On 28 September 2016, a number of blogs and social media posts reported that the United Nations (UN) had ordered or demanded the United States pay reparations for slavery to black Americans:
UN demands U.S. pay reparations to blacks for slavery
So much for all the lives lost in the American Civil War. The Washington Post reported that a U.N. study says the United States should pay reparations to blacks for slavery.
The rumor took off in part because of misleading headlines and also due to the hot-button nature of the concept of reparations on social media and in political discourse. Many readers simply spotted and shared headlines asserting the UN “demanded” or “ordered” the U.S. to pay reparations, even though such claims was dialed back in underlying article text:
The Post notes the recommendations are “nonbinding and unlikely to influence Washington, after a fact-finding mission in the United States in January.”
Most versions of the claim cited a Washington Post article, itself somewhat misleadingly headlined “U.S. Owes Black People Reparations for a History of ‘Racial Terrorism,’ Says U.N. Panel.” Most Americans interpret the concept of slavery reparations to specifically entail monies disbursed to black Americans as remuneration for the effects of slavery, but (again buried at the end of the piece) the excerpted material from “a recent report by a U.N.-affiliated group based in Geneva” described something different entirely:
The reparations could come in a variety of forms, according to the panel, including “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities … psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”
The Post also noted that the controversial notion was a recommendation issued by a U.N. panel to a U.N. council, not something directly decreed by the United Nations as a mandate involving the U.S.:
This conclusion was part of a study by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, a body that reports to the international organization’s High Commissioner on Human Rights. The group of experts, which includes leading human rights lawyers from around the world, presented its findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council, pointing to the continuing link between present injustices and the dark chapters of American history.
“In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” the report stated. “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching.”
Citing the past year’s spate of police officers killing unarmed African American men, the panel warned against “impunity for state violence,” which has created, in its words, a “human rights crisis” that “must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
In the 18 August 2016 report [PDF] tendered to the UN’s Human Rights Council by the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, the concept of reparations made four appearances amid pages of findings and recommendations. In a section titled “Conclusions and recommendations,” the working group concluded:
There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement, colonization and colonialism were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.
One of the recommendations described the (largely non-monetary) form such action might take:
The Working Group encourages Congress to pass H.R. 40 — the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act — which would establish a commission to examine enslavement and racial discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and to recommend appropriate remedies. The Working Group urges the United States to consider seriously applying analogous elements contained in the Caribbean Community’s Ten-Point Action Plan on Reparations, which includes a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities, an African knowledge programme, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.
In its final appearance, reparations were referenced in respect to recent officer-involved shootings and ongoing racial animus in the United States as areas of deep concern:
Despite the positive measures, the Working Group remains extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans. In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching. Impunity for State violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
As such, the bulk of conversation regarding the rumor was inaccurate in its scope. The UN didn’t demand Americans pay reparations, nor did that body even make such a recommendation itself. A separate U.N. panel submitted an 18 August 2016 report on civil rights in the U.S. to the U.N. Council on Human Rights, and among the former’s recommendations were “reparatory justice.” However, that action was described as largely not involving cash payments and was rather a broad-based approach involving “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities, an African knowledge programme, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”
Nonetheless, like most rumors about reparations, the claim instantly went viral. In prior instances popular but false rumors held President Obama had mandated the payment of reparations via executive order (or simply mandated them without an executive order), or that a lawmaker in Texas quietly sneaked reparations into a piece of legislation that was later passed.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “U.S. Owes Black People Reparations for a History of ‘Racial Terrorism,’ Says U.N. Panel.”
Washington Post. 27 September 2016.
United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council. “Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on Its Mission to the United States of America.”
18 August 2016.