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Lukas H. Meyer ( H r s g j "

Justice in Time
Responding to Historical Injustic

stice

Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft
Baden-Baden

Lukas H. Meyer (Hrsg.)

Justice in Time

Responding to Historical Injustice

Interdisziplinre Studien zu Recht und Staat


In Verbindung mit
Winfried Brugger, Joachim Hruschka,
Arthur Kaufmann f, Hermann Kienner,
Ernst-Joachim Lampe, Niklas Luhmann f,
Manfred Rehbinder, Hubert Rottleuthner,
Rdiger Schott
herausgegeben von
Werner Maihofer und Gerhard Sprenger
Band 30

Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft
Baden-Baden

Die Interdisziplinren Studien zu Recht und Staat sind eine neue Folge des Jahrbuchs fr Rechtssoziologie und Rechtstheorie, das in den Jahren 1970-1993 beim
Bertelsmann Universittsverlag Reinhard Mohn bzw. Westdeutschen Verlag erschienen ist.
Bereits in den letzten Jahren gingen die Inhalte sachlichen Notwendigkeiten gehorchend zunehmend ber die Bereiche Rechtssoziologie und Rechtstheorie hinaus.
Fast immer wurden auch grundlegende Fragen der Rechtsphilosophie und Staatstheorie mitbehandelt. Dies soll im neuen Titel der Reihe zum Ausdruck kommen
und noch ein anderes: die in den Jahrbuch-Bnden verffentlichten Beitrge und
Diskussionen haben durchweg fachbergreifenden Charakter. Sie sind berwiegend
aus Tagungen hervorgegangen, die durch das Zentrum fr interdisziplinre Forschung (ZiF) der Universitt Bielefeld gefrdert wurden. Auch dies sollte in dem
neuen Namen deutlich werden.
berlingen/Bielefeld 1994

Die Herausgeber

Vorwort

Vom 12.-14. Juli 2001 fand am Einstein Forum Potsdam in Kooperation mit dem Institut fr interkulturelle und internationale Studien der Universitt Bremen eine Tagung
zum Thema "Historical Justice/Historische Gerechtigkeit" statt, die die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft und das British Council gefrdert und zu der Professor Chaim
Gans und ich eingeladen haben. Chaim Gans und ich hatten im Juni 1998 erstmals ber
eine Tagung zum Thema "Historische Gerechtigkeit" gesprochen. Der berwiegenden
Zahl der Beitrge in diesem Band liegen Referate der Potsdamer Tagung zugrunde.
Im Namen aller Beteiligten mchte ich der Direktorin des Einstein Forums, Professor
Susan Neiman, und ihren Mitarbeitern, insbesondere Dr. Martin Schaad und Dr. Matthias Kro, fr die Untersttzung des mit diesem Band dokumentierten Vorhabens
herzlich danken. Matthias Kro machte den Vorschlag, die Veranstaltung am Einstein
Forum durchzufhren. Martin Schaad hat das Zustandekommen und die Durchfhrung
der Tagung beispielhaft und auf vielfltige Weise untersttzt.
Frau Susanne Baass, Bremen, hat mit grter Geduld und Sorgfalt die Manuskripte fr
den Druck vorbereitet.

Bibliografische Information Der Deutschen Bibliothek


Die Deutsche Bibliothek verzeichnet diese Publikation in
der Deutschen Nationalbibliografie; detaillierte bibliografische
Daten sind im Internet ber http://dnb.ddb.de abrufbar.
ISBN 3-8329-0503-0

1. Auflage 2004
Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden 2004. Printed in Germany. Alle Rechte, auch die des Nachdrucks von Auszgen, der photomechanischen Wiedergabe und
der bersetzung, vorbehalten. Gedruckt auf alterungsbestndigem Papier.

Bremen, im Juli 2003

Lukas H. Meyer

Table of Contents

Vorwort
Lukas H. Meyer
Einleitung

I.

Philosophical Perspectives

53

1. Jeremy Waldron
Redressing Historic Injustice

55

2. Chaim Gans
Historical Rights

79

3. Janna Thompson
Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

101

4. Thomas W. Pogge
Historical Wrongs. The Two Other Domains

117

5. George Sher
Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights

135

6. Rahul Kumar and David Silver


The Legacy of Injustice. Wronging the Future, Responsibility for the Past

145

7. Paul Patton
Colonization and Historical Injustice - The Australian Experience

159

8. Lukas H. Meyer
Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

173

9. David Heyd
Ressentiment and Reconciliation. Alternative Responses to Historical Evil

185

10. George P. Fletcher


The Relevance of Biblical Thought for Understanding Guilt and Shame

199

Table of Contents

Einleitung*

II.

Institutional Responses to Historical Injustice

207

11. Ruti Teitel


Transitional Historical Justice

209

12. Jon Elster


A Case Study of Transitional Justice. Athens in 411 and 403 B.C.

223

Lukas H. Meyer

Inhaltsverzeichnis
1.

13. Claus Offe and Ulrike Poppe


Transitional Justice in the German Democratic Republic and in Unified
Germany
14. David Lyons
Unfinished Business. Racial Junctures in US History and Their Legacy
75. Jaime Malamud Goti
The Moral Dilemmas about Trying Pinochet in Spain
16. Christian Tomuschat
Comments on: Jaime Malamud Goti, "The Moral Dilemmas about Trying
Pinochet in Spain"
17. Andrei Marmor
Entitlement to Land and the Right of Return: An Embarrassing Challenge for
Liberal Zionism
18. Chaim Gans
Comments on: Andrei Marmor, "Entitlement to Land and the Right of Return:
An Embarrassing Challenge for Liberal Zionism"
19. Andreas F0llesdal
The Special Claims of Indigenous Minorities to Corrective Justice

239
271

299

315

319

335

339

Das Nicht-Identittsproblem

11

1.1 Die Schwellenwertskonzeption der Schdigung

12

1.2 Andere Interpretationen historischen Unrechts

13

2.

15

Die Relevanz hypothetischer Geschichtsverlufe

2.1 Epistemische Probleme und Freiheit der Entscheidung

15

2.2 Unterlassungen in der realen und Leistungen in der hypothetischen Welt

15

3.

16

Die Aufhebung historischer Ansprche aufgrund vernderter Umstnde?

3.1 Jeremy Waldrons Aufhebungsthese

16

3.2 Die identittsstiftende Bedeutung von Land und der Anspruch der
Palstinenser auf Rckkehr

17

3.3 Der Anspruch indigener Gruppen auf Restitution der Kontrolle ber
identittsstiftendes Territorium

20

4.

23

Pflichten aufgrund historischen Unrechts und historischer Schdigung

4.1 Indirekte Pflichten von Mitgliedern andauernder Gesellschaften

23

4.2 Geteilte Scham oder kollektive Schuld?

26

4.3 Das Verbot des Trittbrettfahrens

27

5.

30

Strafrecht und Strafverfahren als Modus der Transition to Democracy

5.1 Transitorische Strafverfolgung im internationalen Vergleich

31

5.2 Moralische Dilemmata der Strafverfolgung von System verbrechen durch


Fremde

32
36

20. Axel Gosseries


Historical Emissions and Free-riding

355

5.3 Transitorische Strafverfolgung in der Wahlsituation

21. David A. Crocker


Punishment, Reconciliation, and Democratic Deliberation

5.4 Transitorische Strafverfolgung in der Notsituation

40

383

6.

Die Haltung der Opfer

44

List of Contributors

409

7.

Schlussbemerkung

46

10

Lukas H. Meyer

Der Titel Justice in Time. Responding to Historical Injustices verweist auf die Fragen,
ob Gerechtigkeit in der Zeit und ber die Generationen mglich ist, und inwiefern historische Gerechtigkeitsansprche sich abhngig unter anderem vom temporalen Abstand
zur Unrechtstat ndern. Zugleich will der Titel daran erinnern, dass z.B. der Anspruch
auf Kompensation wegen historischen Unrechts ein dringender Anspruch ist. Den
berlebenden Opfern kann nur geholfen werden, solange sie leben.
Die vorliegenden Beitrge von Philosophen, Rechts- und Sozial Wissenschaftlern untersuchen also die Frage: Welche Reaktion auf historisches Unrecht ist angemessen oder
erforderlich? Insbesondere geht es um die Klrung der moralischen Ansprche, Rechte1
und Pflichten von Menschen wegen historischen Unrechts. Unter historischem Unrecht
wird erstens verstanden: das an anderen Menschen als denen, die heute wegen der Unrechtshandlungen Ansprche erheben, und von anderen als denen, die heute wegen der
Unrechtshandlungen unter Pflichten stehen, in der Vergangenheit verbte Unrecht. Unter historischem Unrecht wird zweitens verstanden: Handlungen, die unter einem vorrechtsstaatlichen Regime als rechtmig galten und womglich positiv sozial sanktioniert wurden, aber gem Grundannahmen liberaler politischer Philosophie2 als Unrechtshandlungen einzuschtzen sind und nach einer Transition zu einer rechtsstaatlichen Ordnung negativ sanktioniert werden knnen oder sollen.
Historische Gerechtigkeit hat demnach Aspekte intergenerationeller Gerechtigkeit3
und der Gerechtigkeit bei der, um den Terminus technicus zu nennen, Transition to
Democracy4 zum Gegenstand, nmlich die normative Bezugnahme gegenwrtig lebender Menschen auf das Handeln und das Leiden frher lebender Personen oder von Personen, die unter einem frheren, vorrechtsstaatlichen Regime gelebt haben. Es handelt
sich dabei um eine Bezugnahme aus Grnden der Gerechtigkeit,5 wenn von zuknftig
und gegenwrtig lebenden Menschen gesagt werden kann, dass sie Rechte gegenber
gegenwrtig lebenden Menschen haben und wenn von gegenwrtig lebenden Menschen

*
1

3
4

Fr Hinweise danke ich Barbara Reiter und Jutta Gabriela Richter.


Im Folgenden verwende ich moralische Rechte und legitime Ansprche gleichbedeutend. Das
scheint unproblematisch, solange wir annehmen, dass auch einen legitimen Anspruch zu haben
impliziert, dass eine andere Person oder andere Personen unter (der) korrelativen Pflicht(en) stehen,
dem Anspruch zu entsprechen.
Zu den Annahmen zhlen ein universell geltender Wertindividualismus und ein Kriterium richtigen
Handelns, das fr alle Personen gleichermaen gilt, und in diesem Sinne neutral ist. Zu den substantiellen Annahmen zhlt die intrinsische Wertschtzung der Handlungsautonomie. Zu den dringendsten Handlungsgrnden im Sinne des genannten Kriteriums richtigen Handelns zhlt, die Verletzung fundamentaler Rechte zu vermeiden: niemand darf fundamentale Rechte von Menschen
verletzen, jedenfalls dann nicht, wenn nicht der Schutz anderer ebenfalls durch gleich- oder hherrangige Menschenrechte geschtzter Werte eine solche Verletzung erlaubt oder gar erfordert. Ob
wir uns je in einer solchen Situation befinden ist umstritten, und, wenn das zugestanden ist, dann ist
umstritten, ob und in welchem Sinne die genannte Bedingung die Verletzung eines fundamentalen
Rechts rechtfertigen kann.
Siehe mein "Justice, Intergenerational", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.
edu/).
Siehe N.J. Kritz, Transitional Justice. Die besonderen Probleme der Transitional Justice gehren
typischerweise zur nicht-idealen Theorie und zwar in beiden von John Rawls unterschiedenen Hinsichten (J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 2450: Transitional Justice ist eine Reaktion auf Unrecht und
dessen langfristige schdigende Konsequenzen, und hufig sind zudem die konomischen, sozialen
und kulturellen Bedingungen der Transition fr die Durchsetzung von Gerechtigkeitsansprchen
ungnstig. Siehe Abschnitt 5, insbesondere 5. 3-4, und Fn. 50 unten.
Fr dieses Verstndnis von Gerechtigkeitsansprchen und Pflichten der Gerechtigkeit siehe z.B.
J.S. Mill, "Utilitarianism", Kap. 5.

