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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Gready, S. (2021). The case for transformative reparations: In pursuit of structural socio-economic reform in post-conflict societies. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2020.1852833
- To facilitate conflict transformation and sustainable peace, reparations must more fully address distributive justice and socio-economic harms and grievances on the collective level, rather than only corrective justice and civil/political rights violations on the individual level.
- The cases of South Africa (1990s) and Tunisia (2010s) illustrate a shift in the field of transitional justice to a broader definition of victim status and conception of harms relevant to reparations: from individuals directly impacted by severe political/civil rights violations in the former to whole regions economically marginalized in the latter.
- “Transformative reparations” are those best able to support the reorientation of the field towards a “more transformative transitional justice agenda”—one that “emphasise[s] local agency and resources, encourage[s] bottom-up leadership and participation in policy decisions, and challenge[s] unequal and intersecting power relationships as well as structures of exclusion.”
- Complementing broader transitional justice and development processes while also striking a balance between corrective and distributive justice, transformative reparations can serve as a catalyst for challenging the power structures that enabled “generational cycles of socio-economic abuse and exclusion,” thereby addressing root causes of conflict in the service of sustainable peace.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- For reparations to Indigenous and Black communities to contribute towards not only justice but also sustainable peace in the U.S.—to ward off the sort of (violent) backlash that might otherwise be anticipated—they need to be accompanied by truth-telling, care for other underserved communities who are not included under the reparations umbrella, and proactive relationship-building that rehumanizes all of us and makes us partners in each other’s struggles.
Traditionally, reparations have been understood as individual-level compensation for those directly harmed through severe violations of their or their loved ones’ civil or political rights. This approach presents a problem for transitional justice, however, when one considers the broader harms that persist in an unequal society, even after the period of most acute conflict or repression. Given limited resources, for instance, should a country prioritize the compensation of a torture victim or the fulfillment of basic needs for a greater number of people who may not have been tortured but whose socio-economic situation was negatively affected by the period in question? Exploring the tensions surfaced by this question—between corrective and distributive justice, between individual and collective reparations, and between civil/political and socio-economic rights violations—Simeon Gready asks, “how can reparations… move beyond individual redress to pursue structural socio-economic reform in post-conflict societies?” In response, he argues for what he calls a “transformative approach” to reparations.
Transitional justice: “a set of policies that aims to come to terms with the legacy of large-scale human rights violations, so as to ensure accountability, serve justice, achieve reconciliation, and guarantee non-recurrence.”
Corrective justice: the “rectif[ication] [of] unjust harms.”
Distributive justice: “the redistribution of wealth, resources, and power.”
Transformative reparations: reparations that attempt to “‘transform’ [victims’] circumstance of deeply-entrenched socio-economic inequality… often the root cause of the conflict.” A “response to past socio-economic injustices, with forward-looking outcomes, for victims.”
The author frames his analysis with reference to three overlapping debates in the transitional justice field. The first is between backwards-looking corrective justice and forward-looking distributive justice. In an unequal society, reparations based on corrective justice may simply restore victims to their previously destitute situation while also being woefully inadequate in their attempt to repair the irreparable—thus the importance of their symbolic dimension. Meanwhile, reparations based on distributive justice have the potential to address root causes of the conflict by equalizing access to resources. The second debate is between individual and collective reparations—whether only individual victims directly affected or also whole victim groups, regions, or communities who suffered during the armed conflict or repressive period deserve reparations. The third debate regards which types of harms to address: violations of civil/political rights or of socio-economic rights. The former are often considered more “serious,” and they more easily fit a legal framework focused on individual responsibility, as it is easier to identify perpetrators of civil/political rights violations—usually forms of direct violence—than it is to identify broader “perpetrators” (or beneficiaries) of economic inequality or structural violence. But, the author argues, violations of socio-economic rights, often root causes of conflict, need to be addressed to facilitate the emergence of sustainable peace. Reparations that more fully encompass the distributive, collective, and socio-economic poles of these debates can have this sort of transformative potential.
A comparative analysis of two transitional justice contexts—South Africa (in the 1990s) and Tunisia (in the 2010s)—illuminates the evolution of transitional justice practices, particularly shifts over time in both the definition of victims and the types of harms recognized with regards to reparations. Whereas in South Africa victims were considered those individuals directly impacted by politically motivated severe human rights violations (e.g., killing or torture)—excluding from official victim status those who endured the daily indignities and structural violence of apartheid—in Tunisia, due to a participatory approach to designing the transitional justice process, economic crimes were included, and victims were defined more broadly to also include whole regions that had been systematically marginalized.
In recognition of these ongoing shifts towards socio-economic justice in the transitional justice field, the author proposes “transformative reparations” as those best able to support this “more transformative transitional justice agenda” that “emphasise[s] local agency and resources, encourage[s] bottom-up leadership and participation in policy decisions, and challenge[s] unequal and intersecting power relationships as well as structures of exclusion.” In their effort to transform the socio-economic situation of victim communities and renegotiate power between victim and perpetrator/beneficiary groups, transformative reparations balance corrective and distributive justice. Through a participatory and context-specific approach, victim communities identify what needs repairing and how, enabling both “individual reparations for violations of certain civil and political rights” and “structural socio-economic reform,” as needed. Actual reparations can include a range of capacity-building investments in, for instance, “education, community building, and sector reform”—all of which honor victims’ agency.
