In April I had the privilege of participating in a scholarly panel at the United Nations, one in a series of events sponsored by the CARICOM Secretariat to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by the legislatures of the United States and Great Britain. As several of us on the panel noted, the victory of 1807 proved less decisive than abolitionists at the time imagined or hoped. Though the new restrictions reduced the transatlantic trade, they did not stop it; over the next sixty years, another 2-3 million Africans were borne into New World slavery. And it would take a further sixty years, until the 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention, before slavery itself was formally prohibited in international law. Yet even conceding these limitations, 1807 represents a watershed in human history, a germinal moment in the continuing struggle to create and enforce international norms of humanitarian conduct. It is a moment well worth commemorating, and no setting could be more appropriate than the United Nations, an institution whose foundational commitment to the "inherent dignity and ... equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" is a direct legacy of the abolitionist struggle.
I was invited to participate on the panel by virtue of my service on Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Appointed in 2003 by Brown's President, Ruth J. Simmons, the Committee was charged to investigate the university's historical relationship to slavery and the trans-atlantic slave trade and to report its findings openly and truthfully. The Committee was also asked to organize public programmes that might help the campus and members of the wider public to reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal and moral questions posed by any present day confrontation with past injustice. Over the course of its tenure, the Committee entertained more than a hundred distinguished scholars, working not only on slavery and the slave trade (both historic and contemporary), but also on truth commissions, war crimes tribunals, reparations movements and other vehicles of "retrospective justice".
The Committee delivered its final report, with recommendations, in October 2006. In early 2007, following a period of discussion and public comment, President Simmons and the Brown Corporation issued a formal response, outlining...