Calculating Colonial Injustice: Italy’s “Compensation” to Libya

As discussed previously on this blog, Italy has now finalized an agreement to pay Libya $5 billion (US) in compensation for colonial injustice. In some respects it represents more of a business plan motivated more by Italian strategic calculations than anything else:

the hefty dollar figure includes a large portion in investment projects that will benefit Italian companies, including a long planned major highway to link Algeria to Tunisia and Egypt. Gaddafi also announced that Italy will get preferential deals on his country’s oil and gas reserves, and threw in the return of an ancient Venus statue taken to Rome during colonial times as a sign of goodwill.

At the same, it could be a miscalculation, since it sets a precedent:

The agreement also sets an interesting new precedent. Italy also spent time in Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, which may now demand similar compensation.

Former colonies of other European powers may have reason to study Libya’s deal. Algerian newspaper Liberte’, for instance, called on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to “take heed of the Italian example.” The paper L’Expression added that “genocide, torture and crimes against humanity most definitely existed in Algeria. They were the work of colonial France and its military contingent, and lasted 132 years.” Le Potential, a daily in Congo, sent a similar message to the Belgium government that once reigned in that country.

One has to wonder how the human social, cultural, and personal toll of colonial oppression can be translated into a dollar figure, and one that might be seen as rather small. Otherwise, I personally think that compensation is important symbolically and politically, and in some instances could be very useful economically. Other nations will be right to begin to press their cases for compensation, especially when in so many instances, the majority in fact, formal colonial rule ended only in the last 40 to 50 years, with a significant mass of humanity (even if not the majority) having been born as colonial subjects.