Einleitung

11

gesagt werden kann, dass sie unter den korrelativen Pflichten gegenber diesen Menschen stehen.
Historische Gerechtigkeit wirft eine Reihe philosophischer Fragen auf. Zu ihnen
zhlen: Das Nicht-Identittsproblem (Abschnitt 1), die Frage der Relevanz hypothetischer Geschichtsverlufe (Abschnitt 2), die der Relevanz vernderter Bedingungen fr
die Geltung historischer Ansprche (Abschnitt 3), und die Frage, wer aufgrund historischen Unrechts heute unter welchen Pflichten steht (Abschnitt 4). Ein Fokus der philosophischen und rechtswissenschaftlichen berlegungen zu Transitional Justice ist die
Frage der Legitimitt insbesondere strafrechtlicher Sanktionen gegen Menschen aufgrund von Handlungen, die sie unter und womglich im Namen des Vorgngerregimes
verbt haben und die zur Tatzeit als legal galten und womglich positiv sanktioniert
wurden (Abschnitt 5). Wenn Vershnung auch um den Preis des Verzichts auf strafrechtliche Verfolgung als politisches Ziel der Transition ausgewiesen wird, wie prominenterweise in Sdafrika geschehen, verweist dies auf Fragen der Zumutbarkeit fr die
Opfer und der Haltung, die fr sie angemessen ist (Abschnitt 6).
Viele Autoren dieses Bandes, z.B. Andreas F0llesdal, Chaim Gans, David Heyd,
Andrei Marmor, Lukas Meyer, Paul Patton, und Jeremy Waldron, untersuchen oder
bemhen sich um die Vermittlung von zwei grundlegenden Perspektiven auf vergangenes Unrecht, der zukunfts- und der vergangenheitsorientierten. In zukunftsorientierter
Perspektive untersuchen wir die Signifikanz der bleibenden Wirkung vergangenen Unrechts fr gegenwrtig und zuknftig lebende Menschen und insbesondere fr deren
Gerechtigkeitsansprche. Diese werden dann als Ansprche distributiver Gerechtigkeit
gedeutet. In vergangenheitsorientierter Perspektive untersuchen wir die Implikationen
des an frher lebenden Menschen begangenen Unrechts fr die Pflichten, unter denen
gegenwrtig lebende Menschen stehen knnen, und zwar unabhngig von Konsequenzen des vergangenen Unrechts fr das Wohlergehen gegenwrtig und zuknftig lebender Menschen. So es hier um Pflichten der Gerechtigkeit geht, sind dies Pflichten der
korrektiven und kompensatorischen Gerechtigkeit.6
/.

Das Nicht-Identittsproblem1

Die Beziehungen zwischen gegenwrtig lebenden und zuknftig lebenden Menschen


6

Wenigstens vier Interpretationen des Verhltnisses von distributiver und korrektiver bzw. kompensatorischer Gerechtigkeit lassen sich unterscheiden. Erstens, kompensatorische Gerechtigkeit weist
Prinzipien aus, die der Wiederherstellung oder dem Erhalt distributiv gerechter Verhltnisse dienen.
Siehe z.B. G.F. Gaus, "Does Compensation Restore Equality?", 45-81, insb. 54f. Mit diesem Verstndnis des Verhltnisses konkurrieren wenigstens drei Alternativen: kompensatorische Gerechtigkeit ist ein konstitutives Element distributiver Gerechtigkeit, insofern erstere Bedingungen angibt,
die es bei der Verfolgung des Ziels der distributiven Gerechtigkeit zu beachten gilt, weil diese Bedingungen Aspekte unseres Verstndnisses distributiver Gerechtigkeit ausdrcken; siehe z.B. E.
Anderson, "Compensation within the Limits of Reliance Alone", 178-85, 179f. Zweitens, kompensatorische und distributive Gerechtigkeit sind begrifflich voneinander unabhngig und die Verfolgung des Ziels kompensatorischer Gerechtigkeit kann mit der Verfolgung des Ziels distributiver
Gerechtigkeit konfligieren; siehe z.B. J.S. Fishkin, "Justice between Generations", 85-96, 92.
Schlielich sei auch das Verstndnis erwhnt, nach welchem kompensatorische und distributive Gerechtigkeit dasselbe Ziel verfolgen; siehe R.E. Goodin, "Compensation and Redistribution", 14377, 157f, 165f. Zu diesem Fragenkomplex siehe J. Coleman, Risks and Wrongs, 303-54. Zu Colemans jngsten Arbeiten S.R. Perry, "The Distributive Turn", 141-62; Colemans Antwort, "Second
Thoughts and Other First Impressions", 257-322, 306-16.
Siehe mein "Justice, Intergenerational", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato. Stanford,
edu/), insbesondere Abschnitte 2.1-2.

12

sind durch eine Reihe von Merkmalen charakterisiert, die nicht fr die Beziehungen
unter Zeitgenossen gelten. Wieder andere Merkmale charakterisieren das Verhltnis von
gegenwrtig lebenden zu frher lebenden Menschen. Aber das Kontingenzproblem, wie
ich es nennen werde, stellt sich gleichermaen fr wichtige Aspekte beider Seiten der
intergenerationellen Beziehungen: hinsichtlich der Pflichten gegenwrtiger Generationen, die Rechte zuknftiger Generationen nicht zu verletzen, und der Pflichten gegenwrtig lebender Generationen, die Schden gegenwrtig lebender Menschen zu kompensieren, die ihnen durch die bleibende Wirkung von historischem Unrecht zugefgt
werden. Das Kontingenzproblem beruht auf der Tatsache; dass die Existenz und Identitt von zuknftig lebenden Menschen von den Entscheidungen und Handlungen gegenwrtig lebender Menschen abhngen knnen. Dies gilt auch fr Handlungen, die wir
gemeinhin als schdigend auffassen. Wenn die schdigende Handlung zugleich notwendige Bedingung der Existenz und Identitt von Menschen ist, wie knnen diese dann
aufgrund dieser Handlung als geschdigt gelten?
1.1

Die Schwellenwertskonzeption der Schdigung

Die Schwellenwertskonzeption, nicht aber das bliche diachronische8 oder hypothetisch-historische9 Verstndnis von Schdigung erlaubt uns, Handlungen als zuknftig
lebende Menschen schdigende und ihre Rechte verletzende auszuweisen, auch wenn
diese Handlungen selbst zu den notwendigen Bedingungen der Existenz und Identitt
dieser Menschen zhlen.10 Sowohl das diachronische wie das hypothetisch-historische
Verstndnis setzen voraus, dass die Existenz der geschdigten Person oder Personen als
Individuen unabhngig von der schdigenden Handlung besteht. Wenn wir aber die
Schwellenwertskonzeption vertreten, dann knnen wir von zuknftig lebenden Menschen sagen, dass sie durch unsere Handlungen geschdigt werden, auch wenn es der
Fall ist, dass die Existenz der derart geschdigten Menschen kausal abhngig ist von
unserer Entscheidung, diese Handlung auszufhren. Die Schwellenwertskonzeption
kann in der folgenden Formel ausgedrckt werden:
Eine Handlung (oder Unterlassung) zum Zeitpunkt t\ schdigt eine Person nur dann,
wenn der Handelnde verursacht oder zulsst, dass das Leben dieser Person unter einen
spezifizierten Schwellenwert fllt.
Entsprechend knnen gegenwrtig lebende Menschen, die nicht selbst Opfer der an
anderen verbten Unrechtshandlungen sind, Ansprche auf Kompensationsleistungen
geltend machen, wenn es stimmt, dass an ihren Vorfahren verbtes Unrecht bleibende
Wirkungen hat, die diese Menschen im Sinne der Schwellenwertskonzeption schdigen,
8

10

Einleitung

Lukas H. Meyer

Das diachronische Verstndnis kann in der folgenden Formel ausgedrckt werden:


Eine Handlung (oder Unterlassung) zum Zeitpunkt t\ schdigt eine Person nur dann, wenn der Handelnde verursacht oder zulsst, dass es dieser Person zu einem Zeitpunkt tj schlechter geht, als es
ihr zum Zeitpunkt ?i ergangen ist.
Das hypothetisch-historische Verstndnis kann in der folgenden Formel ausgedrckt werden:
Eine Handlung (oder Unterlassung) zum Zeitpunkt t\ schdigt eine Person nur dann, wenn der Handelnde verursacht oder zulsst, dass es dieser Person zu einem Zeitpunkt t% schlechter geht, als es
ihr ergangen wre, htte der Handelnde mit dieser (oder mit Blick auf diese) Person nicht interagiert.
Fr die Unterscheidungen siehe D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 487-90; J. Woodward, 'The NonIdentity Problem", 802f, 818; E.H. Morreim, 'The Concept of Harm Reconceived", 3-33, 23; J.S.
Fishkin, "Justice between Generations", 85-96; ders., 'The Limits of Intergenerational Justice", 6283, 63f; S. Shiffrin, "Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm",
117-48. Fr die Bezeichnungen siehe T.W. Pogge, "'Assisting' the Global Poor".

13

und eben auch wenn die historischen Unrechtshandlungen selbst zu den notwendigen
Bedingungen der Existenz und Identitt dieser Menschen zhlen. Der Ausweis der Legitimitt derart begrndeter Kompensationsansprche der Nachfahren von Opfem historischen Unrechts ist Ausdruck der zukunftsorientierten Interpretation der Signifikanz
der Konsequenzen historischen Unrechts."
Gbe es keine Lsung des Nicht-Identittsproblems, dann lieen sich auch, wie
George Sher in seinem Beitrag hervorhebt, in den intuitiv plausibelsten Fllen Kompensationsansprche der indirekten Opfer wegen historischem Unrecht nicht ausweisen.
Die angedeutete Lsung, der Ausweis einer identitts-unabhngigen Schwellenwertskonzeption der Schdigung, kann unterschiedlich interpretiert werden. Immer geht es
um die Relevanz der Konsequenzen frherer Zustnde der Welt fr das Wohlbefinden
gegenwrtig und zuknftig lebender Menschen. Der Vorschlag, die Kompensationsansprche gegenwrtig lebender Menschen unter Bercksichtigung des hypothetischen
Verlaufs der Geschichte, nmlich einer Geschichte ohne die frhere Rechtsverletzung
zu bestimmen, drfte mit einer Schwellenwertskonzeption der Schdigung unvereinbar
sein. Unabhngig vom Nicht-Identittsproblem wirft der Vorschlag die Frage auf, welche Relevanz der hypothetische Verlauf der Geschichte fr die Ansprche heute lebender Menschen haben kann (Abschnitt 2).
1.2

Andere Interpretationen historischen Unrechts

Andererseits sind einige Interpretationen der Signifikanz historischen Unrechts vom


Nicht-Identittsproblem nicht betroffen. Erstens knnte man annehmen, wie in den
Beitrgen von Patton und Waldron diskutiert, dass weiter bestehenden transgenerationellen Gruppen als solchen Unrecht getan wurde und diese Gruppen heute Trger der
entsprechenden Ansprche auf Kompensation und Restitution sind.12 Hier tritt das
Nicht-Identittsproblem deshalb nicht auf, weil die Identitt des Opfers, nmlich die
Identitt der Gruppe, als gleichbleibend angenommen wird. Wenigstens drei Probleme
lassen sich mit Blick auf diese Interpretation unterscheiden: Knnen Gruppen als solche
Trger moralischer Ansprche sein? Diese Annahme ist mit dem liberale politische
Philosophie kennzeichnenden normativen Individualismus nicht vereinbar. Handelt es
sich tatschlich um dieselbe Gruppe? Insofern die Gruppe beispielsweise mit dem identifiziert wird, was sie fr ihre Mitglieder und fr die Nachfahren der frheren Mitglieder
der Gruppe bedeutet und leistet, sind hufig erhebliche Vernderungen seit dem historischen Unrecht festzustellen. Ist auch angesichts der Bedeutung und der Leistungen der
heute bestehenden Gruppe von einer Schdigung aufgrund historischen Unrechts auszugehen und sind Kompensations- und Restitutionsansprche plausibel? Diese Frage verweist auf das Problem der Signifikanz hypothetischer Geschichtsverlufe (Abschnitt 2)
und die Mglichkeit, dass historische Ansprche durch vernderte Umstnde (und damit
einhergehende konfligierende Ansprche anderer) in der Gegenwart berholt sind (Abschnitt 3).
Zweitens unterbreiten Kumar und Silver den Vorschlag, dass heute lebende Personen
fr sie wichtige, ihre Identitt mitkonstituierende Merkmale mit frher lebenden Menschen teilen, denen schlimmes Unrecht zugefgt wurde. Deshalb erleiden auch die heute
lebenden Personen ein Unrecht, ohne dass sie durch das historische Unrecht geschdigt
11
12

Siehe mein "Past and Future".


Hierzu siehe auch schon den Beitrag von D. Lyons, "The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to
Land", 249-72,27 If.

