18 July 2017

‘Formal apologies for slavery only if it doesn’t cost anything’

Caribbean Network


Pieter Hofmann

AMSTERDAM – As the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery is observed, the discussion on dealing with this highly sensitive subject continues. At the United Nations Summit in 2001, the Dutch government expressed regret for the actions of the colony in the past.

According to activist Leroy Lucas the Netherlands must extend formal apologizes. Expressing regret and a formal apology are two different things, says writer and jurist Kenneth Manusama. “The difference is that with the Netherlands only expressing regret it cannot be penalized.”

Formal apologies are an upside to legal liability. This can trigger a flow of litigation. Lucas finds this a good step. “As a civilized country this is not unusual.”

However, the legal path to recovery payments is complex. The crime should’ve been punishable during the time it was committed. Manusama: “The abolition of slavery happened in 1870. So for a long time it was unclear whether the slave trade and slavery was legal or not.”

Grey area

Manusama speaks of a legal grey area. In the second half of the 19th century slavery was abolished through legislation in various countries. It was not until 1890 that a treaty prohibited slavery under international law.

However, according to Lucas the trans-Atlantic Slavery was recognized as a crime against humanity at the United Nations Summit in 2001. “The UN states: at that time it was immoral and punishable.”

The Dutch government is afraid of claims for damages and prefers to remain silent. An ordinary money issue? Manusama: “Yes. They try to avoid legal risk. As soon as the Netherlands with all its legal experts, believe that there is no legal implications for a claim for damages, they offer formal apologies. Because then it cost them nothing.”

Limit on recovery payments

The various calculations for recovery payments for the trans-Atlantic slavery vary widely. The material part of a claim for damages is usually easy to convey in amounts. Lucas mentions the 122-year repayment by Haiti as a price for independence from colonizer France. Manusama: “But in the case of intangible damage it becomes difficult. You have the chance that the judge decides on a symbolic amount and says: the state is responsible, but what consequences were related is too difficult to determine.”

Allocation of a mega sum seems unlikely Manusama thinks. According to him this is why it is better to invest in education, for example offer lessons on the colonial past in the curriculum and establish a slavery museum. “If you bet on things other than money, you may get progress.”

Not a priority
Historian Frank Dragtenstein mainly detects unwillingness and disinterest from the Dutch government. “I do not have the idea that it’s a priority, let alone compensation payments. I think, at first, that the African-Antillean-Surinamese community has to ensure the transfer of that history to their younger generations.” Lucas: “It’s not, or-or, but, and-and. Institutions such as a slavery museum must be created. But really too much mistakes were made in attempts for repayments.”