Shashi Tharoor’s debate at the Oxford Union ignited a flame that had been simmering under the surface for a long time. The idea that the poverty of developing countries in Asia and Africa is down to colonial exploitation was brought to the fore through his elegant if slightly inaccurate arguments. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that answering such a question is not easy. Margaret Burnham, distinguished professor of law at Northeastern University, puts it best when she says that ‘The question of reparations [which is the idea that some form of monetary compensation needs to be made to the descendants of enslaved people] is certainly complex.’
I firmly believe that Britain and other colonialists do not owe reparations to their colonies. This does not mean they should be absolved of all their crimes- from slavery to murder; the list is endless. The meaning of reparations is essentially atoning for wrongdoings. While what colonialists did is considered morally wrong today, we must realise it wasn’t true at that time. It’s a little rich to criticise the colonials for destroying our economies by ‘demolishing indigenous industries’ and through slavery when you realise that the monarchs before them did the same. The Mughals, the Ottomans, the Aztecs, and monarchies across the world were oppressive. From the Jizya tax to native versions of slavery, inequality, and exploitation has always been present in India way before the British or even the Portuguese washed up on the shores of Goa.
Further, India’s status as the ‘Golden Bird’ was hardly an accurate representation of the conditions of her people. Much like today, the wealth was concentrated amongst the elite. This was true of European nations as well. The monarchical systems prevalent in these nations meant that the concept of equitable society or humanitarianism did not exist. The colonials were morally cruel, but for the time, what they were doing was considered acceptable. If nothing else, the history of colonialism covers a period where the world was still recovering from the Middle Ages.
In fact, with the advent of the League of Nations and the United Nations, colonialism began to wind up. This is because the charter of the UN specified and campaigned for self-determination- a shot against colonialists. With that in effect, the colonials did wind up and did begin providing aid to their vulnerable former colonies. Under the International Law in the form of the ILC Draft Articles, Article 31, Reparation is owed for an ‘Internationally Wrongful Act’. This is not an attempt to absolve colonials of their admittedly heinous crimes. The idea is that since colonialism and plunder weren’t technically unlawful at the time, thus, the colonials do not owe any of the Commonwealth countries colonial reparations.