Tapping Into the Transformative Potential of Collective Reparations

17 December 2018   ·   Johanna Lober

Acknowledging the collective dimensions of victimization includes different narratives into a post-conflict societies’ discourse on peace and reconciliation, which can foster a transformative dynamic. Thus, the German Government should invest in research on collective reparations’ potential as leverage in peace processes and provide assistance on their participatory and well-coordinated implementation.

Grave human rights violations not only impact individual victims, but also negatively affect the group to which they belong. Experiences of collective victimization often translate into traumatic trans-generational memories of victimhood and marginalization, and, if not addressed, create a fertile ground for antagonistic group identities, potentially leading to inter-group tensions and renewed cycles of violence.

Acknowledging the collective impact of violence

The collective impact of violent conflict on different groups or communities thus needs to be acknowledged and addressed in transitional justice processes if they are to contribute to deeper societal transformation. The promotion of collective reparation programs could be a strategic instrument in catalyzing such a transformative dynamic.

In Mali, the Malian Commission for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation is mandated to propose individual and collective reparations for serious human rights violations and infringements of collective or individual memory and cultural heritage since 1960. The period covered by the Commission’s mandate has been characterized by the recurrence of rebellions, inter-group conflicts, and different coups d’état, as well as grave human rights violations by the State against individual opponents and opposition groups.

As initial consultations with victim associations in Mali suggest, collective reparations could provide a meaningful response to grievances of different communities and unlock a transformative potential in the ongoing peace and transitional justice process.

Potential leverage in peace processes and trust-building measure

The acknowledgement of collective dimensions of victimization through a collective reparation framework could enhance the inclusion of different and sometimes antagonistic narratives of conflict and victimhood in the official Malian discourse on peace and reconciliation. The recognition that different ethnic or political groups have been affected by serious human rights violations at different moments in Malian history could become important leverage to induce antagonistic groups’ buy-in to the stagnating Malian peace processes.

The notion of collective redress has a particular strong symbolic value in Mali’s Northern and Central regions, where the State is scarcely present and where armed groups mobilize community support against State symbols. By acknowledging collective experiences of victimization, collective reparations represent an important trust-building measure and demonstrate the State’s willingness to protect those communities most affected by recurrent violence.

Longer-term transformative potential

From a longer-term perspective, collective reparations in the form of symbolic or material measures can foster a transformative dynamic by emphasizing the inclusion of marginalized communities into post-conflict nation-building and social and economic development.

On a symbolic level, collective reparations geared towards the restoration and acknowledgement of different group memories can contribute to a more inclusive production of national memory-cultures. In the Malian context, communities most affected by violent conflict tend to feel excluded from the dominant national narrative. Symbolic reparations such as official ceremonies of apology towards victimized communities or the construction of places of remembrances (monuments, cemeteries) paying tribute to these communities are seen as meaningful gestures.

Potential tensions arising from opposing constructions of truth and memory on the local level can be minimized by adding future-oriented messages on the value of diversity, reconciliation and peace. In a context where such competing memories of victimhood abound, victims from Mali’s multi-ethnic north suggest, for example, the building of cultural youth centers or regional peace museums benefitting all local groups. The message accompanying such centers or museums should be decidedly future-oriented, promoting dialogue, cultural diversity and social cohesion around the organization of joints activities. On a nation-wide level, victims suggest the systematic integration of the history of different communities into the national school program. Symbolic reparations representing the collective experiences of different groups could thus feed into a more inclusive construction of national identity based on a diversity of memories.

Beyond the symbolic dimension, needs and expectations for collective reparations are often framed in terms of access to basic services and economic development for those communities most affected by conflict. In the case of Mali, the construction or rehabilitation of specialized psychological and medical centers, and of schools, hospitals, roads, or water points is frequently presented as meaningful collective redress. Depending on the local realities, professional training and support to income generating activities are equally considered as significant forms of reparation to entire communities.

In a context of widespread poverty and devastation, it is not surprising that the provision of basic services, infrastructure and income-generating activities may be the most pressing needs for many conflict-ridden communities. At the same time, claims for collective reparations are often linked to the hope of overcoming the structural causes of marginalization and violence by enhancing social and economic inclusion of the respective communities. If these claims are taken seriously, a collective reparation framework could become an instrument for addressing the underlying structural factors of conflict. They could thereby function as a catalyst for larger questions of social, political and economic transformation in transitional justice processes.

Avoiding common pitfalls

In practice, some common pitfalls should be avoided to ensure that collective reparations can achieve their transformative potential.

First of all, collective reparation programs should not be conceived as an easy way to circumvent the State’s responsibility to repair victims individually or reduce the cost of individual reparation programs. The notion “collective” does not primarily refer to the mode of delivery (reparations benefitting more than one person). Rather, it qualifies the “subject” receiving reparations (the group or community).

Secondly, the distinction between collective reparations and humanitarian aid or development projects on the one hand and the provision of basic services on the other hand must be sufficiently clear. Otherwise, governments could be tempted to declare any form of reconstruction and basic service delivery as collective reparations. Beyond clear criteria defining the notion of “collective victim”, collective reparations need to be distinguished from other state measures by strong official messages of acknowledgement. By accepting collective narratives of victimhood and a responsibility to provide reparation, states mark their willingness to transform state-community relations disrupted by distrust, repression or negligence. In practice, this requires a carefully designed participatory process, engaging actively with the concerned communities on the reparatory value of collective reparations.

Thirdly, there is a risk in transition processes that the discussion about collective reparations becomes hijacked by different actors competing for political recognition and resources. Governments and transitional justice mechanisms may thus be reluctant to engage in collective reparations to avoid new tensions over competing narratives or historical claims. Yet, in light of the transformative potential of a collective reparation process, efforts should focus on designing participatory processes in a conflict-sensitive and inclusive way. Particular attention should be paid to inequalities within communities eligible for collective reparations by considering the needs and aspirations of those most vulnerable or marginalized.

And finally, attention must be paid to the management of potential beneficiaries’ expectations of collective reparations to avoid frustrations. Timeframes and budgetary implications of an inclusive participatory process with qualified facilitators and a sustained level of out-reach to concerned communities need to be carefully planned and communicated. A clearly mandated implementation structure is necessary to prevent administrative hurdles or conflicts over competences and resource management between government authorities on the national and local level.

Recommendations to the German Government

In light of their transformative potential, the German Government should invest in research on lessons learned and best practices in collective reparations, including on their potential as leverage in peace processes. Where partner countries already envisage collective reparations, transitional justice mechanisms could be supported to promote an inclusive dialogue on the appropriate forms of collective reparations in a conflict sensitive manner and with a view to addressing the structural basis of social, political and economic exclusion.

On the political level, partner countries could be encouraged to commit adequate funding and political support to collective reparation programs. On the technical level, the German Government could provide assistance on the design of participatory and inclusive processes and on setting-up well-coordinated implementation structures.

Transitional Justice Mali

Johanna Lober

Johanna Lober is the thematic coordinator on “dealing with the past” in the GIZ project to support stabilization and peace in Mali (PASP).