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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Compensation for slavery
The spotlight is back on slavery
The spotlight is back on slavery

By the BBC's Jon Silverman

For many, the prospect of a court awarding compensation for the pain and misery inflicted by the slave trade is yet more evidence of our "compensation culture" gone crazy.

Yet, the use of the law to right the political and social wrongs of the past has become well-established in the last decade - and may provide a useful precedent for campaigners.

The Holocaust was a unique part of world history, and I don't think it indicates a trend

Nancy Sher Cohen, lawyer
The United States, where a $300bn compensation claim has been launched on behalf of black American groups, pointed the way as long ago as 1987, when Congress voted to award $1.2bn to Japanese-Americans who were interned in camps during World War II.

In the 1990s, the issue of historical restitution gained momentum with a series of lawsuits related to the Nazi Holocaust.

They resulted in damages being awarded against European banks and businesses over looted property, unpaid insurance benefits and forced labour.

US influence

There are many reasons why these actions resulted in multi-million dollar payouts, but one is undoubtedly the fear among Swiss banks and German businesses that they could be frozen out of the most lucrative market in the world - the United States - if they didn't settle.

Concentration camp
Holocaust slave labourers have received limited compensation
According to New York attorney and law professor Bert Neuborne, the defendants "understood that if they wanted to be major players in the US, they had to make compromises".

This has led some to speculate that the financial muscle of the black community in the United States could provide the leverage for similar success in relation to the slave trade.

Economists are already sifting through state and federal tax records to determine how much of US wealth was generated by slave labour. Estimates are in the region of 10 to 20%.

Holocaust was 'unique'

But some attorneys, like Nancy Sher Cohen - who has fought Holocaust-era insurance claims - believe that such litigation cannot be a blueprint for righting other wrongs.

"The Holocaust was a unique part of world history," she says, "and I don't think it indicates a trend."

A delegate with flags at the UN conference
Slavery has been a major issue at the UN racism conference
The UK courts have traditionally been more conservative than those in the US, and despite a current case at the High Court relating to army ordnance left in Kenya since the 1950s, few lawyers on this side of the Atlantic would predict success for a claim dating back to the slave trade, which was formally abolished in 1833.

Given the international nature of the trade, the issue of reparations should be heard by an international tribunal.

But though one exists for dealing with disputes between states - the International Court of Justice in the Hague - there is, as yet, no forum which would allow civil claims by interest groups, or ethnic minorities, from being resolved.

See also:

03 Sep 01 | Africa
US abandons racism summit
03 Sep 01 | Africa
Slavery row divides Europe
03 Sep 01 | UK Politics
UK challenged over slavery
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