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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Should Europe apologise for slavery?
European countries are split on whether to apologise for the transatlantic slave trade at the United Nations summit on racism being held in South Africa.

Britain and other countries such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands fear that an apology would put them into unchartered territory in terms of international law.

The question of reparations for slavery has been among the most divisive issues at the Conference on Racism in Durban.

Some African countries and many black American groups say countries that traded in slaves should pay reparations.

Do you feel that Britain and other EU countries should apologise for slavery? Or would such a move create more complications?

Click here to read your previous comments on the UN World Conference Against Racism

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

I believe in "better late than never". Yes, I think that England and other EU Countries should apologise. EU countries make wars for humanity (as they claim) and they are trying to stop killings and make sure that human rights are being met everywhere in this world (as they again claim). I believe that those excuses they use, would be more realistic and people would believe them if England and other countries apologise for their mistakes against human rights and humanity in general.
Stavros, Cyprus

Great Britain was the first nation to abolish slavery, we abolished slavery across the then Empire and yet we still somehow racist simply because we haven't apologised for a business we made illegal? I think Rev Jackson is more than a tad confused on this issue.
Karl Peters, UK

They are enjoying the fruits of slave trade

Alphonse Otieno, Kenya
Yes, it is true that some Africans were involved in slavery. But, they did this because there was a market in Europe and the Americas. European countries must be held responsible. While Africa is languishing in squalor, which can be traced to slave trade, the metropolitan West is wallowing in riches directly linked to slave trade. Even though the present European countries are innocent, the truth is, they are enjoying the fruits of slave trade. They should, therefore, apologise on behalf of their forefathers, and more importantly, compensate the countries that were victims of the slave trade
Alphonse Otieno, Kenya

I'm afraid the demands for an apology and reparations by the African nations appears to be little more than assertive begging. Africa's problems today are caused by Africans not Americans or Europeans and what they did 150 years ago. Also at what point does it stop as shown by Nambia's suggestion that South Africa should pay them reparations. I'm also afraid that the people trying to draw parallels with the reparations for the slave workers of Nazi Germany failed to note that this is only being paid to living ex-slaves and I would please ask them to find any living ex-slaves of the colonial era. In fact the only countries that appear to still foster a form of slavery are in Africa and the Middle East.
Cliff Adams, South Africa

Why is the world going through this soul searching, agonising and apologising about what happened NOT last week, NOT last month, NOT last year, NOT even last century! Surely there are far more important issues to discuss, debate and find solutions for. Please get a grip with reality and concentrate on present day problems like Aids.
J.H.Miller, Scotland

Those involved in the slave trade should certainly apologise. The tricky bit is that it was abolished in 1807 (and slavery itself was abolished throughout the Empire shortly thereafter), so they're all long dead. An honourable man cannot apologise for something he hasn't done, and so we should not apologise for the slave trade or for slavery. We should express our regret that it happened, and make clear that we believe in the position of those of our forebears who stamped out this vile practice (much to the displeasure of African tribal chieftains, I might add), and not of those who, regrettably, participated in it.
T. Reynolds, USA

If anyone is asked to apologise for slavery in Africa, then it should be the Africans themselves as well as the European countries which greatly participated in it.
Keni, Kenya

Slavery, by any moral standard, is insupportable. Those who participated in it acted immorally. Those Governments which did not stop the trade have a culpability, but in the main this was individual or corporate action. The individuals and almost all the companies are defunct. I think the boat has left the harbour in terms of reparations.
Thom, Scotland

I do not see why the UK should be alone in this

David, UK
Apologising in retrospect might be acceptable, but then the government may fall foul of the growing compensation culture that seems to be appearing lately. I do not see why the UK should be alone in this, and to expect the country to pay out compensation is ridiculous.
David, UK

I guess it is far more than trading in human beings merely for corporate benefits and the so-called "progress". What happened 200 years ago and at the time of the Romans, and of the Spaniards, was simply that a loathsome mentality believed one human being was different from another just because his or her skin was a different colour. Regrettably this has not changed a bit today either.
Marco Rossi, Italy