14

Lukas H. Meyer

wren, nmlich solange das an Menschen mit ihren Merkmalen verbte Unrecht nicht in
angemessener Weise restituiert wurde. Fr die Feststellung, dass heute lebende Personen Unrecht erleiden, ist der Umstand, dass das frhere Unrecht notwendige Bedingung
der Existenz und Identitt eben dieser Menschen ist, deshalb von keiner Bedeutung,
weil die Identitt der heute lebenden Opfer als Individuen irrelevant ist und das in Frage
stehende Unrecht als unabhngig von der Schdigung der frher lebenden Vorfahren
gedacht wird.
Allerdings wirft diese Interpretation ihrerseits Fragen auf. Selbst wenn wir mit den
Autoren die Plausibilitt des dem Werk Tim Scanions13 entlehnten Verstndnisses von
Unrecht voraussetzen, ist es doch zweifelhaft, dass die historischen Ansprche der
Nachfahren etwa der U.S.-amerikanischen Sklaven zutreffend interpretiert sind, wenn
die andauernden Konsequenzen der Sklaverei fr das Wohlbefinden der Nachfahren
unbercksichtigt bleiben. Sollen sie im Sinne der Schdigung indirekter Opfer als Individuen bercksichtigt werden, bedarf es einer Lsung des Nicht-Identittsproblems.
Drittens weist Thomas Pogge darauf hin, dass die Legitimitt von andauernden Institutionen davon abhngen kann, ob die prozeduralen und anderen Bedingungen, denen
sie ihre Existenz verdanken, fair gewesen sind. Sind Entstehungsbedingungen von Institutionen unfair oder Ausdruck historischen Unrechts gewesen, wie dies etwa fr den
Ausschluss der Frauen von politischen Entscheidungen gilt und auch fr den rechtlichen
oder effektiven Ausschluss von Sklaven, frheren Sklaven und deren Nachfahren von
Entscheidungen ber die Regelungen zur Distribution und Sicherung von Eigentum in
den USA, so haftet diesen Entscheidungen, gesetzlichen Regelungen und den auf ihnen
beruhenden Institutionen ein Makel an und zwar unabhngig davon, wie wir diese Entscheidungen heute in ihren Konsequenzen und in der Sache beurteilen. Pogge vertritt
die Auffassung, dass ein solcher Makel Grund fr die nderung der Regelungen sein
kann, jedenfalls aber fr eine berprfung dieser Regelungen unter fairen Bedingungen
heute.
Auch fr die Idee berlebender Pflichten mit Blick auf heute tote Menschen ist das
Nicht-Identittsproblem von keiner Relevanz. Die Konsequenzen frherer Schdigung
stehen nicht zur Debatte, und es wird auch nicht angenommen, dass heute lebende Menschen durch ihr Handeln Verstorbene schdigen oder begnstigen knnen. Entscheidend
sind vielmehr die Implikationen der zukunftsorientierten Rechte frher lebender Personen fr den Ausweis von Pflichten gegenwrtig lebender Menschen mit Blick auf die
frher lebenden Rechtstrger. Ist femer plausibel, dass Menschen generell ein Interesse
an einem ihren Handlungen entsprechenden, verdienten, auch posthumen Ruf haben,
und ist ihr Ruf dadurch schwer beschdigt, dass ihnen schlimmes oder schlimmstes Unrecht angetan wurde, ohne dass sie als Opfer solchen Unrechts ffentlich Anerkennung
finden und die Tter als solche identifiziert sind, dann knnen gegenwrtig lebende
Menschen mit Blick auf sie unter der Pflicht stehen, sie ffentlich als Opfer solchen
Unrechts zu erinnern. Diese berlebende Pflicht wird als Pflicht zur symbolischen
Kompensation interpretiert. Meyer vertritt die vergangenheitsorientierte Position berlebender Pflichten allerdings nur in Ergnzung zu einer zukunftsorientierten der Kompensation fr die andauernden schdigenden Konsequenzen historischen Unrechts, und
letztere setzt die Lsung des Nicht-Identittsproblems voraus.14

13
14

T.M. Scanion, What We Owe To Each Other.


Untersuchen wir die Ansprche der berlebenden direkten Opfer von Unrecht, z.B. von Unrecht,
das unter einem frheren Regime begangen wurde, ist das Nicht-Identittsprobiem offensichtlich
von keiner Relevanz. Dazu siehe Abschnitt 5 unten.

Einleitung

2.
2.1

15

Die Relevanz hypothetischer Geschichtsverlufe15


Epistemische Probleme und Freiheit der Entscheidung

Nach Auffassung vieler soll zur Bestimmung historischer Ansprche indirekter Opfer
der Vergleich des tatschlichen Zustands der Welt mit dem hypothetischen, der bestnde, wre das Unrecht nicht geschehen, relevant sein. Wie betont setzte diese Auffassung eine Lsung des Nicht-Identittsproblems voraus, die ihrerseits mit dieser Auffassung vereinbar ist. (Oder man klammert fr den Zweck der Untersuchung das NichtIdentittsproblem aus.)16 Die berlegung fut auf der Intuition, dass es indirekten Opfern heute nicht schlechter gehen sollte, als es ihnen gegangen wre, wren ihre Vorfahren nicht Opfer von Unrecht gewesen. Jeremy Waldron ist der Auffassung, dass wir
nicht wissen knnen, wie es Menschen heute ginge, wre das Unrecht nicht geschehen.
Zudem sei der Geschichtsverlauf von den freien Entscheidungen von Akteuren abhngig und unsere Spekulation darber, wie Menschen sich unter den hypothetischen Bedingungen entschieden htten, sei von keiner normativen Relevanz fr die Einschtzung, was heute lebenden Menschen zusteht.17
2.2

Unterlassungen in der realen und Leistungen in der hypothetischen Welt

Auch George Sher hlt die epistemischen Probleme der berlegung fr enorm, und
fhrt aus, dass, so die berlegung mit Blick auf Unrecht mit andauernder Schdigungswirkung relevant sei, wenigstens zwei Faktoren zu bercksichtigen sind. Diese
Faktoren betreffen, was Personen aufgrund ihrer Unterlassungen und Handlungen verdientermaen zukommt. Die hypothetischen Zustnde der Welt, die ohne die Schdigung aufgrund der Verletzung von Eigentumsrechten und ohne anderes schdigendes
Unrecht bestnden, seien nicht unmittelbar relevant fr die Bestimmung der Kompensationsansprche heute lebender (indirekter) Opfer. Die Relevanz sei in dem Mae unterminiert, indem, erster Faktor, die tatschlichen Ansprche einer Person in der Welt,
in der wir leben, durch dieser Person zuschreibbare Unterlassungen verringert sind, und,
zweiter Faktor, die Ansprche einer Person in der hypothetischen Welt auf ihre Leistungen in eben dieser Welt zurckzufhren sind. Deshalb knne die tatschlich heute
lebende Person nicht all die Gter beanspruchen, ber welche die Person in der hypothetischen Welt zu Recht verfgte, sondern habe bestenfalls einen Anspruch auf die
"opportunity to acquire these entitlements".18 Die Mglichkeit des Erwerbs der Ansprche ist von deutlich geringerem Wert als die Realisierung der Ansprche.
15
16

17

18

Hierzu siehe auch D. Lyons, 'The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land".
Whrend im vorliegenden Band Jeremy Waldron die Relevanz des Nicht-Identittsproblems betont,
aber keine Lsung anbietet, erwhnt George Sher Lsungen des Problems, ohne sie eingehend zu
diskutieren.
Robert Nozicks Theorie der Gerechtigkeit grndet unsere Pflichten in vergangenheitsorientierter
berlegung. Auch Nozick betont die epistemischen Schwierigkeiten bei der Feststellung, was Menschen heute besen, htte es die Ungerechtigkeiten (verbt an frher lebenden Menschen) nicht
gegeben. Er vertritt aber die generalisierte Vermutung, dass die heute Schlechtestgestellten zu denen gehren, die auch durch die Konsequenzen historischen Unrechts benachteiligt sind. Nozick
schlgt vor, Rawls' Differenzprinzip - ein zukunftsorientiertes Prinzip distributiver Gerechtigkeit solle als ein "rough rule of thumb for rectifying" historische Ungerechtigkeit dienen. Siehe R. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 152f, 231. Damit ist noch nichts gesagt zum Problem der Nichtanwendbarkeit eines identittsabhngigen Begriffs der Schdigung.
Dieser Band, 140.

16

Lukas H. Meyer

Dies gelte fr weit zurckliegendes Unrecht ebenso wie fr Unrecht aus jngster
Vergangenheit, sei aber, so Sher, besonders signifikant fr weit zurckliegendes Unrecht. Denn die Faktoren beeinflussen die Ansprche der unmittelbaren Nachfahren der
Opfer von Unrecht, sowie erneut die Ansprche von deren Nachfahren usw. - mit dem
Resultat, dass je weiter das Unrecht zurckliegt, desto strker die tatschlichen Handlungen der Akteure seitdem ausschlaggebend sind fr die Bestimmung der gegenwrtigen Ansprche gegenwrtig lebender Menschen in der Welt, in der sie leben.
Im Ergebnis vertritt Sher die Auffassung, dass die Grnde fr Kompensation mit der
Zeit schwcher werden, dass also weit in der Vergangenheit zurckliegendes Unrecht
("ancient wrongs") heute keine bedeutenden Kompensationsansprche nach sich zieht,
und jngstes Unrecht in der Regel strkere Kompensationsansprche als weiter in der
Vergangenheit zurckliegendes Unrecht nach sich zieht. Differenzierungen sind allerdings mglich. Unrecht wirkt sich unterschiedlich auf die betroffenen Personen aus und
auch auf die Faktoren, die nach Auffassung von Sher die temporale Abschwchung der
Kompensationsansprche erklren. Wenn wie im Falle der Sklaverei sich das Unrecht
ber die Generationen stark negativ auf die Mglichkeit der Betroffenen auswirkt, die
ihnen offen stehenden Optionen auch zu nutzen, dann sind die Kompensationsansprche
der heute Lebenden strker. Denn ihre Unterlassungen (und die Unterlassungen ihrer
Vorfahren) sind dem schdigenden Unrecht zuzuschreiben und nicht ihnen selbst.
3.
3.1

Die Aufhebung historischer Ansprche aufgrund vernderter Umstnde ?

17

"that people have a natural duty to enter into political society with those with whom
they find themselves in a condition of unavoidable co-existence". Denn dieses Prinzip
knne fr folgenden Typ von Situation Geltung beanspruchen: Menschen haben unrechtmig Land besiedelt, z.B. die Kolonisatoren Neuseelands, heute aber haben ihre
Nachfahren in der vierten, fnften oder noch spteren Generation "nowhere to return
to". Dann aber haben sie und die Nachfahren derer, die von ihren Vorfahren angegriffen
und enteignet wurden, also die Nachfahren der indigenen Bevlkerung Neuseelands,
"nothing to do but to come to terms with one another and establish a fair basis for sharing the lands and resources that surround them."21 Die heutigen Bewohner Neuseelands
stehen also unter der Pflicht, eine (distributiv) gerechte politische Ordnung einzurichten
und zu erhalten. In Erfllung dieser Pflicht sind die Konsequenzen historischen
Unrechts fr das Wohlbefinden gegenwrtig lebender Menschen zu bercksichtigen.
Waldrons These der Aufhebung von historischen Ansprchen durch nderung der
Umstnde ist nicht gleichermaen fr alle historischen Ansprche relevant. Genuin vergangenheitsorientierte Ansprche und Pflichten wegen historischem Unrecht, die fr
das Wohlergehen heute lebender Menschen irrelevant oder wenig relevant sind - etwa
die Ansprche, die sich auf die mangelhafte historische Legitimitt von Institutionen im
Sinne der berlegung Pogges beziehen, oder die berlebenden Pflichten zu symbolischer Kompensation, fr deren Begrndung die schdigenden Konsequenzen frheren
Unrechts fr heute lebende Menschen irrelevant sind - sind der Mglichkeit der Aufhebung durch vernderte Umstnde und damit einhergehende konkurrierende Ansprche
gegenwrtig lebender Menschen entzogen.

Jeremy Waldrons Aufhebungsthese

Jeremy Waldron vertritt die "supersession"- oder, wie ich sie nennen werde, die Aufhebungsthese: Auch Eigentumsansprche (und Ansprche auf Restitution von Eigentum)
sind abhngig von den Umstnden und hufig sind die Umstnde heute dramatisch andere als zu dem Zeitpunkt, zu dem die Eigentumsrechte verletzt wurden. Die auf Unrecht fuenden Ansprche knnen aufgrund vernderter Umstnde ihre Geltung einben. Die Signifikanz historischen Unrechts hngt von den Umstnden ab. Im vorliegenden Beitrag, wie in frheren Verffentlichungen,20 bezieht Waldron die These der
Aufhebung historischer Ansprche auf die Ansprche der indigenen Bevlkerung Neuseelands, der Maori, und behauptet: Selbst wenn die anderen Zweifel an der Grundlage
des Anspruchs auf Restitution des den Maori von den Kolonisatoren illegitim genommenen Heimatlandes ausgerumt sind - insbesondere der Zweifel daran, dass die heute
lebenden Maori als Trger der Ansprche der Gruppe der Maori gelten knnen, deren
Eigentumsrechte verletzt wurden -, so haben heute doch andere als die Nachfahren der
Maori legitime Ansprche auf das Land und fr die Nachfahren der Maori ist Eigentum
an dem Land von anderer und normativ geringerer Signifikanz. Jedenfalls sei eine Eigentumstheorie generell nur plausibel, wenn sie uns zu bercksichtigen erlaube, dass
Eigentumsansprche an beschrnkten Ressourcen ihre Geltung ob vernderter Umstnde einben knnen. Waldron pldiert dafr, den zukunftsorientierten distributiven
Gerechtigkeitsansprchen der gegenwrtig (und zuknftig) lebenden Bewohnern, etwa
Neuseelands, Prioritt einzurumen.
Diesen zukunftsorientierten Ansatz der Interpretation der Signifikanz historischen
Unrechts versteht Waldron als Ausdruck des Kantschen "proximity principle", nmlich
19
20

Einleitung

Hierzu siehe auch D. Lyons, 'The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land".
Siehe insbesondere J. Waldron, "Superseding Historie Injustice".

