Carsten Stahn on colonial crimes; the reparations movement stalls in Europe
The wave of restitutions expected after French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 promise to return stolen art to Africa has hit legal and political roadblocks. But while former colonial powers are shying away, it seems 'New World' countries have started doing more to repair crimes against First Nations.
Carsten Stahn, Professor of International Criminal Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, says attitudes to the return of cultural objects have changed in Europe, which is a sign of hope, although progress is patchy. On reparations for victims, there have been some moves from European states, but they are decidedly wary. As Stahn says in a 2020 editorial for the Leiden Journal of International Law, 'many states or actors recognize moral responsibility or political forms of redress as part of a reparative approach towards wrongdoing (apology, forgiveness, contrition, atonement, and reconciliation), but shy away from approaches which would imply any legal recognition of wrong, in order to avoid precedents'.
Stahn believes Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium are the European countries that have done the most so far to address colonial crimes. He notes that only Belgium has adopted a 'framework' legislation on return of ill-gotten cultural artefacts, allowing restitutions to go faster. 'More should be done at the European level', he told Justice Info.