Appointment of chair of National Reparations Committee was announced publicly

Dear Editor,

There seems to be some confusion about the Guyana Reparations Committee. A few remarks on the letter written by Charlene Wilkinson et al so that the dialogue they want to publicly have, can be based on truth (‘A call for a more participatory approach…’ SN, October 12).

Ms Wilkinson claims she and her team are unaware of any public statement about my appointment as Chair of the Guyana Reparations Committee and wants a more democratic process, among other things.

First, my appointment as Chair of the Guyana National Reparations Committee was publicly and surprisingly  made, without any solicitation on my part, at the March launch of the Unesco ‘Lest we Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery’ exhibition held at the National Museum where it was hosted. In his speech, President Ramotar named Eric Phillips and Prof Emeritus Winston McGowan, recently retired from the University of Guyana, and Guyana’s senior historian, to head the process when Caricom agreed to move ahead. This event I believe was boycotted by the persons who have written this letter.

There is a statement in the complaint, “This scenario hints at the manner in which the decisions relating to the expending of the financial gains of reparations might be made should the reparations issue be resolved in our favour.”

First of all, Caricom and nation states are the legal persons placing this claim against Britain, France and Holland. This is a long diplomatic, political, economic, social, psychological and cultural battle. Hence, before any reparations are paid out, the governments of Caricom have a long battle ahead. The legal case has many dimensions, including proving the nature of historical discrimination; linking discrimination to present day inequality; defining and proving the nature of modern inequality, and denoting policies adopted by Europe to continue this process.

This calls for a detailed economic valuation based on an accurate historical narrative and other detailed arguments, in a court of law, against three extremely powerful global forces who will engage in all acts and strategies not to pay reparations. This is not about gaffing about reparations and who will benefit, etc.

The way the process will work is not defined by the Government of Guyana but by Caricom heads of states who are taking great risks in pursuing this. There should be memories of what happed to Aristide and Chief Moshood Abiola, etc.

So to make the argument that I am going to make decisions on who and how reparations will be spent, indicates a total lack of knowledge of the Reparations process as discussed all across the regions and by Caricom heads of state.

The terms of reference are very clear. Each National Committee will be responsible for delivering the above four elements for a legal case.

Secondly, although each country will propose ideas as to how monies would be spent, it is Caricom whose collective ideas will be the basis of such. So, in plain words, the Government of Guyana through its Reparations Committee will present Caricom with ideas. Caricom has significant issues facing Caribbean civilization (debt, climate change, economic woes, etc.) as well as integration issues (transportation in the region, health care in the region etc).  So the idea that Eric Phillips will act against the interest of Africans in Guyana is one that defeats itself and offers insights into the mindset of those stating so.

With regard to the composition, first, the Guyana Reparations Committee structure and members are patterned after the committees of Jamaica and Barbados. Second, the Committee members have to deliver the 4 tasks above plus educate the general public about the issue.

Third, the chairman of each committee will become a member of the Caricom Reparations Commission, which is led by Sir Hilary Beckles and which has two deputy heads, Prof Verene Thompson for coordinating the historical narratives, and two other country chairs who will head the Reparations Secretariat and diplomatic area under PM Gonslaves in St Vincent, and the Chair of Suriname who will coordinate the country committees with my help.

The Guyana Reparations Committee, like all reparations committees, is mandated by the President of the country. The process in all countries is coordinated for the cabinet by the Ministry of Culture in each member state.

The Guyana Reparations Committee is constituted with the following goals ; 1. ensure Guyana’s voice is well represented and heard in all Caricom debates, discussions and negotiations about repatriations; 2. establish a well-rounded committee that has the experience, knowledge and patience to be engaged in this complex process of Reparations;  3. ensure there is “full and informed consultation” with all the stakeholders in Guyana;  4. perform research and compile an international library of documents that are relevant to the Reparations process;  5. interact with representatives of all Caribbean Repara-tions Committees.

As for representatives, the Jamaican and Barbados committees have approximately 12 to 14 individuals and the chairs were chosen by the prime ministers of each country. In the case of Guyana it will be PANAF; ACDA; the Rastafarian community; 2 members of the Amerindian community to be chosen by them; a prominent human rights lawyer (Ret Justice Donald Trotman); the University of Guyana (Dr Clive Thomas and  Dr Melissa Ifill (historian); one representative each from African organizations in Berbice, Essequibo; a representative from the Village Movement (Jonathan Adams as a person who has written extensively on this issue);  a land rights advocate; gender balance; two young people (male and female who are engaged in history, African culture and social issues); the National Archives; the Museum of African Heritage; the media; and a government representative.

Although I did not seek this position, I am intrigued by the quote in the letter, namely “an inclusive process led by the most prominent Reparations experts at home and in the African and Indigenous peoples’ Diasporas.”  If this is the central issue, then I ask, who is this person so named? Is it one of four signatories, who first want nothing to do with any government activity but want to lead a government designated activity, in a Caricom driven process?

Most people would acknowledge that Guyana is one of the few countries in which its writers, historians, economists and lawyers have done extremely little about Reparations. The local Guyanese cupboard is almost bare compared to Jamaica, Barbados, Suriname, St Vincent, Haiti, etc. Suriname placed its claim to Holland and its economic valuation at its 150th anniversary of Emancipation last July. The Rastafarian communities across the region have had this on their agenda for quite some time. The BVI has negotiated a claim with Denmark.

My role in this process is to serve Africans in Guyana and to ensure Guyana’s interests are represented. I do not know what a Reparations expert is, but I would not take on any assignment I am not capable of succeeding in. The current process is about a lawsuit, international negotiations, knowledge that goes far beyond historical facts and diplomacy. That is the expertise needed. Not individuals who can’t even negotiate with their own government much less three powerful sovereign states. My life experiences make me feel confident I could take on such an important role as the chair of a Reparations Committee. This is not a ceremonial title and I don’t need ceremonial titles in my life.

There seems to be a strong bitterness by the four signatories of the letter because they do not trust the Government of Guyana. This is their prerogative. I have never seen or heard any of them write or speak about Reparations. There seems to be a contradiction in their actions and thought processes as many who often object, work for the government or attend events and concerts by those they consider members of the government. Some want non-engagement with the Govern-ment of Guyana but want to be consulted by the Government of Guyana.

I have heard from some who are upset that because I teach at the University of Guyana and have been made the Chair of the Guyana Reparations Committee that I have joined the PPP. My integrity in matters of African issues is beyond reproach and my record stands visible to all Guyanese, even when my life was threatened in the past.

The Guyana Reparations Committee has a commitment to Caricom and the people of Guyana. There is work to be done and there are many descendants of enslaved Africans who are quite capable of delivering what is needed.

Envy is never a good negotiating posture and spreading discontent because of self-interest is a poor way to live. And it is not the African way.

Yours faithfully,
Eric Phillips

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