The Accra Summit and reparations for historical and contemporary racial violence
In this post, Liliane Umubyeyi, co-founder of the African Futures Lab, highlights the importance of the Accra summit, which took place in August 2022, as an anchor for an Afrocentric dynamic of reparations for slavery and colonialism. A dynamic that puts the claims of victims of historical and contemporary racial violence back at the centre and goes beyond purely symbolic actions.
In August 2022 in Accra, under the aegis of the African Union, the Africa Transitional Justice Legacy Fund and several non-governmental organisations, attended the first major conference in Africa on reparations since the Black Lives Matter protests were organised. It brought together policy makers, activists, researchers, diplomats and journalists from different countries on the African continent as well as from diasporas in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.
Organised in the wake of the Abuja conference in 1993 and the Durban conference in 2001, this event singularly reframes the debate on reparations for colonial violence and slavery, offering a new perspective and departing from the one that had been dominant in Europe until now. Since 2020, a number of initiatives have been launched to question the role of certain contexts in perpetuating historical racial violence, ranging from the public space to the revision of school curricula and the restitution of art works. However, all these initiatives have the common feature of being partial and biased, and of being developed whilst simultaneously marginalising the voices of the populations and states that were victims of slavery and colonial violence, and that are still suffering from its consequences. The Accra Summit takes the opposite view and opens up more ambitious perspectives.
The partial and biased nature of European initiatives is illustrated by several cases. For example, on 30 June 2020, the King of the Belgians expressed his regrets for the colonial crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These regrets were renewed on 8 June 2022 before the Congolese government and people. Similarly, the Dutch Prime Minister apologised for the crimes of slavery to the states and peoples who were victims of those crimes. In both of these contexts, the expression of regret and apology took no account of the participation of the peoples and states involved in the process. It was a unilaterally decreed process.
The same observation could be made with regard to the recent mechanisms adopted by states such as France and Belgium to deal with their colonial pasts. Indeed, in July 2020, Belgium established a Special Commission to examine its colonial past in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, which ended in abject failure due to the refusal of some parliamentarians to apologise for colonial crimes. For his part, President Emmanuel Macron declared on 25 August 2022 the creation of a commission of French and Algerian historians to study France’s colonial past, from the beginning of colonisation to the war of liberation in Algeria. Each of these two mechanisms aims to address the colonial past through the work of history and memory, disarticulated from a real work of justice that would aim not only to identify legal responsibilities but also to allow populations and states to have access to that justice.
Furthermore, the same unilateral nature of initiatives are observed in the restitution processes of cultural heritage of African states. In each of the states where such actions have been undertaken, the number of works of art, the conditions under which they are returned, the rate at which they are returned, all these elements are decided through legislative instruments and commissions decided unilaterally by the Europeans and on the basis of their goodwill.
The Accra Summit distanced itself from this Eurocentric perspective of reparations and put African actors back at the heart of the process. They will no longer be confined to the role of spectators who are occasionally invited to give their opinion. African civil society members, researchers, and heads of state are actors who will formulate their own expectations. Furthermore, this summit puts more structural issues such as the rebuilding of governance systems and international solidarity systems at the heart of the debate on reparations. In this sense, the Accra summit moves the reparations debate beyond simple actions of restitution of cultural heritage or human remains to more ambitious actions.
Another major challenge of the Accra conference is to make the issue of reparations a priority for a supranational body such as the African Union. This supranationalisation aims to free the issue of reparations from any bilateral relations between former slave-owning and colonial powers and their former colonies. It would therefore no longer be a dialogue between France and Algeria, or Belgium and the DRC, with all the political dealings that may emerge, but a discussion conducted at a transnational level. This could increase the power of action of states seeking reparations.
While this summit lays a solid foundation for a continent-wide reparations process, it also highlights the urgent need for more efforts to be made to ensure that states and peoples of the continent and the diasporas of African descent work together to address their demands. To do so, it seems necessary to mobilise them more around the issue of restorative justice. Indeed, very often the political and socio-economic situation of the former colonised states in Africa is dehistoricised, by attributing responsibility for contemporary problems and dysfunctions to the governments established after independence. The historical discontinuity created by this reading distracts people from the need to engage in the struggle for justice for the violence of slavery and colonialism, and its contemporary manifestations. However, the mobilisation of the greatest number of people could put pressure on the heads of state so that there is coordinated action between citizens, civil societies and governments to demand justice.
Another central issue discussed at the Accra conference is to bring about a common agenda of concrete actions in which the populations of the continent and the diasporas can converge without erasing the singularities of each social and geographical context. Opponents of reparations for racial violence very often insist on the particularities of different experiences and contexts. One often hears the warning that the racial experience of black Americans is different from that of African diasporas in Europe or that the situation of the latter is different from that of Africans on the continent. While the particularities of their experiences cannot be denied, vigilance is needed to ensure that this argument of difference is not constantly used to disqualify any or all demands for justice.
While the Accra summit offers an Afro-centric space with ambitious aims to discuss the issue of reparations, it also invites European states to review their initiatives addressing their colonial past. It is an invitation to begin processes of justice based on the claims expressed by the populations and states, the victims of historical and contemporary racial violence. It is also an invitation to go beyond mere symbolic actions such as the return of a single person’s tooth, however famous, but to consider the mass violence perpetrated on populations and its contemporary consequences. It is an invitation to rethink how contemporary systems of state and multilateral governance maintain inequalities between Northern and Southern states.
It is an invitation to truly do justice.
Liliane Umubyeyi is a researcher and practitioner in the field of rule of law and access to justice. Prior to founding the Afican Futures Lab, Liliane worked in the field of international development (United Nations, Avocats Sans Frontières, American Bar Association, ICTJ) on projects concerning access to justice for marginalised groups, transitional justice and gender justice. She holds a PhD in social sciences from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan (France) and a PhD in law from the Université Saint Louis Bruxelles (Belgium). Her thesis focused on the mobilisation of victims of apartheid in South African and American courts.