Overdue Debts: Is there a statute of limitations on paying for crimes against humanity?

The ticking clock on reparations for war crimes and slavery

In a war filled with atrocious acts of barbarity, the assault on the Greek village of Distomo stands out as particularly horrific. On June 10, 1944, less than a week after the Allied D-Day landings, in retaliation for a partisan attack, German SS troops systematically wiped out the village. According to eyewitness accounts, the German soldiers bayoneted babies in their cribs, stabbed pregnant women, and beheaded the village priest. More than 200 men, women, and children were murdered that day. One young survivor, four-year-old Argyris Sfountouris, lost his parents, his house, and more than 30 other members of his family in the attack.

But despite happening more than 70 years ago, the attack is part of current news headlines. While Germany leads the charge for Greece to make ever tighter “austerity measures” to repay its debt, Greece has started asking Germany to do the same. Specifically in the form of nearly $400 billion in reparations payments Greece claims the Germans owe for various war crimes. Sadly, human history is rife with horrific acts one group of people willingly bestows upon another. But as time passes, is it possible for the victims to be repaid?

In North America, arguably the greatest unsettled historic grievance is the plight of black Americans under slavery, and the ongoing ramifications of racial injustice. (The continent’s various native communities would have a valid argument of their own, but that would require a whole other treatise.) Millions of Africans and their ancestors were enslaved in the U.S. over a 250-year period that officially ended with the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War.

The primary argument against any call for reparations of a historic crime against humanity is that the past is the past; it happened so long ago and all the direct victims are usually long-since deceased.

“If the effects of slavery had ended [in 1865], that might be an argument. But the injury is continuing,” says Adjoa Aiyetoro, a renowned human rights attorney and associate law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “There are ongoing repercussions. While not technically in chains, we do know that the vestiges of slavery have resulted in a lower quality of life for [African Americans].”

The end of the Civil War gave way to “Jim Crow laws,” lynch mobs, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, followed by horrific scenes from the civil rights movement to today, where black men and women earn less than their white counterparts but make up staggeringly disproportionate percentages of the country’s prison population (when they’re not being gunned down in the streets).

A recent poll commissioned by PBS found that 76 percent of black Americans don’t feel they get the same opportunities for employment as whites and 87 percent don’t feel that they get equal justice from the legal system. (In both cases, a little less than half of white respondents agreed.)

When it comes to crimes on the scale of genocide, “They say time heals. But it’s actually the opposite in fact,” says Henry Theriault, chair of the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group (AGRSG). He cites the current plight of natives 500 years after Europeans arrived and started taking land. “They’re the poorest of the poor.

If [the issue is] never addressed, as every year passes it makes things worse.”

“It’s huge. It’s equal to the U.S. GDP.”

Between 1915 and 1923, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the then fledgling government in Turkey. Armenian land and property were seized, and most survivors were scattered in a global diaspora. Yet, outside the Armenian community, the Armenian genocide is largely unknown, in no small part because the Turkish government continues, to this day, to deny much of what happened, and reject any pleas for redress.

With the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide approaching in 2015, the AGRSG was formed to study precedents for repayment. The group’s final report calls for a “comprehensive reparations package” that includes the return of church and private property and, at the high end, as much as $100-trillion U.S. in financial compensation for lives lost and the ongoing legacy of the assault.

In 1989, U.S. Congressman John Conyers, Jr., introduced Bill H.R. 40, “The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” (The 40 is a nod to the infamous “40 acres and a mule” that freed slaves were told they’d receive during the waning days of the Civil War.) The bill doesn’t specifically call for reparations, but rather asks the government to acknowledge the injustice of slavery in the U.S., strike a commission to look at the lasting impacts, and explore “appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.”

Slaves Waiting for Sale - Richmond, Virginia (1861) by Eyre Crowe

Still, the bill failed to pass Congress then, and has failed to do so every new sitting of Congress since then. Yet Conyers is undeterred, proclaiming on his website that “I have re-introduced H.R. 40 every Congress since 1989, and will continue to do so until it’s passed into law.”

Support for slavery reparations has come from even the most unlikely of sources. Writing in a 1990 article for Time magazine, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, “It is time for a historic compromise: a monetary reparation to blacks for centuries of oppression… [a] one-time cash payment…[that] should be more than merely symbolic. Say, $100,000 for every family of four.” But his counter argument was that this payment should then lead to the abolishment of any forms of affirmative action, which he feels unfairly disadvantages whites.

In a paper that looked at various different estimates of the value of the unpaid slave labour alone (i.e. not accounting for any compensation for the murder and physical abuse slaves suffered at their hands of their owners), Thomas Craemer, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, calculated that with compounded interest and at a three percent interest rate, the tally in 2015 U.S. dollars ranges anywhere from $6.5-trillion to more than $15.7 trillion. “It’s huge,” admits Craemer. “It’s equal to the U.S. GDP.”   

Yet there are numerous precedents for making reparations payments decades—even centuries—after the original crime was perpetrated.

