There are countless situations in which governments commit or condone gross violations of human rights unto their people. In the past, many of these atrocities have gone unnoticed, unpunished, and unacknowledged. Citizens are often unable to return to normal after their lives have been torn apart by civil war, political violence, or mass atrocity, and the government’s actions face few mechanisms of accountability. Justice is seldom served.[i]
Reparations are forms of remedy that are intended to reinstate an individual’s quality of life as it was before a period of violence. They are usually recommended to a post-transition government by truth commissions or other transitional justice mechanisms.[ii] Reparations can be symbolic or collective, however, the most obvious loss for families is that of an income. Thus, tangible, individual, financial reparations are the most pressing need. Furthermore, reparations are so vital to human existence following conflict that this right is a customary norm of international law and must be adhered to by all states under any circumstances.
As described in the United Nations General Assembly resolution, Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, reparations should be “adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered.” These three broad terms are the most basic language for describing what reparations look like, but they are so undefined that they provide little guidance on a practical level. For example, “prompt” innately refers to a time frame, but if no time frame exists, a government cannot be held accountable because international law has not set an ultimatum. Defining these three elusive terms better can provide a basis to strengthen future reparations programs.
To define “adequate,” it helps to address the substantive losses of victims. There are three main areas of financial concern that a reparations program should address—lost income, lost assets, and costs of medical, legal, and psychological services. This formula is supported by past jurisdiction by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and is easily modified to fit a specific nation’s needs.
“Effective” refers to a reparations program’s accessibility and range. A reparations program should be wide-reaching, non-discriminatory, and efficient. Requests for reparations should be handled with haste and all eligible populations should be notified and informed of their rights. Post-transition agencies should be created to specifically handle these requests.
The most difficult condition of the three to define is “prompt.” Because victims are all different, no universal timeframe exists to suit the needs of every individual exactly when they need it. The optimal lens with which to develop this timeframe is by region, and even by country, with basic data that can be used time and time again. To determine a statistic for “years able to live without reparations,” an assumption that income is zero can provide a start—alluding to a case of death or disappearance. Then divide household yearly expenditure into household wealth, which results in the years a family or individual can survive on existing wealth alone. Practically, if an individual is left with no source of income and is only living off of existing wealth, this number gives us the number of years before this wealth runs out.
The rights to an adequate standard of living, health and well-being, food, clothing, housing, and medical care are all clearly stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If these are withheld or unattainable due to governmental actions, the government is actively violating the human rights of these individuals a second time over if it does not institute a reparations program to guarantee financial well-being. For many regions—including all the case study nations—the right to reparations must be guaranteed within 10 years. For some nations, this number is only three.
So yes, harm that occurs during periods of violence and conflict is a clear violation of human rights. What is not as clear is the ongoing violation of the rights of millions who are forced to live in financial uncertainty without reparations following this period of violence. This is a reality for a large part of the population in Timor-Leste, which has failed to institute a reparations program, but it is also a possibility for many in industrialized nations. The current debate within the United States on reparations for slavery reveals the underlying ignorance of governments across the globe when it comes to holding themselves accountable for unspeakable violations.
Reparations are not simply an apology or a one-time sum, they have palpable effects and are a vital way in which a government can be held accountable to its people. The inaction of governments to uphold this customary norm of international law in a prompt, adequate, and effective manner is in clear violation of the most
Alexandra Byrne is a first-year at the College of William & Mary, pursuing a degree in International Relations. She is a research assistant in the International Justice Lab at William & Mary's Global Research Institute.
[i] Priscilla B. Hayner. Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2011.
[ii] Christine Evans, The Right to Reparation in International Law for Victims of Armed Conflict (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva (OHCHR), 2012), 238.