Who Qualifies For Reparations And Why?

Photo courtesy of Son of Groucho via Flickr

Reparations are amends made to right the wrongs of social injustices or war. Such amends are significant both historically and presently as agreements that can lighten the impact of yesterday’s mistakes.

Today, we see reparations claims by American descendants of the African Slave Trade and Nazi occupation in Greece; relevant given conversations surrounding inequality and debt, respectively.

Reparations: A brief history

The basic idea behind reparations is centuries-old: in the early 1900s, they referred to the price paid by the surrendering side of a conflict, as Germany and its allies did after WWI.

Indeed, “war reparations” have a long history in which the burden of payment (or exchange of goods) fell on the defeated, regardless of status and economic prowess, to pay powerful victors for harm inflicted.

But reparations are more notable lately for their use in addressing human rights violations. Such initiatives compensate victims that suffered due to violations of the state, or the state’s lack of prevention.

Human Rights Reparations

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice and, reparation initiatives can be designed in a variety of ways:

  • Monetary payments made to individuals or groups
  • Agreements of non-repetition, public acceptance of responsibility
  • Social services, such as education and healthcare
  • Symbolic measures, such as formal apologies
  • Land and property

Examples of groups that have received reparations include:

Holocaust survivors:  In 1952, Germany paid $822 million to Holocaust survivors. In 1990, an additional $25 million went to survivors, from Austria.

Native Americans: In past decades, American and Canadian natives including the Klamaths, SIoux, Seminoles, Chippewas, Ottowas, and Eskimos, have been compensated by the US and Canadian governments with billions of dollars as well as land. (Note: This is but a fraction of estimates owed to them in theory; many indigenous people refuse reparations out of principal).

Japanese Americans: In 1990, the Clinton administration compensated survivors of Japanese American internment with about $2 billion, or about $20,000 each.

Violated Chileans: Between 1996 and 2008, victims of the Pinchet regime in Chile have been given $1.6 billion along with specialized health care, as well as an official apology from the current President

Sierra Leone women: In 2010, the female victims of the country’s 10-year armed conflict were given formal apology as the beginning of an ongoing effort to provide modest compensation, rehabilitation, and other benefits to those eligible.

When claims are unanswered

Of course, history has been full of mistreatment, oppression, and crime to degrees of varying levels. Not all of such victims have been granted reparations.

If slavery comes to mind, you’re not the only one: the idea of reparations for descendants of slaves came to the forefront of public discussion after the 2014 publication of “The Case For Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for the Atlantic.

The piece argues that the African American descendants of the formerly enslaved still suffer the social and economic consequences of 300 years of legalized oppression, during years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and beyond.

Another claim for reparations is being made by Greece, leveled against Germany for Nazi occupation in the 1940s, which lead to 250,000 dead of starvation or massacre. Greece is asking $303 billion — a demand that coincides with their economic crisis. Germany, however, argues its debts have already been settled.

Ongoing controversy

Reparation agreements are not without critics: in the case of Germany’s WWI reparations, the burden of payment is thought to have set up conditions that aided the rise of Hitler, and thusly more reparations.

Reparations are also criticized for being a platform to buy a victim’s silence; others disapprove of them as furthering a cycle of victimization by creating a dependence on aid, offsetting sustainable improvement.

Still, many victims of war, internment, genocide and more have in some ways been compensated for the “trouble” (read: horror) of the past — reparations that have come as much as a century after the fact. And for the most part, these have been regarded with favor.

The selectivity of such agreements, however, leads many to wonder: If Japanese Americans, why not African Americans? If the Nazi’s victims in Austria, why not Greece?

[Side note: Users at think that the former has to do with
a) slavery having been a private venture, minimizing the government’s direct accountability
b) other reparation-type incentives and laws passed for ex-slaves during the reconstruction period, pre-Jim Crow]

It’s still murky, though: Who qualifies, and why? Is there an expiration date? Is it a question of morals, justice, or hard cash? Is it something that is meant to fix social ills, repay a debt, or heal in a symbolic manner?

Even the international criteria, published by thought leaders such as Redress, acknowledges that each situation may differ dramatically.

In the case of slavery reparations, propositions of superfunds and social policies have been floated to much controversy, with most agreeing such laws would be unlikely to pass at scale anywhere close to the estimated wealth loss.
And at the end of the day, whether present and future reparation claims are denied or granted, the latter is almost universally true: all the money in the world can’t take back an atrocity, and though it could be a start to restitution, overall healing (for countries and communities alike) is a long and harrowing process.

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Jennifer Markert