3.2

Die identittsstiftende Bedeutung von Land und der Anspruch der Palstinenser
auf Rckkehr

Andrei Marmor, Andreas F0llesdal und Paul Patton fragen, was Waldrons Aufhebungsthese zur Einschtzung spezifischer historischer Ansprche auf Land beitrgt. Mit
Chaim Gans teilen sie die Auffassung, dass die identittsstiftende historische Beziehung
einer Gruppe zu einem Territorium einen besonderen Anspruch auf dieses Land und
gegebenenfalls auch auf die Restitution des Landes begrnden kann. Ein derart begrndeter historischer Anspruch auf Land ist allerdings dem zukunftsorientierten Ansatz zur
Begrndung der Rechte nationaler Gruppen auf Souvernitt ber ein Territorium untergeordnet: Ob eine Gruppe ein Recht auf Selbstbestimmung hat, ist, so Gans, eine
Frage distributiver Gerechtigkeit. Historische Rechte knnen nur dazu beitragen zu
bestimmen, auf welchem Territorium die Gruppe gegebenenfalls ihr Recht ausben
darf. In seiner Kritik historischer Rechte unterscheidet Gans genauer erstens zwei Interpretationen historischer Rechte nationaler Gruppen auf Souvernitt ber ein bestimmtes Territorium, zweitens zwei Ansprche, die das Recht ausmachen, und, drittens, zwei
Typen von Begrndungen solcher Ansprche. Gem der ersten Interpretation des gemeinten historischen Rechts hat eine Gruppe dieses Recht, weil sie das Territorium als
erste besetzte, und gem der zweiten, weil das Territorium in der Geschichte der
Gruppe eine besondere, identittsstiftende Rolle einnimmt, die Gruppe eine besondere
Beziehung zu diesem Territorium hat. Die zwei Ansprche sind: der Anspruch auf Souvernitt ber ein Territorium, nmlich der Anspruch, die ungeteilte Macht zu haben,
Entscheidungen darber zu treffen, wer auf einem Territorium leben darf, und wie das
Territorium und dessen Ressourcen zu genieen und zu nutzen sind; zweitens, der An21

Fr die Zitate siehe den Beitrag von Waldron, 57.

18

Lukas H. Meyer

spruch, Souvernitt ber ein bestimmtes Territorium auszuben. Die zwei Begrndungstypen sind einerseits die Begrndung des Erwerbs und der Erhaltung territorialer
Rechte aufgrund von berlegungen der gerechten Verteilung unter allen Anspruchstrgern und zweitens die Begrndung der Restitution territorialer Rechte aufgrund von
berlegungen korrektiver Gerechtigkeit. Gans vertritt die Auffassung, dass restitutive
Ansprche sich auf die Herstellung oder Wiederherstellung distributiv gerechter Verhltnisse beziehen mssen - korrektive Ansprche also abhngig sind von distributiven
und nicht umgekehrt.22
Der Autor vertritt folgende substantielle Thesen: Keine der beiden Interpretationen
des Rechts kann die Souvernitt ber ein bestimmtes Territorium begrnden. Beide
Interpretationen knnen begrnden helfen, auf welchem Territorium eine nationale
Gruppe ihr Recht auf Selbstbestimmung ausben soll, wenn es als distributiv gerecht
gilt, dass die Gruppe ein Recht auf Selbstbestimmung ausbt. Dabei kann Erstbesetzung
zur Begrndung beitragen, dass die Gruppe weiterhin auf einem bestimmten Territorium ihr Recht auf Selbstbestimmung ausben knnen soll, whrend die identittsstiftende Bindung an ein Territorium den Anspruch einer Gruppe auf Restitution begrnden
helfen kann, in ihr Recht auf Selbstbestimmung auf diesem Territorium restituiert zu
werden, und besonders (aber nicht ausschlielich) dann, wenn die derzeit auf dem Territorium lebende Gruppe mit illegitimen Mitteln verhindert hat, dass die Gruppe mit
dieser besonderen Beziehung zum Territorium ihr Recht auf Selbstbestimmung auf diesem Territorium ausbt.
Fr seine These, dass keine der beiden Interpretationen Souvernittsrechte ber ein
bestimmtes Territorium begrnden kann, spricht nach Auffassung von Gans, dass Erstbesetzung als solche keine normativ wichtigen Interessen mit sich bringt, und die besondere Bindung an ein Territorium einer Gruppe mit wichtigeren anderen Interessen
anderer Gruppen oder einer Bindung eben dieser Art konfligieren knnen. Fr seine
Behauptung, dass Erstbesetzung bei der Begrndung eines Anspruchs auf Restitution
keine Rolle spielen kann, spricht, dass Erstbesetzung normativ relevante Interessen
bestenfalls dann ausweisen kann, wenn das Territorium nach Erstbesetzung weiterhin
auch bewohnt wird. Schlielich spricht fr die Behauptung, dass die identittsstiftende
Bindung an ein Territorium Restitutionsansprche begrnden kann, dass die Ausbung
eines Rechts auf Selbstbestimmung durch eine nationale Gruppe verlangt, dass diese im
Heimatland lebt, und Versuche, dem jdischen Volk die Ausbung des Rechts auerhalb des Landes, zu dem es in einer identittsstiftenden Beziehung steht, zu ermglichen, gescheitert sind, also ein distributiv gerechter Anspruch auf Selbstbestimmung
womglich nur auf einem spezifischen Territorium realisiert werden kann.
Angesichts der hufigen Konflikte des Rechts einer nationalen Gruppe auf Souvernitt ber ein bestimmtes Territorium mit wichtigen Interessen von Menschen, die nicht
Mitglieder dieser Gruppe sind, auf diesem Territorium zu leben - auch weil sie als Mitglieder einer anderen nationalen Gruppe in hnlich identittsstiftender Beziehung zum
selben Territorium stehen - pldiert Gans dafr zu prfen, ob die berechtigten Interessen von Mitgliedern einer nationalen Gruppe mit Blick darauf, ihr Leben auf dem Territorium zu fhren, das fr sie identittsstiftend ist, nicht schwchere Ansprche als den
Anspruch auf Souvernitt begrnden kann, nmlich auf das subsouverne nicht-exklusive Recht der Selbstbestimmung im Heimatland. Dieses Recht lsst sich mit dem glei22

Gans bezieht also eine spezifische Position zum Verhltnis zwischen kompensatorischer oder korrektiver und distributiver Gerechtigkeit, nmlich, dass kompensatorische Gerechtigkeit Prinzipien
fr die Wiederherstellung oder den Erhalt distributiv gerechter Verhltnisse liefert. Siehe oben Fn.
6.

Einleitung

19

chen Recht einer anderen oder anderer Gruppen und auf ein- und demselben Territorium
realisieren und mit anderen Interessen anderer auf die Nutzung desselben Landes ausgleichen. Gans deutet an, dass die Ansprche auf Selbstbestimmung des palstinensischen und des jdischen Volkes in Palstina und Israel sich in diesem Sinne gleichermaen realisieren lassen.
Andrei Marmors Studie zum palstinensischen Recht auf Rckkehr in ihr Heimatland und auf Restitution ihres Eigentums betont im Sinne der Thesen von Gans die
normative Signifikanz des identittsstiftenden Territoriums fr die restitutiven Ansprche einer Gruppe. Historische Ansprche, die sich auf die identittsstiftende Bedeutung
eines Territoriums sttzen, sind, so Marmor, besonders dauerhaft. Fr den Zweck seiner
Analyse und Diskussion beschrnkt sich Marmor auf die Kategorie palstinensischer
Flchtlinge, die aufgrund der Vertreibung durch die israelische Armee whrend des
Krieges 1948 und der Konfiszierung ihres Eigentums durch Israel besonders Not leidend sind, nmlich die Flchtlinge, die nach wie vor in Flchtlingslagern in Jordanien,
Syrien und dem Libanon sowie der West Bank und im Gaza-Streifen leben, und deren
Zahl auf zwischen 900 000 und 1,5 Millionen geschtzt wird. Marmor untersucht unter
anderem das Argument, der Anspruch dieser Flchtlinge auf Rckkehr und Restitution
ihres Eigentums sei durch vernderte Umstnde aufgehoben, weshalb kein individueller
Anspruch auf Rckkehr dieser Palstinenser bestehe.
Marmor untersucht verschiedene Interpretationen des Arguments: Das schwchste
sei das Argument, das sich auf die Idee der "adverse possession" berufe, also die Idee,
Eigentumsrechte an Land, das jemand anderem gehre, knnen unter Umstnden durch
dauerhafte Nutzung des Landes und Investition in das Land erworben werden. Denn,
wie immer diese Doktrin im Besonderen aufgefasst werde, bestnde doch Einigkeit
darber, dass Rechte durch "adverse possession" nicht gegen den kontinuierlichen und
ausdrcklichen Protest des ursprnglichen Eigentmers erworben werden knnen. Der
Protest der Palstinenser sei whrend der ganzen Zeit ihres Exils nicht zu berhren
gewesen. Gegen eine Interpretation des Arguments im Sinne einer Anwendung der
Aufhebungsthese von Jeremy Waldron sprechen nach Auffassung von Marmor wenigstens zwei Gesichtspunkte: Erstens handele es sich bei dem Anspruch auf Realisierung der kollektiven Selbstbestimmung auf dem fr die Gruppe identittsstiftenden Territorium um ein Recht, das fr die Autonomie der Mitglieder der Gruppe auch dann
wichtig bleiben knne, wenn sie ber einen lngeren Zeitraum an der Realisierung des
Rechts mit illegitimen Mitteln gehindert werde. Zweitens hnge die Mglichkeit der
Aufhebung ihres Rechts auf Eigentum auch davon ab, von welcher Wichtigkeit das Gut
fr das berleben und die Autonomie des Opfers ist und ob das Opfer das Gut ersetzen
kann. Im Falle der auf den Status von Flchtlingen reduzierten Palstinensern, die wenig Mglichkeiten htten, aus dieser Lage zu entkommen, sprche viel fr die Dauerhaftigkeit ihrer Ansprche auf Rckkehr und Restitution.
Vernderte Umstnde knnten aber zur Qualifikation dieser Ansprche fhren. Weil
in der Zwischenzeit Israelis zum Teil erheblich in das frhere Eigentum der Palstinenser investiert haben, drfte es hufig angemessen sein, dass die Palstinenser nicht einfach dorthin zurckkehrten, von wo sie vertrieben wurden. Gegen einfache Restitution
sprche auch, wenn solche den derzeitigen Nutzem des Eigentums besonders schwere
Lasten aufbrde. Allerdings drfe daraus nicht geschlossen werden, dass Eigentum, das
nicht zurckgegeben werden knne, durch monetre Leistungen angemessen kompensiert werden knne. Dem Anspruch auf Rckkehr ins Heimatland sei unter solchen Umstnden eher dadurch zu entsprechen, dass die Palstinenser gegebenenfalls andernorts,
aber auf dem Territorium ihres Heimatlandes Eigentum erhielten. Es wre offensichtlich

20

Lukas H. Meyer

ungerecht, weil willkrlich, so Marmor, diesen Anspruch auf das Gebiet der Westbank
und des Gaza-Streifen zu beschrnken, denn Israel sei fr das Flchtlingsproblem verantwortlich und habe keinen privilegierten Anspruch auf bestimmtes Land in Israel/Palstina, das fr sie ebenso wie fr die Palstinenser von identittsstiftender Bedeutung sei: die Ergebnisse der Kriege und israelischen Besetzungen von 1948 und
1967 seien bestenfalls von pragmatischer Bedeutung fr die Frage der distributiv gerechten Aufteilung des Landes unter Israelis und Palstinensern. In seinem Kommentar
diskutiert Chaim Gans die normative Signifikanz der Grenzen 1967 fr eine Lsung des
Konflikts. Gans pldiert dafr, den Anspruch der Palstinenser auf Rckkehr in ihr
Heimatland in Ausbung ihres Rechts auf Selbstbestimmung zu vermitteln mit dem
Selbstbestimmungsrecht der Juden im Sinne eines liberalen Zionismus, das er fr legitim hlt.
3.3

Der Anspruch indigener Gruppen auf Restitution der Kontrolle ber identittsstiflendes Territorium

Die normative Signifikanz der identittsstiftenden Beziehung indigener Vlker zu ihrem


Heimatland betonen Andreas F0llesdal und Paul Patton. Die Ansprche indigener Vlker auf Kontrolle ber ihr Land bestehen auch viele Jahre nach deren Vertreibung und
Enteignung fort: Diese Ansprche sind aufgrund der berlegungen, die Waldron zugunsten seiner Aufhebungsthese anfhrt, zu qualifizieren, nicht aber ihrer Geltung enthoben. Wie Gans und Marmor bemht sich Andreas F0llesdal um die Vermittlung einer
vergangenheitsorientierten Interpretation der normativen Signifikanz historischen
Unrechts und den zukunftsorientierten Ansprchen distributiver Gerechtigkeit. Historisches Unrecht kann korrektive (restitutive und kompensatorische) Ansprche nach sich
ziehen. Handlungen seien dann als Unrechtshandlungen zu identifizieren, wenn sie im
Sinne der Theorie Scanions23 die hypothetisch-kontraktualistische Zustimmung nicht
htten finden knnen. Die Feststellung, dass das Verhalten frherer Akteure als Unrecht
in diesem Sinne einzuschtzen ist, erlaube zwar keine Antwort auf die Frage, wie die
Welt heute ausshe, wre das Verhalten aller Akteure immer zustimmungsfhig gewesen; in Verbindung aber mit der begrndeten Vermutung, das frhere Unrecht wirke
sich negativ auf das Wohlergehen der heute lebenden indirekten Opfer aus, sei diese
Feststellung hinreichend, um Ansprche auf Restitution und Kompensation zu begrnden, die sich auf den Interessen der heute lebenden indirekten Opfer grnden.24 Deren
Interessen seien jedenfalls im Falle der indigenen Gruppen nach wie vor von dem Zustand geprgt, der vor der Rechtsverletzung bestand: die heute lebenden Mitglieder indigener Vlker haben ein Interesse, autonom ihre eigene Lebensform zu erhalten und zu
pflegen, und dies setze in ihrem Fall voraus, dass sie ber die Nutzung ihres Heimatlandes oder jedenfalls bestimmter Territorien desselben die Kontrolle wiedererlangen.
Folgen wir F0llesdal so beruht der Wert der Mitgliedschaft in kulturellen Gruppen
auf dem Interesse von Menschen, ihre Zukunft korrekt vorhersagen zu knnen und legitime Erwartungen zu formen, die von anderen geachtet werden. Die Kontrolle zu haben
ber kulturelle nderungen dient dem Schutz dieses Interesses. Wenn Menschen als
Mitglieder einer kulturellen Gruppe solche Kontrolle ausben, dann ist es ihnen auch
eher mglich, so F0llesdal, auf nderungen der ihnen offen stehenden kulturell vermittelten Optionen durch die Revision ihrer Lebensentwrfe und Plne zu reagieren.
23
24

Siehe T.M. Scanion, What We Owe to Each Other.