In researching his paper, “Estimating Slavery Reparations,” Craemer found at least two applicable case studies where payments were made more than 100 years after the fact. In one, the U.S. government demanded—and received—payment for French “spoliation” of ships during the Revolutionary War. The other, bizarrely enough, occurred when Haiti was forced to repay French slaveowners for their lost property in the wake of Haitian independence in 1804. (In 1915, 80 percent of Haiti’s government expenditures went towards paying that debt.)

“But what about us? They deserve it, and so do we.”

In January 1923, a white mob ransacked the small African American town of Rosewood, Fla., destroying homes and killing at least six residents. More than 70 years later, in 1994, the Florida State Legislature set aside a $2-million compensation fund, and made $150,000 payments to the nine survivors alive at the time.

More recently, the Canadian government has made payments to native Canadians who were forcibly placed in “residential schools” where many were physically and sexually abused. As part of the settlement, each eligible student received a lump sum payment of $10,000 for the first year spent at a residential school, and $3,000 for every year after that.

The call for slavery reparations gained momentum in the 1988 after Japanese-Americans received reparations payments of $20,000 per survivor, from the U.S. government for being interred and having their property seized during the Second World War.

Aiyetoro admits to mixed feelings when other communities do finally receive reparations payments. “The sting is, yes, this group deserved it. But what about us? They deserve it, and so do we.”

Another issue that opponents of historic reparations often bring up is: How do you trace the descendants? In the case of slavery in the U.S., there’s a wealth of information buried in various public and private archives across the country.

Interestingly enough, California has already compiled a database of names that could be used to track down the ancestors of both slave owners and slaves. During the slavery era, slaves were considered chattel, no different than livestock or any other piece of farm equipment. So, in order to protect themselves from loss, slave owners took out life insurance policies on their living “property.”

In 2001, California required companies that issued such policies (today’s parent companies include New York Life, AIG, and Aetna) to examine their archives and compile a profile of all policies. The complete list, available as a downloadable 33-page PDF, compiles the slave’s name (usually just a first name), the slaveholder’s full name, policy number, and county and state where the plantation was.

“A fairly detailed picture could be painted, but it would require effort,” says Craemer, which is precisely what the U.S. and French governments did to recoup their historic claims.

In the Rosewood, Florida settlement, in addition to direct payments to survivors, educational scholarships were also established, which Aiyetoro feels makes the case a potential role model for how any future reparations could play out, providing both benefits to those who can show a direct lineage, and social welfare policies that help try to balance out ongoing inequities.

Similarly, while payments to direct descendants are important, the AGRSG would want to see funds primarily used “to benefit the group as a whole,” says Theriault. “Economic investment in infrastructure including education, housing and healthcare. Investment to improve the community as a whole is much more important than individual reparations.”

“The original suffers are dead,” agrees Craemer. “But the estates [of slave owners] have been handed down from generation to generation. So it’s actually an injustice in the present time.”

Of course, the U.S. government could face a second Civil War if it tried to seize land and property from current owners. But Craemer does see a potential parallel with the government’s recent stimulus package payments, with the funds taking from the nation’s general coffers with the hope that it would ultimately benefit all.

In the case of Turkey, Theriault says “It doesn’t make sense for poor Turks to pay.” But some of the country’s richest people today, “gained their wealth directly through property taken during the genocide.”

Given the global scale of both issues—slaves, after all, were originally taken from a number of different African nations—and the rampant corruption in many of the affected states today, any repayment program would require third party oversight, likely through the United Nations.

When asked how likely it is that the U.S. government would fund any sort of reparations program for its role in slavery, Craemer says, “I would never say never. I would never have thought I’d see a black president in my lifetime.”

Aiyetero is skeptical. “The U.S. government has a lack of political will. They want to duck it.” Still, she’s not willing to give up. “I think it’s conceivable for sure. But a lot of it depends on being able to build a broad-based, grassroots movement across race, class and culture.”

Unfortunately, Craemer’s analysis of recent polling on the subject shows that “overall opposition [to any form of reparations] is stronger than support.”

Theriault is likewise cautiously optimistic. At one time, “no one would have thought there would have been an independent Armenia,” he says. “There are changing attitudes in Turkey, with a growing number of people who are pro-reparations.” But he admits that it may take upheaval on the scale of the collapse of the USSR before any real steps are taken.

While not exactly verboten, for decades Nazi crimes haven’t been discussed much in Germany. As the country tried to rebuild after the end of the Second World War, the German argument against reparations was wait, wait, wait…while the country’s economy was rebuilt. Yet, now that it’s one of the world’s great economic powers, the response seems to be “too late.”

Die Ansalt (The Institution), a German political sketch comedy recently aired a segment on Germany’s failure to fully pay its wartime debts (see the video below).

Towards the end of the sketch, the camera pans over to an elderly man seated with a cane in hand. It was, Argyris Sfountouris, the young boy whose family was murdered by the Germans. Asked if he’s ever received any compensation his reply was blunt. “No. Germany’s tried everything not to pay.”

At press time, nothing has changed in any of these cases.

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