“The awful legacy of these crimes against humanity – a legacy which exists today in our Caribbean – ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all our peoples,” Gonsalves said. “The European nations must partner in a focused, especial way with us to execute this repairing.”
The lawsuits – which are likely to amount to a lengthy battle – are being brought by The Caribbean Community, or Caricom, a regional organization that focuses mostly on issues such as economic integration. They will be brought to the U.N.'s International Court of Justice, based in The Hague in the Netherlands. It is not immediately clear when court proceedings will begin.
The countries will focus on Britain for its role in slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean, France for slavery in Haiti and the Netherlands for Suriname, a Caricom member and former Dutch colony on the northeastern edge of South America.
They have hired British law firm Leigh Day, which waged a successful fight for compensation for hundreds of Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government as they fought for the liberation of their country during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.
According to Martyn Day, a lawyer from the firm, the first step will be to seek a negotiated settlement with the governments of France, Britain and the Netherlands along the lines of the British agreement in June to issue a statement of regret and award compensation of about $21.5 million to the surviving Kenyans.
"I think they would undoubtedly want to try and see if this can be resolved amicably," Day said of the Caribbean countries, speaking to The Associated Press in July. "But I think the reason they have hired us is that they want to show that they mean business."
Caribbean countries Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda already have national commissions on reparations, and each country that does not have a commission has agreed to set one up. The 14 Caricom nations voted unanimously to wage the joint campaign, saying it would be more ambitious than any previous attempt.
In the United States, the idea of reparations has surfaced and disappeared numerous times.
After the end of the Civil War, about 400,000 acres of land along the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts was taken from former slave owners and set aside for freed slaves, who would each be granted a 40-acre plot of land to farm and make a living. It was the first attempt in the U.S. at reparations, and was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
Most recently in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama said he did not support reparations for the descendants of slaves, which put him at odds with the NAACP, The Urban League, the SCLC and about two dozen members of Congress who sponsored legislation to create a commission on slavery.
The House issued an apology for slavery in July 2008, and the Senate followed suit in 2009, but neither mentioned reparations.
Caribbean officials have not specified a monetary figure for the lawsuits, but Gonsalves and Verene Shepherd, chairwoman of the national reparations commission in Jamaica, both mentioned the fact that Britain at the time of emancipation in 1834 paid 20 million pounds – the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today – to British planters in the Caribbean.
"Our ancestors got nothing," Shepherd said. "They got their freedom and they were told ‘Go develop yourselves.'"
Dexter Mullins contributed to this report, with The Associated Press.