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Reparations Are an International Solution

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Dear Source:
We would like to offer another point of view in the public debate over the meaning of reparations and significance of Virgin Islanders' efforts to negotiate a reparations agreement with Denmark. To say that the past has nothing to do with the present, and that the issue of reparations for slavery is an issue that lacks current relevance in the face of other problems in the USVI, is to ignore the reality of race, class, and cultural divides in the islands. Slavery ended in what is now the USVI in 1848: the great grandparents of some still alive today were enslaved. Danish rule and the enslaved status of many meant that when slavery ended the majority of island residents lived as artisan farmers and fishers on someone else's land and only some had the means to acquire land, let alone political power. The Danes sold the Virgin Islands colony, with all its peoples, to the United States in 1917, and because of this legacy of slavery the majority of VI inhabitants had no say in the exchange, and they had little power or authority in island affairs for many decades to come. This history profoundly affects the social strata of today's island society.
We see the efforts to build a negotiated reparations settlement between Denmark and the USVI as an effort to honestly and openly examine how slavery affected the past and how these effects shape the present. In the USVI, as in the broader diaspora, the most prevalent legacies of slavery are poverty and the social exclusion that extends across the decades and centuries. In pursuing reparations, the African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance and the Danish Institute for Human Rights are seeking the legal mandates, building public arenas, and helping to identify the means to allow people to truly make peace with this painful past. In pursuing reparations, Virgin Islanders are joining a global community of people — South Africans, Guatemalans, Peruvians, Argentineans, and many, many other peoples – who are involved in social dialogue and political processes that attempt to come to terms with and reconcile their history of violence, slavery, genocide and other gross violations of human rights. In all of these reparation efforts, the primary goal in such struggle is to examine the many meanings and consequences of historical injustice in ways that allow acknowledgment, apology, education, redress, and legal actions that insure "never again."
To address the question raised by Paul Devine about what reparations actually mean, we offer the definition used by the United Nations as adopted in their April 2005 guidelines for reparations and the right to remedy. Under international law the right to remedy for gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law supersedes sovereign right. This means that people have the right to seek recourse when their state is the perpetrator of crimes against humanity, and in this context, other nations have the right to intervene in the sovereign affairs of another state. Victims, and their families, have the right to pursue remedy and they do so through the social and political mechanism of reparation. Reparation is defined by the UN as including restitution, compensation or indemnity, rehabilitation, and satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. Restitution seeks to restore to the victim or surviving family their liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship; and, allows the return to one's place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property. Compensation refers to economic payment for any assessable damage resulting from human rights violations including physical and mental harm, and the related material and moral damages. Rehabilitation includes providing legal, medical, psychological, and social services and care. Satisfaction includes measures that halt continuing violations; establish judicial mechanisms (e.g., truth and reconciliation commissions) that verify facts and provide full and public disclosure of the truth; search for the missing and identify and rebury the dead in culturally appropriate ways; and, official declarations or judicial decisions that restore the dignity, reputation, and legal rights of the victim and persons connected with the victim — public apology and acceptance of responsibility, judicial sanctions against responsible parties, and commemorations and tributes to the victims. Guarantees of non-repetition include measures and government actions that ensure "never again" — effective control over the military and security forces; establishment of a viable, rights- protective, independent judiciary where proceedings can occur with due process, fairness and impartiality; establishment of political climate that protects human rights defenders; establishment of measures and mechanisms that ensure public servants promote and observe codes of conduct, ethical norms, and international human rights standards; mechanisms for preventing and monitoring social conflicts and their resolution; and, the review and reform of laws that contributed or allowed the gross violation of international human rights laws.
The point of all this detail: many people hear the term reparations and they assume that it simply means economic compensation. As both a legal and social construct, the term means much more. Reparation is both a plan for peace and process that allows wounds to heal. Reparation, in its idealized form, refers to those social, political, and economic actions, mechanisms, and processes that allow for meaningful remedy in all its forms, and thus the restoration of human dignity. In these days and in these times, where it is far too easy to make war, efforts to build meaningful and lasting peace through reparations are admittedly difficult, yet urgently needed.
Barbara Rose Johnston and Crystal Fortwangler
California and Michigan

Editor's note: Fortwangler is a cultural anthropologist finishing her dissertation at the University of Michigan. Johnston is the senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to [email protected].

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