The Role of Reparations in the Transition from Violence to Peace
- Peter J. DixonPeter J. DixonSchool for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Reparations are among the most tangible, victim-centric, and personal of processes in the transition from violence to peace, symbolizing the recognition that an individual has been harmed and has rights in the eyes of the state or international community. Reparations are also an inherently political project, transforming official visions of violence, responsibility, and victimization into material and psychological benefit. Despite the power of reparations to shape transitions from violence to peace, they have been too often ignored in practice, leaving most victims of gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law without reparation. Partly as a consequence, research has tended to focus more on “harder” processes, like trials and truth commissions, than on the “stepchild of postconflict justice.” Yet, there have been significant developments in reparations theory and practice that motivate key outstanding questions for researchers.
Reparations derive their symbolic power from the law, which is an imperfect tool for responding to the varied forms of violence experienced in conflict and to the diverse, sometimes contradictory, priorities and needs that people hold. In such contexts, there is an inherent tension between expanding reparations programs to be inclusive and adaptable and preserving their fundamental distinction as a justice process. This is a difficult balance to strike, but there are frameworks and questions that can offer useful guidance. In particular, the lenses of economic violence and positive peace are useful for articulating the role of reparations in postconflict transitions, offering conceptual expansion beyond transitional justice’s traditional concern for political violence without delving too far into the customary terrain of development or postconflict reconstruction.
Yet, the specific mechanisms through which the inward and outward feelings and attitudes and broader social changes that reparations are expected to produce remain undertheorized in transitional justice scholarship, in large part because of a lack of empirical evidence about how recipients experience them in practice. Does the restoration of civic trust, for example, depend upon recipients of individual reparations telling their neighbors about their payments? Does recognition as a citizen depend upon a beneficiary publicly self-identifying as a victim? Questions like these about the particular variables that drive reparations outcomes represent the next frontier for transitional justice researchers interested in the role of reparations in the transition from violence to peace.