Transformative reparations must be constructed in such a way that there is coherence among the various forms of reparations and with other transitional justice mechanisms so they can all work together towards socio-economic justice and structural change. Transformative reparations must also cohere with broader development efforts while recognizing the distinction between the former as a “response to past socio-economic injustices, with forward-looking outcomes, for victims” and the latter as “the minimum material conditions that citizens deserve anyway”—lest a situation emerge where people feel they must demonstrate some harm they incurred before they can claim and receive basic entitlements. The symbolic dimension of reparations can be useful here to draw this distinction and serve as a form of recognition for victims.
Complementing broader transitional justice and development processes while also striking a balance between corrective and distributive justice, transformative reparations can serve as a catalyst for challenging the power structures that enabled “generational cycles of socio-economic abuse and exclusion,” thereby addressing root causes of conflict in the service of sustainable peace.
This research comes at a crucial moment for thinking through the question of reparations in the U.S., helping illuminate this case even if the U.S. is not considered a transitional context. In fact, any country still grappling with the ramifications of past violations—as the U.S. clearly is—could still be considered “in transition” in a wider sense. One could argue that the various forms of unrest currently coming to the surface in the U.S. are the result of the country never directly confronting its original sins of settler colonialism/Indigenous genocide and slavery/racist violence/wealth expropriation from Black Americans. What can this research on reparations teach us about how to build a just and sustainable peace in the wake of these foundational violations?
First, it highlights the range of violations at stake when considering the scope of reparations: not only acute violations of civil rights—like genocide, slavery, mob violence, or law enforcement killings—but also daily violations of socio-economic rights like school segregation, job discrimination, or red-lining policies that have systematically impeded Black families from building inter-generational wealth or treaty violations, private land ownership policies, conflicts over fishing rights, and pipeline projects that threaten Indigenous livelihoods and alienate these communities from their land, sacred spaces, and cultural heritage. Crafting reparations so they address socio-economic violations of collectively victimized groups—especially massive investments in Black and Indigenous communities in the forms that they identify (including land return), along with policy changes—has the potential to transform the inequality at the root of more acute forms of violence in the U.S.
The thorny question that emerges—also raised by the research—is where to draw the line between reparations and normal expectations of what a state should provide to all of its citizens. If the goal is to get rid of poverty or severe inequality, then how important is it that we identify any “victims” at all as the basis for these investments (as corrective justice would require)? How crucial is it to tie material resources to righting the wrongs of the past, especially if others who aren’t members of historically wronged groups are also struggling? This question is brought to the surface by current debt relief targeted at Black (and other “socially disadvantaged”) farmers, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Although this targeted relief is not explicitly called “reparations,” that is essentially what it is, as it is aimed at righting the historical wrong of discrimination against Black farmers. As noted in a recent article, however, some white farmers take issue with this targeted relief and see it as a new form of discrimination. Even if such an argument can be objectively challenged on the grounds that Black farmers were systematically denied loans, dispossessed of their land, and otherwise discriminated against and intimidated throughout the 20th century, it is still important to reckon with this sort of response, as it obviously shapes the way any form of reparation may be received on a broader scale and may have the potential to precipitate new forms of grievance. It suggests—as the research does—that transformative reparations are most effective when they are complemented by other transitional justice processes such as truth commissions that can do the work of framing, story-telling, and educating the public as to their necessity in the first place. In addition, to further prevent this backlash to reparations, two other processes are essential. First, we need broader economic transformation in the U.S. so that millions of people of all racial identities are not left behind and thereby made susceptible to resentment against those finally getting their fair share. And, second, we must engage in systematic and widespread relationship-building across racial (and other identity) lines so that such resentment is not allowed to take hold.
It is critical that the U.S. give back to historically wronged communities, in direct consultation with them, and that these investments and/or land transfers be framed as a form of reparation. The symbolism entailed—that this investment stands for the acknowledgement of and at least partial reparation for past harm—serves the crucial function of making clear that this is a matter of justice, not charity. But since transformative reparations are fundamentally about a shift in power and resources in society, they will never come easily. For reparations to Indigenous and Black communities to contribute towards not only justice but also sustainable peace in the U.S.—to ward off the sort of (violent) backlash that might otherwise be anticipated to some degree—they need to be accompanied by truth-telling, care for other underserved communities who are not included under the reparations umbrella, and proactive relationship-building that rehumanizes all of us and makes us partners in each other’s struggles. [MW]
What is the best way to balance the need to right historical wrongs with the need to address poverty and inequality more broadly?
How do we undertake fundamental shifts in power relations without alienating or creating backlash from those who stand to lose power from such shifts?
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Hannah-Jones, N. (2020, June 30). What is owed. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html
Healy, J. (2021, May 22). ‘You can feel the tension’: A windfall for minority farmers divides rural America. The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/us/black-farmers.html
Newkirk, V. R. (2019, September). The great land robbery. The Atlantic. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/this-land-was-our-land/594742/
Wildcat, D. R. (2014, June 10). Why Native Americans don’t want reparations. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/10/why-native-americans-dont-want-reparations/
Resource Generation. (N.d.). Land reparations & Indigenous solidarity toolkit. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://resourcegeneration.org/land-reparations-indigenous-solidarity-action-guide/
Ibhawoh, B. (2019, July 15). What Canada and South Africa can teach the U.S. about slavery reparations. The Conversation. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/what-canada-and-south-africa-can-teach-the-u-s-about-slavery-reparations-120318
Carranza, R. (2015). A measure of dignity: The beginning of reparations in post-revolution Tunisia. International Center for Transitional Justice. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.ictj.org/news/measure-dignity-reparations-tunisia
International Center for Transitional Justice: www.ictj.org
Key Words: reparations, transitional justice, South Africa, Tunisia