PARIS — Politics, in some way, is always a reaction to history. Today the question of how to process the ugliest historical events is increasingly a topic of debate. More than just acknowledgments or apologies, the issue of economic reparations is becoming a key political issue.
Within the past year alone, we've seen growing demands for reparations from descendants of African slaves in the U.S., Korean victims of rape by Japanese soldiers and exploited Algerian fighters in France.
Reparations may come in many forms, ranging from direct compensation to more nuanced policy ideas designed to balance the scales for the historically victimized. We take a look at five different countries to see how the debate is playing out around the world.
The government in Tokyo has faced calls from South Korea to admit culpability for their activities during the Second World War, in particular in relation to "comfort women" — civilians abducted from their homes to be used as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Today, the survivors and descendants of these women continue to protest seeking an apology from the Japanese government. A "Reconciliation and Healing Foundation" was set up in 2015 after an accord between the Japanese and Korean governments to support the surviving comfort women and their descendants. However, Japan has refused to admit culpability or offer an apology.
In response, many comfort women and their supporters have rejected the reparations, and in late 2018 the South Korean government began to dismantle the foundation, jeopardizing its relations with Japan, says Japan Forward. Renowned campaigner and ex-comfort woman Kim Bok-dong, who died earlier this year at age 93, said in 2016: "We won't accept it even if Japan gives 10 billion yen. It's not about money. They're still saying we went there because we wanted to." Upon her death in January 2019, her coffin was carried by protesters, marching for justice and apologies from the Japanese government, according to The Korea Herald.
Politics, in some way, is always a reaction to history
With the United Nations also weighing in last year to express concern "at the lack of adequate reparations to the victims", international scrutiny is being directed at Japan to find a solution. With Japanese-Korean relations already under strain, the pressure is mounting for a full-scale apology before the deaths of any further comfort women, who are still yet to see justice in their lifetimes.
A file photo in South Korea of so-called "comfort women" protesting in front of the Japanese embassy — Photo: Claire Solery
In the upcoming presidential elections in the United States, the issue of slavery reparations has become a touchstone for potential Democratic candidates. With arguments suggesting that the institutional legacy of slavery has helped grow the racial wealth-gap and hinder social mobility for African Americans, the question of how to compensate the disadvantaged descendants of slaves is becoming ever more pertinent.
One of the complications lies in how to calculate the scale of the reparations merited and how to implement a possible scheme. Previous estimates put the cost of reparations between $6 trillion and $14 trillion.
While concrete proposals are yet to be seen, most Democratic candidates have expressed either active support or openness to the notion of reparations for the black community. Some of the more formulated ideas include Senator Kamala Harris's proposal for improved healthcare and Cory Booker's "baby bonds".
The key factor uniting the majority of candidates is the acknowledgment of the practical difficulties with reparations. Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee wants to tackle this with her proposed bill, which would set up a commission to investigate the continued impacts of slavery, and how it can or should be addressed on a policy level.
The issue is definitely gaining ground, as proved by students of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who voted in favor of a referendum to seek the establishment of a reparations fund. The fund, which would benefit the descendants of enslaved people sold off to pay the school's debts, is however far from becoming a reality, reports CBS News.
Britain's colonial past is perhaps the most infamous since the British empire once controlled as much as one-quarter of the globe's total land area. Its alleged crimes against colonies are innumerate, ranging from concentration camps in the Boer War to redirecting foods and causing famine in India. Much of this history remains formally unacknowledged, with the vast majority of former colonies seeing little in the way of either apologies or reparations.
The response was swift and massive.
The exception, however, is the case of the Kikuyu Kenyans and the Mau Mau uprising. In British Kenya in 1952, around 20,000 Mau Mau warriors from the Kikuyu tribe fought an armed and bloody assault against the British administration. The British response was swift and massive, aimed at confronting not just the Mau Mau, but the whole 1.5-million-strong Kikuyu population. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were detained and tortured in concentration camps intended to "civilize" the Kenyans.
Nearly 60 years later, a lawsuit against the British government led to the first instance of broken silence around Britain's imperial behavior. The suit was brought by the surviving Kenyans and their descendants and supported by expert witness historians. It led to a formal acknowledgment of the torture carried out by the British government at the time, and to 5,228 Kenyans being recompensed.
Despite this precedent, it remains to be seen whether new cases can arise. This April brought the centenary of India's Amritsar Massacre, in which hundreds of peacefully protesting innocent Indian citizens, including children, were shot and killed by the British military. "Even in the centenary year of the massacre," said the Hindustan Times, "Britain has refused to take that important step."
Like many European powers, France has a long and bloody history of colonialism, notably over swathes of Northern Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Their history in these regions was as exploitative and violent as other colonial powers, yet France has drawn attention to what has been seen as its steadfast refusal to accept its responsibility.
Indeed, when pressed about the possibility of reparations in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron labeled the prospect "ridiculous", according to Radio France Internationale. However, he did acknowledge and recognize the acts committed by the French against Algerians as "crimes against humanity", including the mass slaughter of dissidents.
While large strides are yet to be taken to acknowledge its colonial history, France has made recent progress. French daily newspaper Le Monde reported in September 2018 that Macron had acknowledged France's regular use of torture during the Algerian conflict – but highlighted the variety of atrocities the state have yet to apologize for, including the assassination of Algerian monks and the refusal to return the remains of Algerian soldiers.
That same month, Le Figaro also reported on Macron's promised reparations towards "harkis", a group of Algerian Muslims who fought for the French yet faced discrimination and violence after the conflict. The initial plan was recognition and compensation in the form of a 40 million euro fund set up to aid 80,000 Harki descendants. Yet for the roughly 200,000 Harkis living in France, this is insufficient; a figure calculated by the National Harki Liaison Committee put appropriate reparations closer to 40 billion euros.
The issue of reparations has become hotly contested in Spain recently in connection with Mexico, which gained independence from the Spanish empire almost 200 years ago. Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made a controversial call to Spain and the Pope for an apology for the historical indigenous slaughter that took place during Spain's conquest.
AMLO's demand, perhaps expectedly, has been met with ire and resistance from much of the Spanish government, as reported in Spain's El País. The decisive stance of the Spanish government is that it is not their responsibility to seek forgiveness for the actions of their forefathers.
The unique circumstances of Mexico's cultural identity here complicate things. The conquistadors who initially took control of the Mexican territory did indeed commit acts of torture and murder against indigenous people — but often independently of the Spanish government. Furthermore, the vast majority of those conquistadors settled in Mexico and didn't return back to Spain, so the question of whose ancestors were responsible seems dubious.
El País reports that AMLO alluded to Spain's 2015 decision to offer reparations and citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews who were kicked out of Spain 500 years ago.
The Mexican president was not without his supporters, however, even in the Iberian peninsula. Alfred Bosch, Catalonia's minister of foreign affairs, deplored "the death of millions of people and the disappearance of entire cultures."
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