very basically, for example, if a house was firebombed, getting the arsonist to make reparations to the homeowner would allow the latter to build a new house. However, how can the term reparations be applied to colonial-era wrongs? The victims of those wrongs are long since dead. Those in favour argue that we can use modern governments or the descendants of colonial-era dwellers as a sort of proxy for those who suffered. Yet there is no precedent for doing this after such a long period. Additionally, how would one judge who these people are? Some of them now live very pampered lives in developed countries – is it justifiable to pay money to such people which has come out of tax paid by people who in some cases are less well off than them today?
Reparations would represent an important demonstration of the closing of colonial scars. Many of th...
Reparations would represent an important demonstration of the closing of colonial scars. Many of the problems that now face former colonies can be traced in part or in whole to the actions of colonial-era masters (e.g. the ethnic tensions in Rwanda and Burundi). In order to move on from the damaging legacy of that era, it is therefore necessary for former colonial powers to make some tangible show that they have closed the colonial chapter of their history and they are seeking a new, more co-operative relationship with developing countries which were their former colonies. It is also important to demonstrate that they now recognise the needs of former colonies rather than simply the economic opportunities that are offered by them. In this way, reparations would be an effective way of demonstrating a coming together across the ages.
Such reparations would be symbolic only but would do little for the developing world. The west might feel better about itself, but it might then wash its hands of Africa, believing that it had already discharged its responsibilities. Instead of a one-off act, it would be better to develop a long-term engagement between developed and developing countries (e.g. fairer trade rules, debt relief). This would allow aid to be focused on those countries most in need, whereas reparations for the past would give as much to countries such as Malaysia, South Africa and India, as to poorer states with similar colonial histories.
The symbolism of reparations would also reinforce the position of dictators such as Robert Mugabe, who blame colonial powers for all the present problems affecting their countries, often as a way of shifting attention from their own failings.
There are precedents for paying reparations to states or peoples in compensation for historical wron...
There are precedents for paying reparations to states or peoples in compensation for historical wrongs. Germany pays an annual amount to Israel and Japan paid reparations after World War II to former colonial possessions such as Korea. More recently, Britain has paid some compensation to the Maoris of New Zealand for damage done in colonial times, and the USA has similarly compensated Native American tribes for broken treaties. Iraq pays compensation to Kuwait for damage done during its invasion and occupation of 1990-91. Why shouldn't former colonies in Africa be similarly trusted to use reparations money wisely?
Distribution would be complicated given the large number of countries involved as colonisers and colonies, but that is no reason not to attempt it. One suggestion for Africa has been that reparations should pay for free universal education. Another is that proper North-South and East-West railway links be constructed to improve trade within Africa.
Distributing any reparations would be problematical. We have already seen that there are question marks over who would be the appropriate recipients of reparations. Even if we presume that such a group could be identified, it would be very difficult to distribute the reparations effectively. Claims to reparations would likely be competing and there is very little if any documentary evidence to support such claims in many cases. The wrongs referred to are deep in history. The countries within which reparations would be made in many cases have deeply corrupt and inefficient infrastructure and yet it seems likely that only this infrastructure would serve to distribute the reparations. There would also likely be problems with disbursing cash reparations suddenly to people in some such countries where a sudden cash windfall can make one a target for banditry.
Reparations would be an effective way of righting the economic imbalance caused by colonialism. Muc...
Reparations would be an effective way of righting the economic imbalance caused by colonialism. Much of the justification for colonialism, although it may have been given other excuses, was essentially economic in nature. It concerned colonising countries identifying countries with rich natural resources or human resources, and little ability to defend themselves. They would then seek to colonise such countries as a way of providing natural resources and sometimes cheap labour for their own markets, as well as possible a market for their goods. Given that colonial powers such as Britain and France gained much of their present prosperity in this way, and that colonised countries continue to suffer economically from the legacy of colonialism, it is both appropriate and logical that the economic imbalance ought to be corrected. As the word “reparations” suggests, this is exactly what reparations would do – they would rebalance the economic relationship between the two countries in a way that sought to correct the historical wrongs.
Reparations punish today’s taxpayers, who are not implicated in colonial-era history. There is a disconnection on the benefit side, in that the reparations for wrongs inflicted on historical people go to their descendants. This is also true on the payment side of the equation. The reparations could not be funded from the direct profits of exploitation, as that was spent long ago (indeed, some historians believe countries such as Britain actually spent more on their colonial possessions than they received in return). Instead, they would need to be funded by taxation levied on today’s taxpayers in developed countries. These people had nothing to do with colonial-era wrongs and no guilt for them, and so it is wrong to burden them with the obligation of payment.
Reparations represent a concern for the developing world independently of colonial-era wrongs. Even...
Reparations represent a concern for the developing world independently of colonial-era wrongs. Even alongside all of the colonialism-based arguments for reparations, we might argue that there are strong other justifications for reparations. The developed world in many cases recognises the dire poverty and social challenges faced by the developing world today. Yet simply giving aid as an act of charity can be embarrassing and demeaning, both for the donor and the recipient in different ways. A system of reparation can facilitate the same partial transfer of wealth from developed world to developing world, but in a way which is more sensitive to these concerns. It allows aid to be given to the developing world in a way which is dignified but not spurious.
Reparations are a form of neo-colonialism. For many of the reasons outlined above, it seems likely that if governments of former colonisers agreed to reparations programmes, they would do so only under certain fairly strict conditions. So they would make payments, but direct to whom, how and possibly the ways in which such payments could be used. This could clearly amount to a sort of socio-economic engineering tool. It would allow the donor government to exert some influence over policy areas within the recipient country. This has the hallmarks of the very colonialism for which the reparations are supposed to atone.
What do you think?