Leadership-in-Action: Reparations and International Law


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In the beginning of my internship, my work revolved around understanding and distinguishing the different kinds of reparations survivors of human rights abuses are currently owed, as articulated in the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/147, or the 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. Adopted in 2005, the document outlines the five forms of reparations that governments have an obligation to provide to survivors: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.

  1. Restitution
    • A form of reparations which restores the victim to original status before gross violation occurred. This can include a restoration of identity, citizenship, residence, employment, property, etc.
  2. Compensation
    • Any economically assessable damage (including material/moral damage, loss of opportunity, and physical/mental harm, and all the care these require) will be financially compensated.
  3. Rehabilitation
    • Medical care, psychological care, social services, and legal services
  4. Satisfaction
    • Can include fact verification/truth commissions, official declarations & apologies, public commemorations, etc.
  5. Guarantees of Non-Repetition
    • Can include effective military and security forces, strengthening judiciaries, and government protection for human rights defenders¬†

When reading this document for the first time, I was asked to analyze these five to see where Symbolic Reparations fit within these categories. Reparations are forms of reparations that, to some degree, recognize the impact of the event and address it through symbolic measures. This often takes the form of memorials. For example, in Colombia, to commemorate and honor the victims of the Colombian conflict. Artist Doris Salcedo melted down the former weapons of FARC militants and turned it into tiles which are now the floor of an art gallery. The structure forces every visitor to walk on the former weapons, symbolically diminishing their power and influence and illustrating humanity’s triumph over that dark period.

When analyzing these terms, I found myself struggling with some of the terms used and the ideas they upheld, especially when considering the first form of reparations, restitution. The idea that governments, or that any external body for that matter, has the authority to decide to assign quantitative value to both identity and trauma is appalling. How can anyone quantify how much a survivor of conflict-related sexual violence has suffered, and how much that suffering changes or lowers their status before the assault? Upon further reflection, however, I came to understand that this is where co-creation comes into play. This document sets the overall guidelines but allows for so much variability between cases. The broad, almost philosophical nature of these terms allows for survivors to, legally, identify and create reparative measures which best suit their specific needs across the board.

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