Reparations for Colonialism

Reparations for Colonialism

In the XX century contributions, or levies, paid by the defeated enemy to victors were substituted by reparations, or compensations, for the inflicted damage. In recent years some governments of the post-Soviet space have started to ask the Russian Federation to pay «compensations» as their territories were made parts of the USSR against their will. They say it was the period of «Soviet occupation». For instance, in September 2014 Lithuania formally claimed 300 billion euros to be paid by Russia. Naturally, such «reparation claims» are nothing else but a political demarche without any economic or legal substantiation. On the other hand, the issue of new reparations, such as the compensations for the damage inflicted on colonies, should be pushed more resolutely into international agenda. 


The Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order adopted by the UN General Assembly on May 1, 1974 was an important step on the way to recognition of colonial reparation claims.

The document was pushed under the pressure exerted by the Soviet Union and the Group of 77 (the Non-Aligned Movement), no matter the West opposed it. The Declaration says, «The right of all States, territories and peoples under foreign occupation, alien and colonial domination or apartheid to restitution and full compensation for the exploitation arid depletion of, and damages to, the natural resources and all other resources of those States, territories and peoples».

The new world order ensued after the Cold War and it happened to be quite different from what the UN Declaration of May 1, 1974 proclaimed. 

The existing economic order (which is sometimes called «globalization») has actually revived many forms of neocolonialism and colonialism. 

Today the issue of colonial reparations is back to the fore again. 

Africa presents a bill to compensate for slave trade


The First Pan-African Conference on Reparation, held in Abuja, Nigeria, April 27-29, 1993, kicked off a new round of fight for reparations in relation to the damage done to developing countries by colonialists. At the conference Jamaican lawyer Anthony Gifford argued that African slavery was a crime against humanity and international law recognizes that those who committed this crime and encroached on victims’ lives and freedom should compensate victims. As far back as 1991, the Organization of African Unity took a decision to create the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission. In 1999 the commission estimated that the United States and Europe had to pay Africa $777 thousand billion for slave trade only. Historians believe that about 11-12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the XV-XIX centuries. 

The damage was not limited by slave trade; there were other losses - from compulsory labor to the profits lost because there was no development of national economy. It was not included in the $777 trillion damage estimate. Of course, it’s unreal to pay the sum (it exceeded the world GDP in early 1990s by 20 times). But the international commission wanted to attract the public attention to the issue of colonial reparations. If needed, it was prepared to launch legal suits on the part of former colonies and semi-colonies and go to the International Court in The Hague and the courts of other countries. 

Private reparations for apartheid in South Africa

Some lawsuits have already been launched. The reparations received in accordance with the court decision could be called private reparations. They differ from state reparations. South Africa is the first among those who claim private reparations for colonialism. Its government encourages the activities of human rights organizations dealing with such matters. Khulumani is best known among them.

Banks and companies, not states, are defendants in such lawsuits. In the summer of 2002 Ed Fagan, a US-based renowned expert in the field of reparations lawsuits, launched $50 - billion dollar legal proceedings in Manhattan federal court, New York, against Switzerland's two largest banks - UBS and Credit Suisse. He acted to defend the rights of a group of South African apartheid victims. Ed Fagan had previously won a many-billion compensation for the victims of WWII. In 2002 South African human rights organizations launched lawsuits against the banks of Germany, France and Great Britain. The claims advanced in 2002 against a large number of companies were refused at first. In 2007 the US Court of Appeals examined the case again. In April 2009 the New York district court gave the permission to launch procedures on a number of complaints. South African President Jacob Zuma supported the apartheid victims. His predecessor Thabo Mbeki had been more restrained and kept at the distance from the plaintiffs. He believed that the problem could negatively affect the South African international image. 

On April 9, 2009 the New York federal court handed down a ruling which said, «US court allows apartheid claims to go forward». It said Khulumani could go to US courts to claim compensations from the international companies that helped the South African government at the time it repressed the black majority, or, in other words, was involved in human rights violations on the black continent. As a result, the lawsuits were launched against General Motors, IBM, Ford, Barclays, British Petroleum and Shell. According to plaintiffs’ lawyer Michael Hausfeld, the claims were also lodged against arms producers – German Rheinmetall, Swiss Oerlikon and Fujitsu, a Japanese computer company. Millions of South African blacks want multi-billion reparations to be paid by Western companies. Five years have passed since the US federal court’s ruling but none of South African claimants have received any indemnity so far. 

First success in the struggle for colonial reparations


Members of the Herero tribe in Namibia sued the German Government in 2001 seeking $4 billion reparations for genocide. At the times of colonial expansion in Х1Х-ХХ German troops almost exterminated the tribe to seize its lands. Chief Kuaima Riruako said his people wanted reparations for the bloodshed and cattle taken away. He called on German people to press its government and make it pay it the reparations. 13 have passed since then. The Namibian plaintiffs got nothing from Germany. 

For many years Germany has been paying compensations to the victims of Holocaust on a regular basis voluntarily – no court rulings. A number of German organizations deal with the issues related to the compensations to holocaust victims, including the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, or Claims Conference. In 1951 the Association got $70 billion from the German government. According to the group’s information, it is to pay $185 billion in 2014, $266 billion in 2015, $273 in 2016 and $280 in 2018. 

The lawsuit launched by the veterans of Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950-60s deserves special attention. Acting upon the orders from London the British military and special services killed, maimed, jailed and tortured over 200 thousand people. 

In 2007 the litigation suit was launched at the high court in central London. The Kenyans wanted the UK government to pay them £59, 75 for the atrocities committed by British troops sent to quell the uprising. The veterans of liberation movement were resolute. They said in case of refusal they would go to the International Court in The Hague. Leigh Day issued a claim on behalf of the plaintiffs. In June 2013 the case ended up in an out-of-court settlement of about £19, 9 million pounds (23, 04 million euros). The ruling can be considered as a success though the money is only a third of the sum wanted by claimants. 

This is a precedent that made the West panic and inspired the developing countries to continue their fight for colonial reparations.

Tags: UN  Germany  South Africa  US