An apology will not heal the wounds, because it happened long ago. Instead individual governments should improve the lives of those affected through other means. For instance the Affirmative Action programme in the US has enabled minorities get good education and access good jobs thus creating a new middle class of the disadvantaged. African countries need to be given special attention to their needs. Primary products should be purchased at competitive prices, and joint ventures with progressive enterprises. Low interest loans to nations that have reformed their economies and those willing to improve on living conditions, could help more than just an apology.
Namara, Canada

It is basically the principle that no human being should be controlled by another

Kkiyer, India
It is not whether it is Europe or Asia. It is basically the principle that no human being should be controlled by another. Let us try to live a civilised life and not a barbaric one. If anyone has done wrong, an apology goes a long way to patch things up.
Kkiyer, India

Everybody who was involved in the slave trade should apologise. That includes countries of Africa, America, Arabia and Europe. If compensation is ever to be paid, it should go to the victims - Afro Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. Also America/ Europe did not start the slave trade - they purchased the slaves from African traders who had been supplying slaves and eunuchs for hundreds of years to Arabia.
Jason, London, UK

I do feel that some sort of apology would be appropriate

John Hopper, UK
This is a tricky area and, of course, it is not possible to be totally consistent. However, in view of the horrendous lives suffered by slaves in, for example, sugar plantations in the Caribbean, I do feel that some sort of apology would be appropriate. Of course other civilisations in other continents practiced slavery as well though generally over a smaller area and with arguably less long term effect, though it is terrible anywhere and there is no excuse. Reparation is a much more difficult matter, though I do feel some sort of token financial payment would be appropriate. Finally, those who say no one should apologise because not everyone can or would, should remember how the former WWII allies have (rightly) pressed Japan to apologise for their wartime atrocities and to offer some financial compensation.
John Hopper, UK

Not to apologise but to consider what happened in the past to plan better the feature - and we have many opportunities to apologise by acting properly - not by words only.
Dimitris, Greece

An apology is pointless and its absence does not - despite Jesse Jackson's simplistic rhetoric - mean that Europeans are racist or do not believe slavery was and is wrong. The very fact that that slavery was outlawed in England in the late 18th century and in the then Empire by 1832 demonstrates that a sizeable body of opinion in this country has long recognised the disgusting nature of slavery. All countries can find evidence of slavery in their past (many even allow it tacitly in their present - and not just due to pressure from multinational corporations either) and arguing over who should or should not say sorry is not going to help. What we need now for Africa is a workable development program and an answer to the many problems of the continent. Apologies and indiscriminate claims for "reparations" will not achieve those goals.
Martin Searle, Thailand

We have stripped countries of their wealth and then complained when they have asked for our help to feed their children

Julie Toyne, England
Within this country we have all benefited from the slave trade and continue to benefit each and every day. Tea, cotton sugar, coffee gold diamonds, etc. We have stripped countries of their wealth and then complained when they have asked for our help to feed their children. We are a very wealthy country, but to say sorry what would it mean. No amount of money can compensate a country or its people. Why not cancel Third World debt, give the people back there wealth from the museums in this country and accept that we now live in a world which is very different form 200 or 300 years ago.
Julie Toyne, England

Of course we should apologise. Refusing to do so perpetuates our treatment of these African people and their families as sub-humans. European companies made huge profits by kidnapping these people and trading them as labour commodities. Of course we should pay reparations just as we rightly expect Swiss banks to pay money stolen from Jewish victims of the holocaust back to the victims' families. Was slavery any less of a holocaust in its day?
Ronnie Smith, Scotland

Express apology for the past - yes. Reparations - No. Debt cancelling - yes. Investment yes, as well as a commitment to assisting each state to autonomy and independence. For my part, I'm wondering when England will apologise for what it has done in Ireland.
Jem Fogarty, France

Apologise: of course not. Recognise evil and strive to challenge it where it exists today: of course.
Keith Feetham, England

Another example of sloppy shoulder syndrome, whereby an individual, company or government will go to any lengths to avoid admitting liability for anything which might result in legal action to obtain compensation, resulting in weasel words including "regret." Frankly, a little refreshing truth, honesty and integrity in accepting blame for the slave trade matters far more than financial reparations. Whatever the implications, the guilty parties should admit their blame now.
Andy Millward, UK

I presume that African countries involved in the slave trade should also apologise and pay reparations. African countries had long been involved in the buying and selling of slaves before the Europeans arrived. We just exploited a situation that was already happening, except we could afford to buy large numbers of slaves.

