The complexities of holding nation-states legally responsible for atrocities, particularly those committed several generations ago, were demonstrated forcefully when African hopes of an apology and compensation for the transatlantic slave trade collapsed in disarray as the UN anti-racism conference ended in Durban last week.
Ultimately, the African bloc was forced to back down. Dapo Akande, an international lawyer at Durham University, doubts there was any real chance that it would succeed with the claim.
There are two routes for getting nation-states to admit responsibility for crimes, he said, and both are fraught with difficulties. Bringing a case in an international court is the usual route, but there have been successful claims in national courts as well. A Greek court, for instance, successfully prosecuted the German government for crimes committed during the second world war. "The difference is that there are still individuals who can demonstrate direct suffering, but in the case of slavery that is not so," Mr Akande said.
The conference declaration acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity but, crucially, only modern-day slavery could be called a crime against humanity, severely limiting avenues for compensation. Although there were expressions of regret, there was no apology. There is the chance that individuals can bring claims for compensation, but the declaration decreases their chances of being successful, according to Mr Akande.
Lionel Cliffe, an Africa specialist at Leeds University, said it was difficult to understand why there had been such reluctance towards expressions of regret from the US and European governments, which had dug their heels in until the last minute.
"Of course it would have been impossible to calculate the net loss of the slave trade over three centuries because there is no precise formula, but this has long been recognised by Africa, which was only looking for a symbolic gesture of sorrow accompanied by some token increase in assistance."