- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

African governments are preparing to demand reparations for slavery from Western nations, while doing little to assist the current victims of the slave trade within their very borders. The African Group, which consists of 53 members, recently submitted a proposal to a U.N. committee, referring to slavery as "a crime against humanity" and demanding compensation from former colonial powers. Advocates of reparations insist that the West acquired its prosperity in part by stealing resources from the African continent. These proponents maintain that slavery resulted in lasting damage to African nations, including their large burden of foreign debt. Supporters of reparations also believe that such debts should be forgiven to make amends for previous injustices.

The proposal was submitted in U.N. preparatory meetings for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which is scheduled to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8. In light of this increasing movement for compensation, Western governments are threatening to downgrade their presence at the upcoming conference. Western nations fear that to accept the principle of reparations for a practice which ended over 135 years ago will lead to an endless stream of lawsuits.

However, instead of trying to evade the issue, the West should embrace it. That is, if African states want to open a dialogue on slavery, this should be encouraged. The West can use this opportunity to cast an international spotlight on the current practice of slavery which still rears its ugly head in West and Central Africa, and in Sudan.

In late March and early April, as a result of the disappearance and recovery of the Nigerian-registered ship, the Etireno, news reports abounded with information on the horrifying traffic in child slaves which still plagues Africa. Children are taken from poor nations such as Benin, Togo, Mauritania and Mali, and are used and abused as domestic servants or plantation workers in wealthier nations such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Gabon. UNICEF estimates that approximately 200,000 children are sold into slavery every year. Furthermore, slavery and genocide are regular features of the war in Sudan.

All the shocking facts regarding the current practices of slavery in Africa ought to be at the forefront of any debate on reparations. Instead of pointing an accusatory finger at the West for past crimes, African leaders must demonstrate their horror of slavery by doing all they can to stop the vicious "crimes against humanity" which are daily features of the lives of some of their citizens.

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