If reparations were payable, who do we pay them to? The West Indies and Black Americans? Yes, slavery happened and we should regret our past misdemeanours, but this generation of Europeans did not participate in this evil trade.
John Allen, UK

Definitely not, unless we can claim compensation from the Italians for all the slaves taken from Britain during the Roman occupation.
Tulse Lupor, UK

No, they should not apologise. Yes, by today's standards, slavery was terrible, but when and where do we draw the line? Should the Spanish say sorry for colonising South America. Should Scandinavians (Vikings) apologise for rampaging through England, France etc. Should the Italians (Romans) apologise for conquering Europe and the Middle East.

Too many conflicts are looking back to (distant) past events and seeking vengeance. We must understand and learn from the past but look forward, and work together, to make a better future for all.
Paul H, NL

By apologising, the EU countries will effectively be taking responsibility for the trade. With responsibility will come blame and, surely, requests for compensation payments from Africa and Black America. This is the only fair way of recognising that some of the economic development that Europe has benefited from duing the previous century, was partly down to the people of Africa/America.
Paul Waters, United Kingdom

Surely we have to see this from the historical context

Mike, UK
Whilst the slave trade was certainly regrettable and wrong, surely we have to see this from the historical context. Why should the UK government apologise for (and potentially pay reparations for) something that the people and government in the UK had no role in, as it happened 250 years ago? Historically the UK was key in abolishing the slavery trade (if in doubt watch the film Amistad). Where do you draw a historical line? Should Italy apologise for the Roman empire and the slavery and brutality associated with that? Should the UK apologise to Israel, Turkey and Syria for the crusades? Should Austria and Hungary apologise for the Habsburg empire? Should the US apologise to Cuba and the Philippines? It's ridiculous.
Mike, UK

In principle, of course we should apologise. If we don't we'll be seen to be happily racist and exploitative, as suggested by Jesse Jackson (though I don't believe we are). But then, reparations could cripple us. What's that phrase about the sins of the father?
Jim, Scotland

Why should anyone alive today apologise for what people did hundreds of years ago? Also there were far more black Africans involved in the slave trade than white Europeans and they made fortunes from it as well. If we are ever to be rid of racism, we need to move on from what our ancestors did and work together for the future - this issue is holding back progress and is counterproductive in stopping racism.
Chris Alty, UK

Slavery is going on even now

Mosamba, Africa
Slavery is going on even now, but nothing can be done because all western governments and multi-national corporations allow this to happen. The only reason you do not hear this, is because they do not want you to. Many western corporations use slaves from other countries - India, Africa and other poor 3rd world lands to boost profits.. yes another case of profits before people. But no, you never hear of this. All of a sudden the word 'Hypocrites' attaches itself to the UN world conference.
Mosamba, Africa

Slavery was and is wrong. It will always be so. However, to make it a crime solely attributed to Europeans/Americans is also wrong. Slavery was alive and well in Africa long before the Europeans got there. It is estimated that over a million slaves had been sold by African tribes to the middle east before the first Europeans joined in the practice. The Europeans were accomplices, but many Africans were just as guilty.
Robert Jarvis, Finland

The slave trade was just that - trade - with sellers in Africa as well as purchasers from Europe and many parts of the Americas. The UK realised the moral wrong of slavery nearly 200 years ago, made it illegal and tried to stop it. Therefore the UK government has no reason to apologise for actions of private individuals and not the government's. Slavery is still widespread in Africa and Asia. Politicians should right current wrongs and not be sidetracked into long-past grievances.
Chris Slade, UK

See also:

03 Sep 01 | UK Politics
UK challenged over slavery
03 Sep 01 | Africa
Slavery row divides Europe
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