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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
The vexed question of paying for slavery
By Alex Kleiderman
BBC News Online business reporter

Slave gang
Punishing the perpetrators' great-great-grandchildren won't be easy
It seems blindingly clear to most people that the slave trade - which saw millions transplanted from Africa to the United States and elsewhere - was a gross injustice.

But it is becoming equally clear that arranging any meaningful sort of compensation is close to impossible.

As events are held worldwide to mark the abolition of the slave trade, the question of reparations remains a complex and difficult issue.

And despite repeated attempts, no one has yet been able to persuade a court that descendants of slaves deserve to be compensated by the companies that profited from the trade.

This is despite widespread agreement about compensation to victims of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as other high-profile cases of genocide and abuse.

'Unjustly enriched'

Ed Fagan, a US lawyer who acted for descendants of the victims of the Nazi death camps, and who sued some of the world's biggest corporations over apartheid, has spearheaded many of the cases.

A class action filed in April 2002 combined smaller suits from courts around the US as part of a movement calling for millions of dollars in reparations for slavery from 18 companies, including railroads, insurers banks and cigarette makers.

It alleged present-day companies and their predecessors, were "unjustly enriched through profits earned either directly or indirectly from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery between 1619 and 1865, as well as post-Emancipation slavery through the 1960s".

FleetBoston, CSX Corporation, Aetna, Union Pacific Railroad, RJ Reynolds Tobacco and Lehman Brothers were among the companies named in the case.

But in January, a US judge dismissed the lawsuit.

"It is beyond debate that slavery has caused tremendous suffering and ineliminable scars throughout our nation's history," Judge Charles R Norgle said in his ruling.

But he said the plaintiffs had failed to establish a clear link between themselves and the companies.

Going after the moneymen

In March this year, Mr Fagan announced a case against Lloyd's, the London insurance market, and two other companies would be filed at a New York court.

Ed Fagan
Mr Fagan has made a speciality of chasing human-rights offenders
A group of descendants claimed the underwriters were liable to pay compensation because they provided insurance cover for ships used to transport millions of slaves to plantations in America.

Seven plaintiffs said they had proof though their DNA that they are related to particular slaves insured.

They added the contenentious point that they continue to suffer.

Lloyd's spokeswoman Melanie Batley told BBC News Online that the allegations in the case were unknown as the company's lawyers were not aware of the exact details, but that it appeared to have fizzled out already.

"The plaintiffs went to court to bring a case in March but we were not officially served papers," she said.

"Before it got any more formalised we were notified in June that they had all voluntarily dismissed it."

Opposite poles

The opposing arguments are starkly differentiated.

Plaintiffs point out that slavery was an unarguable moral wrong, and one that profited companies still in existence.

Worse, they say, it created an atmosphere within which blacks were second-class citizens even long after emancipation, leading to modern-day racism that makes present-day Africans victims of the slave trade.

On the other side, lawyers worry that the sheer length of time since the events makes compensation meaningless: proving entitlement is complicated; proving the continuing guilt of companies is equally slippery.

Hazier philosophical arguments are also deployed: since African-Americans are generally wealthier and healthier than their counterparts in Africa, can they really be said to have suffered because their ancestors were forced to the US?

So far, courts have opted for the easiest way out, dismissing lawsuits and avoiding the complexities of reckoning entitlement.

In the meantime, most reparations protesters have shifted their ground, focusing on piling political and consumer pressure on companies, rather than challenging them through the courts.

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