Siehe auch die generalisierte Vermutung Nozicks (Fn. 17 oben).

Einleitung

21

Zum Beispiel knnen vernderte soziokonomische und kologische Bedingungen solche nderungen mit sich bringen.
F0llesdal vertritt nun die Auffassung, dass die Ansprche indigener Gruppen auf
Kontrolle kultureller nderungen strker sind als etwa die Ansprche nationaler Minderheiten. Denn indigene Gruppen waren typischerweise als Gemeinschaften gefasst,
die de facto Kontrolle ber Ressourcen und Land ausgebt und soziale, konomische,
kulturelle oder politische Institutionen unterhalten haben, bevor Gruppen, die das Land
kolonisierten, das Territorium in einen Staat einverleibten und die Institutionen der indigenen Gruppen zerstrten oder den neu eingerichteten Institutionen des Staates unterordneten. Typisch sei auerdem, dass die indigenen Gruppen bis heute transgenerationellen Bestand haben, so dass auch heute die Kultur der Gruppe die Erwartungen der
Mitglieder prgt, auch wenn die Neuankmmlinge und ihre Nachfahren schon fr lange
Zeit Kontrolle ber das Land der indigenen Gruppe ausben.
Die Kolonisation ihres Landes ist, so F0llesdal, eine illegitime Verletzung des Anspruchs der indigenen Gruppe auf Kontrolle ber kulturelle nderung und sie misst sich
an ihrer damalig unbeschrnkten Selbstbestimmung und Kontrolle ber das Land. Das
Unrecht besteht nicht nur in der Verletzung von Eigentumsrechten der Gruppe (die besonders bei kommunalem und religis bedeutsamem Eigentum wichtig sind), sondern
auch der ihre Lebensform ausmachenden besonderen Praktiken, die Eigentum oder
Kontrolle voraussetzen (etwa im Falle der nomadischen Lebensweise den freien Zugang
zum Land). Auerdem werden durch die Kolonisation des Landes nicht nur berechtigte
Erwartungen verletzt, sondern es wird auch die Bildung von Erwartungen unter fairen
Bedingungen verhindert. Und insbesondere wird den indigenen Gruppen die Mglichkeit genommen, Institutionen und Praktiken zu kontrollieren, die kulturell geprgte
Projekte ermglichen und Erwartungen der Mitglieder der Gruppe in Verfolgung der
gruppenspezifischen Projekte prgen. Aufgrund dieser andauernden negativen Konsequenzen fr eine transgenerationell stabile Gruppe reicht monetre Kompensation nicht
aus. Vielmehr ist ein vergangenheitsorientierter, auf die Wiederherstellung eines Zustands der Kontrolle ber kulturelle nderung zielender, korrektiver Anspruch anzuerkennen, auch wenn ein solcher Anspruch auf Kontrolle des Landes heute mit den Interessen der nicht-indigenen Bevlkerung des Landes vermittelt werden muss. Der Anspruch zielt nicht auf die Herstellung des Zustands heute, der bestehen wrde, htte es
in der Vergangenheit kein Unrecht und keine Rechtsverletzungen gegeben, sondern auf
die Anerkennung eines trotz des Unrechts jedenfalls im Falle indigener Gruppen fortbestehenden Anspruchs auf Kontrolle kultureller Vernderungen ihrer Lebensform unter
modernen Bedingungen.
Solche Kontrolle erfordert in der Regel keine Sezession des indigenen Volkes im
Sinne der rechtlichen und politischen Souvernitt ber ein Territorium. Es geht vielmehr um die Herstellung von Bedingungen fairer Kooperation unter allen heutigen Bewohnern des Landes und einer fairen Distribution der Ressourcen, wobei anzuerkennen
ist, dass die einstmals im Vollsinne realisierten Ansprche der indigenen Gruppe auf
Kontrolle der Vernderungen ihrer Kultur unrechtmig verletzt wurden und die heute
lebenden Mitglieder der Gruppe einen legitimen Anspruch darauf haben, solche Kontrolle wiederzuerlangen. Hufig wird dies die Frderung und Anerkennung einer politischen und kulturellen Autonomie der indigenen Gruppe unterhalb des Niveaus der Souvernitt durch quasi-fderale Strukturen und besondere Reprsentationsrechte erfordern sowie besondere Rechte der Kontrolle und Verfgung ber Land und insbesondere
von solchem Land, das eine herausragende kulturelle und religise Bedeutung fr die
Gruppe hat.

22

Lukas H. Meyer

Paul Patton unterstreicht, dass ein vergangenheitsorientierter Ansatz der Interpretation historischen Unrechts die Frage nach der Relevanz hypothetischer Geschichtsverlufe fr die Feststellung der Ansprche gegenwrtig lebender Menschen aufwerfe, der
insbesondere Waldron und Sher in diesem Band nachgehen. Aber Patton hlt einen vcrgangenheitsorientierten Ansatz korrektiver Gerechtigkeit fr unverzichtbar: Selbst wenn
wir mit Waldron die Mglichkeit der Aufhebung der Ansprche wegen historischen
Unrechts annehmen, beantworte dies nicht schon die Frage, ob im post-kolonialen
Kontext mit Blick auf alle unrechtmigen Verletzungen der Ansprche indigener Bevlkerungen eine Aufhebung von deren Ansprchen anzunehmen ist und deshalb die
rein zukunftsorientierte Betrachtung distributiver Gerechtigkeit normativ angemessen
ist. Gegen einen exklusiv zukunftsorientierten Ansatz distributiver Gerechtigkeit spreche, dass ein solcher Ansatz die Begrndung von Ansprchen aufgrund der Verletzung
durch historisches Unrecht ausschliee. Denn fr die Begrndung von Ansprchen
heute lebender Menschen (und auch als Mitgliedern von indigenen Vlkern) sei gem
einer rein zukunftsorientierten Theorie distributiver Gerechtigkeit zwar deren unverschuldete Schlechterstellung relevant, nicht aber die besonderen Grnde fr diese
Schlechterstellung, also das historische Unrecht. Diese sind bestenfalls von pragmatischer Relevanz. Wenn allerdings die Aufhebung der historischen Ansprche nicht vollstndig ist, wenigstens einige Ansprche korrektiver Gerechtigkeit nach wie vor Geltung haben, dann ist zu klren, welche Ansprche der indigenen Bevlkerungen berlebt haben und wie diese unter heutigen Bedingungen zu realisieren sind.
Fr eine angemessene Antwort dieser Frage seien die schon genannten Gerechtigkeitsdimensionen, die der korrektiven und der distributiven Gerechtigkeit unverzichtbar,
und darber hinaus eine dritte, die der relationalen Gerechtigkeit. Letztere hebt ab auf
die Pflichten der wechselseitigen Anerkennung und des Respekts zwischen Gruppen
und im untersuchten Kontext auf die Verletzung dieser Pflichten gegenber den indigenen Bevlkerungen durch die Neuankmmlinge und Siedler. Die Relevanz jedes dieser
Anstze sei kontext-relevant. Mit Blick auf die Ansprche indigener Gruppen sei zum
Beispiel der auf Restitution zielende vergangenheitsorientierte Ansatz besonders relevant in den USA, weil dort gewhnlich Vertrge zwischen den Siedlern und den indigenen Bevlkerungen geschlossen wurden, deren Verletzung durch U.S.-amerikanische
staatliche Institutionen Rechtsansprche der indigenen Bevlkerungen auf Restitution
begrnden knnen und die heute einklagbar sind. Wenn aber, wie in Australien, das
Land unter Vorgabe der terra nullius Doktrine von den Europern angeeignet wurde,
dann stelle das eine extreme Form der Verweigerung jedweder Anerkennung der Autoritt eines schon existierenden indigenen Rechts und indigener Sitten dar, und es liege
nahe, dieses Unrecht im Sinne der Verletzung relationaler Gerechtigkeitsforderungen zu
interpretieren.25 Dieser Ansatz, jedenfalls wie James Tully ihn verstnde, erklre aller25

Anders als bei der Kolonisierung des nordamerikanischen Kontinents und Neuseelands sind bei der
Kolonisierung Australiens keine Vertrge mit den Ureinwohnern geschlossen worden, weil man
diesen Gruppen die Vlkerrechtsfhigkeit absprach und ihre Gebiete als terra nullius betrachtete.
Zu den Vertrgen mit den indianischen Ureinwohnern Nordamerikas siehe F.P. Prucha, American
Indian Treaties; C.N. Eick, Indianervertrge in Nouvelle-France. Zu deren Rechtslage siehe J.W.
Singer, Introduction to Property, Kap. 15 "American Indian Property". Zur rechtlichen Situation
der australischen Aborigines vor dem Mabo Urteil des High Court (1992) (Mabo and Others v State
of Queensland vom 3. Juni 1992, siehe The Mabo Decision.) siehe H. Reynolds, Aboriginal Sovereignty, Kap. 4; J. Chesterman und B. Galligan, Citizens without Rights, Kap. 7. Fr eine skeptische
Interpretation der normativen Signifikanz der Vertrge mit Ureinwohnern im Kolonisierungsprozess fr deren Ansprche heute siehe insbesondere R.E. Goodin, "Waitangi Tales", 309-33. Zu den
Unterschieden und Gemeinsamkeiten der Interpretation des Common Law Besitztitels auf Land der

Einleitung

23

dings nicht, welche Relevanz ein hypothetischer Geschichtsverlauf, bei dem die Ansprche der indigenen Bevlkerungen auf Anerkennung und Respekt nicht verletzt
worden wren, fr die Frage htte, was angesichts der tatschlichen Geschichte und
ihrer Konsequenzen den heute lebenden Mitgliedern indigener Vlker im Sinne korrektiver Gerechtigkeit geschuldet sei.
4. Pflichten aufgrund historischen Unrechts und historischer Schdigung
4.1

Indirekte Pflichten von Mitgliedern andauernder Gesellschaften

Wie Patton sieht auch Janna Thompson einen Grund fr die korrektiven Ansprche
australischer Abrogines in historischen Verletzungen der Pflichten relationaler Gerechtigkeit: Deren Ansprche auf Reparationsleistungen beruhten nicht allein auf der Verletzung von Besitztiteln, sondern auf der unrechtmigen Verletzung anderer Rechte,
insbesondere der Verletzung der politischen Unabhngigkeit ihrer Gruppe und der Zerstrung des kulturellen Lebens der Gruppe - Unrecht, das als Ausdruck mangelnden
Respekts fr den Status der Gruppe und ihre Lebensform zu werten sei. Im vorliegenden Beitrag geht es Thompson um die Analyse historischer Pflichten, nmlich um Beantwortung der Frage: Wem gegenber haben indirekte Opfer historischen Unrechts
welche Ansprche und warum? Unter liberalen Theoretikern besteht Einigkeit, dass
Menschen keine Verantwortung tragen knnen fr Unrechtshandlungen, die (lange)
bevor sie geboren wurden von anderen verbt worden sind. Jedoch argumentiert
Thompson, wie auch Rahul Kumar und David Silver sowie David Lyons, dass Menschen als Mitglieder andauernder politischer Gesellschaften, gewhnlich also als Brger
und Brgerinnen, Verantwortung dafr tragen, dass ihre Gesellschaft die Pflichten erfllt, die ihr daraus erwachsen, dass frher lebende Mitglieder im Namen der Gesellschaft Unrecht verbt haben.
In der Analyse von Thompson gehren historische Verpflichtungen zu den vergangenheitsorientierten Verpflichtungen wie die Pflicht, Versprechen zu halten oder Vertrge zu erfllen. Ihr Verpflichtungsgrund sind vergangene Handlungen und Ereignisse,
nicht allein die Konsequenzen vergangener Handlungen fr gegenwrtige Bedingungen.
Unter einer historischen Verpflichtung versteht sie eine moralische Verantwortung von
Personen als Mitgliedern einer intergenerationellen Assoziation oder Gemeinschaft, z.B.
als Brger oder als Besitzer oder Manager von Korporationen aufgrund der Verpflichtungen oder Handlungen ihrer Vorfahren bzw. -ganger. Diese Verpflichtungen sind
historische, wenn die Nachfahren oder Nachfolger derer, die die Verpflichtungen eingegangen sind, dafr verantwortlich sind, die Verpflichtungen zu erfllen.
Nationen, Stmme und hnliche politische Entitten sind intergenerationell: Sie verfolgen generationenbergreifende Projekte. Insbesondere gehen solche Entitten auch
langfristige vertragliche Verpflichtungen ein. Knnten diese Entitten analog zu Individuen verstanden werden, so wre die Zuschreibung von Verantwortung, etwa die einmal
eingegangenen vertraglichen Verpflichtungen auch zu erfllen oder aufgrund frherer
Unrechtshandlungen heute Reparationsleistungen zu erbringen, unproblematisch. Aber
es sind die jeweiligen Mitglieder der Gruppe, etwa die Brger und Brgerinnen, die die
Verpflichtungen zu erfllen haben, und, insbesondere bei Reparationsleistungen, die
Lasten und Kosten zu tragen haben. Dagegen aber kann mindestens eingewandt werden,
erstens, dass eine solche Zuschreibung unfair ist, und, zweitens, dass Menschen nur
Ureinwohner in Australien, Neuseeland und den USA siehe R. Bartlett, "Native Title", 282-310.

