In June, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet offered a reminder that “systemic racism needs a systemic response.” She called for the immediate dismantling of the systemic racism that Black people face around the world and set out a four-point agenda for this transformation.
Just over a year after the killing of George Floyd, the report was widely discussed. But a key aspect was not as visible in public discourse as it should have been. Among other points, the report recommends the necessity of reparations for colonial injustices.
This poses a significant question for European countries, which have benefited greatly from wealth stolen in the colonial era. While several are taking initial steps to return some of what was seized to their countries of origin, much more has to be done.
Much of the wealth in question has taken the form of stolen art and artifacts. According to a French report drafted by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoye in 2018, more than 90 percent of the most prominent sub-Saharan African pieces of art are currently outside of the continent. Many famed European museums have built their prestige by displaying work acquired during the colonial era from so-called ethnographic expeditions that were in fact a pretext for predation.
To keep such pieces of art on French soil, France incorporated them into the public domain of state’s assets, which make them unseizable and untransferable. The Sarr-Savoye report urged the French state to restore the pieces to their countries of origin. With pressure from African countries, France had to acknowledge the unfairness, passing a law in December 2020 giving back cultural goods to Benin and Senegal.
The first piece that was restored was a saber thought to have belonged to the political leader El Hadj Omar Tall, which was granted to Senegal for five years, but still belongs to the French domain. Madagascar was given back the crown of Queen Ranavalona III, which is one of the most precious symbols of Malagasy “national pride,” according to Madagascar Minister of Culture Lalatiana Andriatongarivo Rakotondrazafy. Moreover, 26 pieces, which are known as the “Treasure of Béhanzin” and were kept in the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, are to be made accessible to the Beninese people and returned to Benin. But given that the museum possesses at least 45,000 pieces of art stolen during colonial times, according to the Sarr-Savoye report, this does not sound like such a revolution.
Before the release of the report, in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron committed to returning tens of thousands of cultural pieces within five years. Not enough has been done since then. Meanwhile, conversations about reparations in other venues have so far been rare in French political discourse.
Yet this debate is not taking place only in France and is not only over looted treasures. Reparations also come with the recognition of the harm caused by colonial wars and violence. More than a century after the horrendous genocide perpetrated in Namibia that killed 80 percent of the Herero and 50 percent of the Nama population, Germany started a discussion with the Namibian government in 2015 to “heal the wounds” caused by the historical cruelty.
It took six years to come to an agreement, in which Germany not only apologized but also committed to paying 1.1 billion euros (nearly $1.3 billion) of special aid given to Namibia over a 30-year period. Despite the huge step, which happened in large part thanks to years of activism from Namibian and Black German organizations, the declaration failed to mention “reparations” or “compensation,” and Germany avoided any direct discussion with the Herero and the Nama. This was an “insult,” according to Namibian parliamentarian Inna Hengari.
Britain is also having trouble recognizing the dispossession of stolen artifacts, among other calls to offer amends for historical wrongs. For decades, Egyptian authorities’ calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone, one of the most visited objects in the British Museum, have been ignored. Jamaica, a former British colony where 600,000 enslaved people once lived, also plans to file a petition to Queen Elizabeth II seeking billions of pounds in compensation. But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has publicly apologized for failing to honor soldiers from the former colonies (mostly from Africa and the Middle East) due to “pervasive racism,” and finally commemorated their unsung sacrifices — an initial step in the right direction.
Europe has come a long way to acknowledge its violent and destructive role in former colonies and the resulting consequences, which are still ongoing. Yet these small steps are far from offering justice to those who are still deprived of their possessions and of entire chapters of their history. The question for Europe now is: Will it continue on this path to make fuller amends?
Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.