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Law Research Seminar Series - Reparations for colonial wrongs: What is the appropriate measure of loss for a transhistorical debt of conscience?

Venue: Birkbeck 30 Russell Square, 101

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Reparations for colonial wrongs: What is the appropriate measure of loss for a transhistorical debt of conscience?

Speaker: Ulele Burnham (Doughty Street Chambers)

The aim of this working paper is to analyse, by reference to principles of international law, the question of historiographical rectification and transnational notions of social justice. It will consider the ethical and legal justifications for the increasingly intensified calls for reparations for racial slavery, native genocide and other deformations of the territories of the global south by a variety of imperial powers now collectively referred to as Western. Examining the ethical case for forms of collective reparative/redemptive action by former colonial powers involves a consideration of questions of inter-generational accountability: Can the transformative potential of the apology be meaningfully performed by ethnic/national collectivities, who, it is said, continue to be beneficiaries of colonial crimes for which they were not directly responsible? In other words, how does temporality affect these calls for recompense?

In addition to exploring whether international law, hewn in the image and interests of the ex-colonial powers, can ever provide just satisfaction for those upon whom it did not intend to convey full subjectivity, the paper invites a critique of recourse to positivist law and its vindication of individual rights, as an avenue of redress for grotesque state-sanctioned practices that it was designed to obscure from view. This will be considered against the backdrop of the 10-point reparations plan devised by Caribbean Community's (CARICOM) Reparations Commission which seeks from former colonial powers a range of amendatory measures including a formal apology, repatriation, technology transfer and debt cancellation. Attention will also be paid to the concepts of reparation and debt as articulated by black scholars and activists writing from within the black radical tradition and by populist commentators such as Ta Nehisi Coates. An attempt will be made also to critically evaluate the purported universality of the claims made by vocal African-American commentators and to think through the ways in which other forms of structural disadvantage (class and gender by way of example) may be underserved by the terms of this now topical debate. In summary, through critical race writing, law and other writing on guilt and retribution, the paper seeks to grapple with the question arising from the work of Fred Moten and others: What is to be done when we know that the thing to be repaired is irreparable?

Ulele Burnham is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers specialising in mental health, mental capacity and equality and human rights law. She is a member and former Chair of the Executive Committee of the Discrimination Law Association, a member of the Advisory Board of the AHRC Research Centre for Law Gender and Sexuality and was for 5 years (2002-2006) an occasional tutor in Labour Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is a B Panel member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission's panel of approved counsel and has intervened on behalf of the legacy commission, the Commission for Racial Equality in a number of interesting pieces of strategic litigation including injunctive claims in relation to discriminatory advertisements and a claim against the Natural History Museum founded upon a breach of its public duty to promote good race relations in approach adopted to the return of aboriginal remains in its custody; (R(Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre & anor v The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, CO/1143/2007).

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Law Research Seminars are held on Wednesdays at lunchtime. The seminars are free and open to the public, and a light lunch is provided. For more information please contact Dr Başak Ertür

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This event is part of the School of Law's 25th Anniversary celebrations. The School of Law, Birkbeck was founded in 1992 as a Department of Law with three members of academic staff. Over the last twenty-five years it has become a School comprising the Departments of Law and Criminology as well as the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, four research Centres, 40 members of staff and an overall student body of over 1,000. The School is proud of being a pioneer in establishing and developing a hub for the field of critical legal studies. While our national and international reputation has been forged through critical legal research, more recently we have gained recognition for critical criminological and activist research, socio-legal scholarship and policy-engaged empirical research. In recognition of this the last Research Excellence Framework exercise ranked us as being in the top 10 law schools in the UK and in the top 3 in London, while our research environment was judged conducive to producing research of the highest quality.

In this our 25th Anniversary year we will be holding a series of events reflecting on our history and successes as well as looking forward to the opportunities and challenges facing critical legal and criminological teaching and scholarship in the 21st century. Find out more about the 25th Anniversary celebrations here.


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