24

Lukas H. Meyer

verantwortlich sein knnen fr Handlungen, die sie beeinflussen knnen. Zwar kann fr
das Selbstverstndnis von Menschen konstitutiv sein, dass sie Mitglieder intergenerationeller Gruppen sind, und sie werden dann auch bereit sein, die Lasten und Kosten
solcher Mitgliedschaft zu tragen. Aber das gilt, so Thompson, bei weitem nicht fr alle
Mitglieder der uns interessierenden groen und unpersnlichen Gesellschaften. Aus der
Beteiligung an Gruppenaktivitten kann nicht einfach auf ein solches Selbstverstndnis
geschlossen werden. Auch der Umstand, zu den Begnstigten der Unrechtshandlungen
frher lebender Personen zu zhlen, begrndet per se keine historischen Pflichten, sondern bestenfalls die Pflicht, den Gewinn mit denen, die aufgrund der Handlungen benachteiligt sind, fair zu teilen.26
Thompson schlgt hingegen vor, den Grund fr historische Verpflichtungen von
Menschen als Mitgliedern intergenerationeller (politischer) Gruppen darin zu erkennen,
dass der Anspruch, spter lebende Mitglieder der Gruppe durch heutige Entscheidungen
binden zu drfen, nur dann gerechtfertigt ist, wenn die gegenwrtigen Mitglieder ihrerseits akzeptieren, fr die Erfllung der von frheren Mitgliedern der Gruppe eingegangenen Verpflichtungen verantwortlich zu sein. Sind wir fr die Einhaltung von Verpflichtungen verantwortlich, dann sind wir auch dafr verantwortlich, im Falle der
Verletzung der Verpflichtungen denen, denen Unrecht getan wurde, Reparation und
Restitution zu leisten. Unser Anspruch, spter lebende Mitglieder unserer Gesellschaft
binden zu knnen, setzt also voraus, dass wir akzeptieren, an entsprechende Entscheidungen frherer Mitglieder gebunden zu sein, und fr Pflichtverletzungen durch frhere
Mitglieder einzustehen. Eine weitere Frage ist, was als Pflichtverletzung zhlt. Folgen
wir Thompson, so sind dies wenigstens die Verletzung von Pflichten, deren Erfllung
Voraussetzung dafr ist, mit anderen intergenerationellen Entitten Verpflichtungen
eingehen zu drfen. Zu diesen zhlt aber insbesondere die Pflicht zum Respekt vor anderen solchen Gruppen, die ihrerseits einen Anspruch auf solchen Respekt haben. Die
historischen Ungerechtigkeiten, um die es im Verhltnis der Kolonisatoren zu den indigenen Bevlkerungen etwa Australiens geht, nmlich die Verletzung der politischen
Unabhngigkeit der Aborigines und die Zerstrung ihres kulturellen Lebens, sind aber
klare Verletzungen dieser Pflicht. Brger Australiens stehen unter der Pflicht, Reparation zu leisten fr das im genannten Sinne respektlose Verhalten27 der frheren Mitglieder ihrer Gruppe gegenber den Aborigines, ebenso wie die zuknftigen Mitglieder
Australiens unter der Pflicht stehen, gem der sie bindenden Entscheidungen der heutigen Brger zu handeln und fr deren Pflichtverletzungen gegebenenfalls gerade zu
stehen. Dies ist Voraussetzung dafr, dass Australien als respektwrdig gelten und den
Anspruch erheben kann, mit anderen intergenerationell andauernden Gruppen Verpflichtungen einzugehen, die auch die zuknftigen Mitglieder der jeweiligen Gruppen
binden.
Auch Kumar und Silver schreiben den USA als intergenerationell andauernder Entitt korporative Verantwortung fr das in ihrem Namen verbte Unrecht zu und machen
die derzeitigen Brger dafr haftbar, dass der Staat seiner historischen Verantwortung

Einleitung

entspricht. In der Sache geht es ihnen um die Pflicht zu Restitutionsleistungen gegenber den heutigen Mitgliedern der African-American Community aufgrund der Versklavung ihrer Vorfahren. Der heutige Staat USA stehe in Kontinuitt mit den USA, die
als legitim anerkannt ber Autoritt verfgten und als solcher Staat die Behandlung der
frheren Mitglieder der African-American Community als Menschen legitimiert haben,
die des Respekts als Personen im Vollsinne nicht wrdig und deshalb als Sklaven zu
behandeln sind. Folgen wir der Studie David Lyons, so haben die Handlungen und Unterlassungen offizieller U.S.-amerikanischer politischer Entscheidungstrger (von Prsidenten, Mitgliedern einzel- und bundesstaatlicher Legislaturen, Richtern und Exekuvbeamten) die Institution nicht nur legitimiert, sondern zur Schaffung und Erhaltung der
Chattel-Sklaverei28 beigetragen, auch nach der Abschaffung der Sklaverei die African
Americans von politischen Entscheidungsprozessen systematisch ausgeschlossen und
dafr gesorgt, dass viele von ihnen zu den in der heutigen U.S.-amerikanischen Gesellschaft soziokonomisch und kulturell Schlechtestgestellten zhlen. Lyons unterscheidet
vier Perioden, in denen nach seiner Analyse jeweils Entscheidungen zur Schaffung und
Erhaltung einer rassistisch hierarchisierten US-amerikanischen Gesellschaft getroffen
wurden, und das, obgleich die politischen Entscheidungstrger durchaus die Alternativen kannten und sich jeweils gegen die Etablierung der Sklaverei, deren Erhalt, den
politischen und konomischen Ausschluss der African-Americans und die brutale Unterdrckung ihrer Bemhungen um Besserstellung htten entscheiden knnen.
Auch Kumar und Silver betonen, dass ebendieser Staat USA sich bis heute nicht in
angemessener Weise auf die Verantwortung fr dieses staatliche Unrecht der Sklaverei
bezogen hat. Deshalb sei es plausibel, von den USA als rechtens zu fordern, das Verstndnis zurckzuweisen, welches sich in der Sklaverei und Behandlung von Menschen
als nicht gleichberechtigten Personen aufgrund ihrer Mitgliedschaft in der AfricanAmerican Community ausdrckt. Die autoritative Legitimation dieses Verstndnisses
und der Institution Sklaverei durch den Staat habe eben dieser Staat die Pflicht, autoritativ zurckzuweisen. Was in Erfllung dieser Pflicht als angemessen und hinreichend
gelten knne, sei in starkem Mae von kulturellen Konventionen abhngig. Erforderlich
sei wenigstens eine offizielle Anerkennung der Sklaverei als staatlich legitimiertes Unrecht. Die Brger der USA seien dafr haftbar zu machen, dass ihr Staat dieser Pflicht
entspricht.
hnlich wie Kumar und Silver (und im Sinne der Analyse historischer Verpflichtungen, die Thompson vorgelegt hat) schreibt Lyons Verantwortung fr Kompensation und
Reparation fr das Unrecht und den bleibenden Schaden, den gegenwrtig lebende African-Americans erleiden, den USA als fortdauernder staatlicher Einrichtung zu. Lyons
betont aber den bleibenden Schaden, nicht das von Kumar und Silver identifizierte Unrecht an heutigen Mitgliedern der African-American Community aufgrund des an frheren Mitgliedern dieser Gruppe verbten Unrechts. Es gelte fr eine Politik einzutreten,
die die bleibenden Konsequenzen wenigstens fr die Kinder der Nachfahren der US28

26
27

Hierzu das Kapitel von A. Gosseries, das ich in Abschnitt 4.3 vorstelle.
Fr eine eingehende Interpretation der Missachtung einer Person durch Verletzung und Aberkennung ihrer grundlegenden Rechte siehe A. Honneth, Kampf um Anerkennung, Kap. 6 "Persnliche
Identitt und Missachtung. Vergewaltigung, Entrechtung, Entwrdigung", insbesondere 214-6. Opfer historischen Unrechts sind hufig Opfer der Missachtung in den drei von Honneth unterschiedenen Schichten gewesen: praktische Misshandlung, Entrechtung und Entwrdigung. Siehe
auch A. Honneth, "Anerkennung und moralische Verpflichtung", 25-41, 33f; ders, "A Society
Without Humiliation?, 306-24, Abschnitte V und VI.

25

"Chattel" bedeutet bewegliches Eigentum. Von Chattel-Sklaverei spricht man, wenn eine Person im
umfassenden Sinne als Eigentum einer anderen Person gilt. Die Eigentmerschaft begrndet mehrere Herrschafts-, Nutzungs- und Verfgungsrechte, so zum Beispiel das Recht auf bertragung des
(faktischen) Besitzes, das Recht auf Veruerung des Eigentums oder das Recht, jede Einwirkung
Dritter auf das Eigentum oder auf die Verfgung ber das Eigentum abzuwehren. Zu den Rechtsbestimmungen, die Chattel-Sklaverei in den USA begrndeten, siehe den Beitrag von David Lyons in
diesem Bd. Die weite Definition von Sklaverei, wie sie sich im bereinkommen des Vlkerbundes
ber Sklaverei (1926) findet, schliet die meisten Formen von Zwangsarbeit ein. Siehe "Zwangsarbeit und Sklaverei im 21. Jahrhundert", herausgegeben von Anti-Slavery International (London) et
al.

26

Lukas H. Meyer

amerikanischen Sklaven abschwche. Nicht zuletzt auch wegen des Kontingenzproblems - also der Tatsache, dass die Versklavung und die Unrechtsmanahmen, die zur
"rassischen Hierarchisierung"29 der US-amerikanischen Gesellschaft beigetragen haben,
zu den notwendigen Bedingungen der Existenz vieler heute lebender African-Americans zhlen - schlgt Lyons vor, eine Politik zur Besserstellung der African-Americans
auf einen zukunftsorientierten schwachen Egalitarismus zu grnden. Dieser sttzt sich
auf die berzeugung, dass eine Regierung nur dann als legitim gelten kann, wenn sie
ihrer vorrangigen Pflicht entspricht, nmlich sicherzustellen, dass die sozialen Einrichtungen so beschaffen sind, dass jedes Kind einen fairen Anteil an Lebensaussichten hat.
4.2

Geteilte Scham oder kollektive Schuld?

George Fletcher weist in seinem Beitrag darauf hin, dass geteilte Scham hufig zur Begrndung von Pflichten aufgrund historischen Unrechts angefhrt werde. Fletcher weist
diese Auffassung zurck: Im Kern sei Scham das Gefhl, das sich einstellt, wenn die
Geschlechts- und die Verdauungsfunktionen dem Blick anderer ausgesetzt sind. Die
angemessene Reaktion sei, sich zu bedecken. Auch wenn das Schamgefhl die Einhaltung moralischer Regeln untersttzen knne, sei es im Unterschied zu Verantwortung
und Schuld nicht-rational. Das Schamgefhl als solches kann nicht handlungsbegrndend sein. Deshalb sei es berraschend, wenn das Gefhl geteilter Scham - etwa der
Deutschen angesichts der Verbrechen, die frher lebende Deutsche im Namen Deutschlands verbt haben - zur Begrndung von Pflichten angefhrt wird, etwa der Pflicht
heute lebender Deutscher, den Opfern des Naziregimes Kompensation zu leisten.30
Die hier von Fletcher kritisierte Auffassung wird im vorliegenden Band von keinem
der Autoren vertreten. Thompson, Kumar und Silver und Lyons vertreten ja vielmehr
die Position, dass die Kompensationspflichten aufgrund historischen Unrechts andauernden staatlichen Einrichtungen zuzuschreiben sind und dass die Mitglieder solcher
Einrichtungen unter der (Brger-) Pflicht stehen, dafr zu sorgen, dass die jeweilige
Einrichtung ihren korporativen Pflichten entspricht. Die gegenwrtigen Mitglieder gel29
30

D. Lyons in diesem Band, 271.


Eine solche Reaktion sei, so Fletcher, auch dem Gefhl der Scham nicht angemessen. Denn, ob die
gegenwrtig lebenden Deutschen die Pflicht erfllen oder nicht, knne keinen Unterschied machen
fr ihr Gefhl der Scham, richtig verstanden. Das scheint fragwrdig: Auch wenn, wie Fletcher
betont, Schamgefhle als solche nicht Handlungspflichten begrnden knnen, so kann das Gefhl
der Scham (und die Strke dieses Gefhls) doch mit der Verletzung bzw. der Erfllung oder Nichterfllung von Pflichten angemessen korrelieren. Scham wegen Mitgliedschaft in einer Gruppe ist
besonders plausibel, wenn Menschen ihre soziale Identitt als abhngig von nicht selbst gewhlter
Gruppenzugehrigkeit verstehen, und diese Identitt gem ihrem Selbstverstndnis und der Wahrnehmung anderer dadurch beschdigt wird, dass Gruppenmitglieder (und die Gruppe als solche) ihren Pflichten nicht nachkommen. Diese Beobachtung liegt der Interpretation der Verantwortung dafr, wer man ist (existentielle Verantwortung), im Gegensatz zu der Verantwortung fr die eigenen
Handlungen zugrunde. Siehe B. Williams, Shame and Necessity, 89-95. Larry May hat die Verantwortung fr die soziale Identitt der eigenen Person unter dem Titel "Social Existentialism" ausgearbeitet. Siehe L. May, Sharing Responsibility. Zur Interpretation der moralischen Belastung der
Gruppenidentitt aufgrund frheren, im Namen der Gruppe verbten Unrechts und den damit einhergehenden Schamgefhlen derzeitiger Gruppenmitglieder, siehe ebd., 146-62. Die Interpretation
versteht sich als eine Rekonstruktion und Weiterentwicklung von Karl Jaspers Begriff der "metaphysischen Schuld". Siehe K. Jaspers, Die Schuldfrage, 65-149, 108-10. Siehe auch Jean-Claude
Wolfs Interpretation "metaphysischer Schuld" als "stellvertretende Haftung" und die Angemessenheit von Schamgefhlen, wenn letztere akzeptiert wird, in Utitarismus, Pragmatismus und kollektive Verantwortung, 155-77.

Einleitung

27

ten als schuldlos und verantwortlich nur insofern sie Mitglieder des Staates sind. ' Auch
Fletcher hlt die gegenwrtig lebenden Mitglieder fr im modernen Sinne schuldlos,
vertritt aber die Auffassung, dass kollektive Schuld Manahmen der Kompensation fr
von frheren Mitgliedern im Namen der Gruppe verbten Unrechts begrnden kann,
wenn wir auf Elemente der alttestamentarischen Bedeutung von Schuld zurckgreifen.
Das alttestamentarische Verstndnis von Schuld sei ein objektivistisches: Schuld
lsst sich an objektiven Merkmalen der Beschmutzung der Gesellschaft, in der das
Verbrechen begangen wurde, festmachen. Die angemessene Reaktion auf solche kollektive Schuld sind Opfer fr die Gtter. Das biblische Verstndnis kennt weder die
subjektive Seite von Schuld, also Schuldgefhle, noch Grade der Schuld. Dies sind aber
wichtige Elemente des modernen Verstndnisses. Personen fhlen sich schuldig. Einige
Personen tragen grere Schuld als andere. Fletcher meint, dass nach modernem Verstndnis der Grad der Schuld einer Person vom Ausma des schuldhaft verursachten
Schadens abhngig sei und die Zuschreibung von Schuld von Kenntnis der Handlung
und ihrer Risiken. Nicht das Erbringen von Opfem sondern Bestrafung des Schuldigen
gem dem Urteil eines zustndigen Gerichts gilt als angemessene Reaktion. Nicht
mehr kollektive Schuld sondern individuelle Schuld ist der Standardfall des modernen
Verstndnisses.
Anders als Scham knne Schuld handlungsbegrndend sein und Schuld knne auch
Kompensationsmanahmen begrnden. Mit Blick auf historisches Unrecht msste
Schuld hier allerdings im Sinne des biblischen Verstndnisses objektivistisch, also als
kollektive Beschmutzung verstanden werden. Kompensationsmanahmen dienten dann
der symbolischen Reinigung des Kollektivs.32
Fletchers Interpretation kollektiver Schuld knnte in vielen Fllen zur Feststellung
solcher Schuld fhren, in denen wir mit der unter anderem von Thompson vertretenen
Interpretation historischer Pflichten Gesellschaften korporative Verantwortung und ihren Mitgliedern indirekte Pflichten aufgrund der Unrechtshandlungen frherer Mitglieder der Gesellschaft zuschreiben. Allerdings sind die Fragen, wann solche kollektive
Schuld vorliegt und wem gegenber dann Pflichten bestehen, weitgehend unbeantwortet. Vermutlich wird man nicht in allen Fllen von kollektiver Schuld im Sinne Fletchers sprechen wollen, in denen wir im Sinne Thompsons Gesellschaften korporative
Verantwortung wegen des Handelns frherer Mitglieder zuschreiben.
4.3

Das Verbot des Trittbrettfahrens

So ist unklar, ob wir mit Fletcher im Falle der von Axel Gosseries untersuchten schdigenden Konsequenzen der CO2-Emissionen frher lebender Mitglieder andauernder
31

32

Elemente einer solchen Interpretation finden sich auch in K. Jaspers, Die Schuldfrage; T.W.
Adorno, "Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?", 555-72; J. Habermas, "ber den moralischen Notstand in der Bundesrepublik"; ders., "Zwei Reden"; ders., "Aus der Geschichte
lernen?", "Doppelte Vergangenheit", "Das Bedrfnis nach deutschen Kontinuitten", "Aus welcher
Geschichte lernen?"; M., Brumlik und H. Brunkhorst, "Kontingente Identitt und historische
Haftung", 26-40; M. Lw-Beer, "Die Verpflichtungen der unschuldigen Nachgeborenen", 61-9.
Fletcher versteht kollektive Schuld in einem nicht-distributiven Sinne: Schreiben wir dem Kollektiv
Schuld zu, bedeutet dies nicht, dass die einzelnen Mitglieder schuldig sind. Zur Unterscheidung von
distributiven und nicht-distributiven Interpretationen kollektiver Verantwortung siehe F.W. Rothenpieler, Der Gedanke einer Kollektivschuld in juristischer Sicht; R.S. Pfeiffer, "The Meaning
and Justification of Collective Responsibility", 62-83, und J. Feinberg, "Collective Responsibility",
222-51; J. Feinberg, "The Expressive Function of Punishment", 95-118.

28

Lukas H. Meyer

Gesellschaften fr Nicht-Mitglieder, die heute andernorts leben, von kollektiver Schuld


sprechen sollten. Von einer Beschmutzung der Gesellschaft durch historisches Verbrechen kann hier nicht die Rede sein. Die frher lebenden Mitglieder haben selbst nicht
schuldhaft gehandelt, weil sie um die schdliche Wirkung fr spter lebende Menschen
nicht wissen konnten.
Knnen ihre Nachfahren oder die heute lebenden Mitglieder der andauernden Gesellschaft, also gewhnlich Brger eines Staates, unter historischen Pflichten zu Kompensationsleistungen gegenber geschdigten Nicht-Mitgliedern stehen aufgrund der
Handlungen frher lebender Mitglieder ihrer Gesellschaft, wenn sie fr deren Handlungen nicht nur nicht verantwortlich sein knnen, weil sie deren Handlungen nicht haben
beeinflussen knnen, sondern, anders als im Fall der Sklaverei in den USA, die fr diese
Handlungen verantwortlichen Akteure nicht haben wissen knnen, dass sie (spter lebende) Menschen schdigen (wrden)? Im Falle der Emission von Treibhausgasen
knnten solche Kompensationsleistungen erbracht werden, indem die zuknftige Emission dieser Gase fr Staaten unter Bercksichtigung ihrer frheren Emissionen reduziert
wird, nmlich strker dann, wenn ein Staat fr berdurchschnittlich hohe frhere Emissionen verantwortlich ist. Dies ist seit vielen Jahren eine politische Forderung.
Gosseries akzeptiert, dass aufgrund ihrer Unwissenheit die frher lebenden Verursacher des Schadens diesen nicht moralisch zu verantworten haben, verteidigt aber die
Auffassung, dass gegenwrtig lebende Menschen, die um die schdigende Wirkung des
Handelns ihrer Vorfahren wissen sollten und Vorteile aufgrund dieses Handelns genieen, den Geschdigten Kompensationsleistungen schulden knnen, nmlich aufgrund des Verbots des Trittbrettfahrens.
Fr den Zweck der Diskussion reduziert Gosseries die Komplexitt der Situation,
wie sie aufgrund frherer Emissionen heute vorliegt, durch stark vereinfachende Annahmen. Er beschrnkt sich auf zwei Staaten (die er USA und Bangladesh nennt) und je
zwei Generationen, die gegenwrtig lebende und eine frhere. Da diese Generationen
nicht berlappen, konnten die gegenwrtig lebenden Menschen das Verhalten der frheren Generation nicht beeinflussen. Ferner beschrnkt er sich auf Kohlendioxid-Emissionen, nimmt an, dass die gegenwrtig lebenden Generationen beider Staaten kein Kohlendioxid (CO2) emittieren und dass nur die frher lebende Generation der USA CO2
emittiert hat. Des Weiteren nimmt er an, die frheren CO2-Emissionen der USA schdigen einerseits die gegenwrtig lebenden Mitglieder von Bangladesh direkt (also nicht
indirekt aufgrund der Schdigung ihrer Vorfahren) und seien insgesamt fr das Wohlbefinden der in Bangladesh lebenden Menschen abtrglich. Er nimmt andererseits an, dass
diese CO2-Emissionen ihrer Vorfahren die gegenwrtig in den USA lebenden Menschen
insgesamt indirekt begnstigen: Sie erlauben den heute lebenden US-Amerikanern ein
hheres Wohlfahrtsniveau zu realisieren.
Die moralische Verantwortung der gegenwrtig lebenden US-Amerikaner fr Kompensationsleistungen aufgrund des schdigenden Handelns frher lebender US-Amerikaner sucht Gosseries mit einer spezifischen moralischen Interpretation des Trittbrettfahrens zu begrnden. Eine Person gilt als Trittbrettfahrer, wenn das Handeln anderer
sie begnstigt und die Kosten der Handlung die handelnde Person oder noch andere
Personen tragen. Transgenerationelles Trittbrettfahren liegt dann vor, wenn die gegenwrtig lebende Generation des einen Staates (USA) aufgrund der Handlungen der frheren Generation desselben Staates Trittbrettfahrer ist zu Lasten der gegenwrtigen Generation des anderen Staates (Bangladesh). Trittbrettfahrer sind die gegenwrtig lebenden
U.S.-Amerikaner, obgleich sie fr die schdigenden Handlungen nicht verantwortlich

Einleitung

29

sein knnen, die sie, da sie zum Zeitpunkt ihrer Ausfhrung noch nicht einmal geboren
waren, nicht haben beeinflussen knnen.
Das Trittbrettfahren einer Person sei solange moralisch unakzeptabel, als die Person
nicht wenigstens im Umfange des Werts ihrer durch das Handeln anderer entstandenen
Begnstigung denen Kompensation leistet, die durch eben dieses Handeln geschdigt
sind. Das Verbot des Trittbrettfahrens, wie Gosseries es auffasst, ist weniger anspruchsvoll als das Gleichheitsgebot bzw. eine strikt egalitre Interpretation des Verbots des
Trittbrettfahrens. Das von Gosseries verteidigte Verstndnis des Verbots erlaubt eine
Ungleichverteilung der Begnstigungen und Belastungen aufgrund z.B. der CCh-Emissionen frherer Generationen: Die Netto-Begnstigten sind verpflichtet, Kompensationsleistungen in Hhe des Werts der ihnen entstehenden Begnstigung zu erbringen;
die Erfllung dieser Pflicht garantiert aber nicht, dass der Schaden vollstndig ausgeglichen wird. Das Gleichheitsgebot hingegen verlangt, dass die Gesellschaft alle unverschuldeten Schlechterstellungen ausgleicht, gleich ob sie sich Ereignissen, dem Handeln
anderer oder dem unwillentlichen Handeln der negativ Betroffenen verdanken. Dieses
Gebot verlangt die Gleich Verteilung der Begnstigungen und Belastungen aufgrund
etwa der CCh-Emissionen frherer Generationen. Weil das Gleichheitsgebot andere und
hufig anspruchsvollere Verpflichtungen mit sich bringt, kann das Verbot des Trittbrettfahrens auch der vertreten, der das Gleichheitsgebot ablehnt.
Das Verbot des Trittbrettfahrens ist auch in einem zweiten Sinne weniger anspruchsvoll als das Glcichheitsgebot. Ersteres verlangt von den Begnstigten Kompensationsleistungen nur gem ihrer relativen Begnstigung. Wenn andere Begnstigte ihren
Kompensationspflichten nicht gengen, dann ndert dies den Umfang der zu entrichtenden Kompensationsleistungen nicht. Das Gleichheitsgebot andererseits verlangt eine
Gleichverteilung der Begnstigungen und Belastungen durch Redistribution. Wenn andere ihren Verpflichtungen nicht gengen oder nicht gengt haben, kann dies den Umfang der Verpflichtung nach dem Gleichheitsgebot verstrken.
Angenommen die von Gosseries vorgeschlagene Interpretation des Verbots des
Trittbrettfahrens ist plausibel und seine Analyse der Verpflichtungen, die sich wegen
der Schdigungen durch globale Erwrmung aufgrund der CO2-Emissionen frherer
Generationen ergeben, ist berzeugend, ist das Verbot des Trittbrettfahrens auch fr die
Analyse und Bewertung anderer Flle historischer Schdigung bzw. historischen Unrechts relevant? Der von Gosseries unterstellte Fall hat mindestens zwei besondere
Merkmale: Erstens konnten frhere Generationen nicht wissen, dass die CC>2-Emissionen schdlich sind (und dass sie durch diese Emissionen spter lebenden Generationen
Unrecht tun). Zweitens werden erst sptere Generationen geschdigt. Diese, im Beispiel
Gosseries die gegenwrtige Bevlkerung von Bangladesh, sind direkt durch die Emissionen der frheren US-amerikanischen Generation geschdigt.
Beide Merkmale treffen etwa auf den Fall der Sklaverei in den USA nicht zu. Dass
Menschen dadurch, dass sie in die Sklaverei gezwungen werden, groer Schaden zugefgt und ihnen dadurch Unrecht getan wird, haben die Sklavenhalter und die Akteure,
die die Institution der Sklaverei geschaffen und legitimiert haben, wissen knnen oder
sollen. Dann aber knnen sich andere Verpflichtungen ihrer Nachfahren ergeben, etwa
die im Beitrag von Kumar und Silver diskutierten. Dass Menschen in der Vergangenheit
Unrecht erlitten haben, ist Voraussetzung auch der von Waldron vertretenen Aufhebungsthese sowie seiner und Shers berlegungen zur Relevanz hypothetischer Geschichtsverlufe, der Argumente von Gans, Marmor, F0llesdal und Patton zugunsten der
Restitution der Kontrolle ber identittsstiftendes Territorium, der berlegungen von
Pogge zum Makel andauernder Institutionen aufgrund ihrer illegitimen Entstehungs-

30

Lukas H. Meyer

bedingungen und der Idee berlebender Pflichten mit Blick auf heute verstorbene Opfer
frheren Unrechts.
Inwiefern der Umstand, dass im Falle der CO2-Emissionen heute lebende Menschen
direkte Opfer sind, normativ signifikant ist, bedarf weiterer berlegung. Die gegenwrtig lebenden Nachfahren von Sklaven sind indirekte Opfer: Das Leben ihrer Vorfahren,
die Sklaven waren, ist durch die Sklaverei geprgt. Es ist sehr wahrscheinlich, dass die
Versklavung ihrer Vorfahren notwendige Bedingung der Existenz und Identitt ihrer
Nachfahren ist. Die Beurteilung ihrer Ansprche erfordert demnach eine Interpretation
der Relevanz des Nicht-Identitts-Problems (siehe Abschnitt 1). Im Falle der CO2Emissionen frherer Generationen, die sich erst heute negativ auf die Lebensbedingungen von Menschen andernorts auswirken, knne man nicht mit gleicher Plausibilitt
annehmen, so Gosseries, dass die frheren Emissionen notwendige Bedingung der
Existenz und Identitt der heute Betroffenen sind. Das scheint zweifelhaft: Auch wenn
die Manahmen erst heute negative Konsequenzen haben, so hatten sie schon frher
andere Konsequenzen, die ihrerseits zu den Existenz- und Identittsbedingungen der
heute lebenden geschdigten Menschen zhlen und insbesondere dann, wenn wir hufige Interaktionen zwischen Schdigern und den Vorfahren der Geschdigten anneh-

Einleitung

mhungen eines spanischen Richters um Auslieferung des frheren chilenischen Prsidenten Pinochet wegen Menschenrechtsverbrechen an Spanien, die straf- und zivilrechtliche Amnestie, die in Sdafrika fr politische Verbrechen des Apartheidregimes
auf Empfehlung der Wahrheits- und Vershnungskommission gewhrt werden konnte,
die strafrechtliche Verfolgung der Nazi-Verbrechen in den westlichen Besatzungszonen
der spteren BRD sowie die Bemhungen um strafrechtliche Aufarbeitung der DDRRegimeverbrechen im vereinten Deutschland. Am Beispiel Pinochets errtern Malamud-Goti und Tomuschat die Vor- und Nachteile einer Strafverfolgung von Regimeverbrechen durch andere Einrichtungen als die des Nachfolgeregimes. Crocker, Elster,
Heyd, Malamud-Goti und auch Offe und Poppe diskutieren die Legitimitt und die Erfolgsaussichten strafrechtlicher Verfolgung von Regimeverbrechen angesichts anderer
mglicher sozialer Sanktionen und mit staatlicher Strafe konkurrierender Werte, insbesondere der Restitution der Opfer durch autoritative Feststellung der Wahrheit ber das
ihnen zugefgte Unrecht durch die Arbeit von Wahrheitskommissionen und die Frderung der Vershnung zwischen Opfern und Ttern auf der Grundlage einer bedingten
Amnestie.
5./

5.

Strafrecht und Strafverfahren als Modus der Transition to Democracy

Das Nicht-Identitts-Problem stellt sich jedenfalls dann nicht, wenn Opfer von Unrechtshandlungen noch leben. Es ist auch irrelevant fr die Frage, ob die Tter heute
strafrechtlich verfolgt werden sollen. Ob Verbrechen, die unter einem vorrechtsstaatlichen Regime verbt wurden, heute whrend einer Transition zu einer rechtsstaatlichen
und demokratischen Ordnung strafrechtlich verfolgt werden sollen, und falls ja, mit
welcher Begrndung und mit welchen Zielen, ist allerdings in hohem Mae umstritten.
So sind besondere wie generelle Abschreckungseffekte staatlicher Strafe in hohem
Mae zweifelhaft, wenn die Straftaten im Namen und Auftrag staatlicher Einrichtungen
unter den Bedingungen einer Diktatur oder von Mitgliedern paramilitrischer Gruppen
unter brgerkriegshnlichen Bedingungen verbt wurden.33 Umstritten ist auch, welche
Institutionen zustndig sein sollen: die Staatsanwaltschaften und Strafgerichte des
Nachfolgeregimes, internationale Institutionen - also eigens eingerichtete so genannte
ad hoc Tribunale oder der neu geschaffene internationale Strafgerichtshof - oder Institutionen dritter Staaten, die universelle Jurisdiktion beanspruchen oder deshalb fr zustndig gelten knnen, weil eigene Brger zu den Opfern zhlen oder Verbrechen auf
ihrem Territorium verbt wurden.
Ruti Teitel entwickelt mit Blick auf diese Fragen eine soziologische Interpretation
der internationalen Praxis. Jaime Malamud-Goti, Christian Tomuschat, David Crocker,
David Heyd, Claus Offe und Ulrike Poppe sowie Jon Elster diskutieren die genannten
Fragen mit Blick auf die jeweils von ihnen untersuchten Flle: Exil, Strafverfolgung
und Amnestie im antiken Athen bei der Ablsung von diktatorischen Regimen, die Be33

Fr skeptische Stimmen siehe J. Malamud-Goti, Game Without End, 10f; A. Przeworski, Democracy and the Market, 76; A. Heller, "The Limits to Natural Law and the Paradox of Evil", 149-173,
248f, 161; C.S. Nino, Radical Evil on Trial, 128; M.W. Reisman, "Legal Responses to Genocide
and Other Massive Violations of Human Rights", 75-80, 77; M. Minow, Between Vengeance and
Forgiveness, 145f; M. Ignatieff, "Human Rights" (der in langfristiger Perspektive auf die sich
wechselseitig strkende Abschreckungswirkung von militrischer humanitrer Intervention und
(nationaler wie internationaler) Strafverfolgung systemischer Menschenrechtsverletzungen setzt).

31

Transitorische Strafverfolgung im internationalen Vergleich

Teitel fasst in ihrem Beitrag die Ergebnisse ihres internationalen Vergleichs strafrechtlicher Verfolgung und Bestrafung von Regimeverbrechen whrend der Transition to
Democracy zusammen: Wenn strafrechtliche Verfolgung der Verbrechen des Vorgngerregimes zu den transitorischen Manahmen zhlen,3 so dienen die Strafverfahren
kollektiven Lernprozessen, die den Wechsel zu einem liberalen und rechtsstaatlichen
Regime befrdern, indem eine diesem Zweck unter den jeweiligen Umstnden angemessene Interpretation der Wahrheit ber die Verbrechen des Vorgngerregimes autoritativ etabliert wird. Solche Strafverfahren zielen auf die berwindung von gesellschaftlichen Konflikten. Im Ergebnis werden die in der Regel wenigen Verurteilten typischerweise milde bestraft oder mssen ihre Strafe nicht verben. Dies ist auch Problemen der Zuschreibung individueller Verantwortung fr Systemverbrechen und der mit
rechtsstaatlichen Prinzipien vereinbaren Anwendung strafrechtlicher Bestimmungen
nach einem Regimewechsel geschuldet. Die Bemhungen um Etablierung eines internationalen Strafrechts und des internationalen Strafgerichtshofs zielen, so Teitel, auf die
34

Fr normative und politische Analysen der Legitimitt von Strafe als Antwort auf unter dem Vorgngerregime begangenes Unrecht siehe z.B. O. Kirchheimer, Political Justice, Kap. 1; H. Arendt,
Eichmann in Jerusalem, 54-9, 97, 98f, 100, 140, 168, 178, 183f, 186-201, Kap. VII, VIII passim,
402 (zu Eichmanns Schuld), 374, 377 (zum Rckwirkungsproblem), 59-61, 74, 94, 181, 379-84,
392-5 (zur Jurisdiktion des Israelischen Gerichts); C.S. Nino, Radical Evil on Trial, X, Kap. l
("Punishment as a Response to Human Rights Violations"), Kap. 4 ("The Morality of Punishing
and Investigating Human Rights") und Kap. 5 ("Legal Problems of Trials for Human Rights Violations"); J. Malamud-Goti, Game Without End, 20f, 189, 197f; P. de Greiff, 'Trial and Punishment",
93-111; K. Gnther, "Der strafrechtliche Schuldbegriff als Gegenstand einer Politik der Erinnerung
in der Demokratie", 48-89.
Fr generelle und vergleichende Interpretationen von Strafe als Antwort auf historisches Unrecht
siehe z.B. S. Zimmermann, Strafrechtliche Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung und Verjhrung; G.
O'Donnell und P.C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, 28-32; S. Huntington, The
Third Wave, 211-31; A. Przeworski, Democracy and the Market, 23-94; J. Zalaquett, "Confronting
Human Rights Violations Committed by Former Governments", Transitional Justice, Bd. I, 3-31;
C.S. Nino, Radical Evil on Trial Kap. 3, "Political Problems of Trials for Human Rights Violations".

32

Lukas H. Meyer

berwindung der aus diesen Problemen erwachsenen Dilemmata. Gbe es ein wohletabliertes internationales Strafrecht, das unbedingte Mindeststandards fr das Verhalten aller Akteure verbindlich setzte, dann wre seine Anwendung frei von Problemen
etwa der nachtrglichen rechtlichen Beurteilung der Gesetze eines vorrechtsstaatlichen
Regimes.35
5.2

Moralische Dilemmata der Strafverfolgung von Systemverbrechen durch


Fremde^

Malamud-Goti untersucht die moralischen Dilemmata einer Strafverfolgung des chilenischen Prsidenten Pinochet in Spanien. Der spanische Richter Baltasar Garzn hatte
1998 die Auslieferung Pinochets wegen dessen Verantwortung fr massive Menschenrechtsverbrechen innerhalb und auerhalb Chiles von Grobritannien gefordert, als sich
Pinochet in London aufhielt - letztlich ohne Erfolg, weil die britische Regierung Pinochet einem Gerichtsverfahren in Spanien fr gesundheitlich nicht gewachsen hielt. Mit
Blick auf dieses mgliche Strafgerichtsverfahren in Spanien und Verfahren dieser Art
weist Malamud-Goti auf zwei Dilemmata hin. Erstens gebe es eine erhebliche Spannung zwischen der Forderung, Straflsigkeit gerade fr im Namen eines Staates verbte
Menschenrechtsverbrechen (Staats- oder System verbrechen) zu bekmpfen, und dem
rechtsstaatlichen Prinzip einer wenigstens minimalen Gleichbehandlung. Ersterer Forderung sei mit der strafrechtlichen Verfolgung jedes solchen Menschenrechtsverbrechens
gedient. Das Prinzip der Gleichbehandlung werde aber verletzt, wenn ein Ausschnitt
solcher Staatsverbrechen strafrechtlich verfolgt werde, andere gleichermaen schlimme
Verbrechen dieser Art aber nicht belangt werden und zwar wegen der erheblichen
Machtunterschiede in den internationalen Beziehungen. Es sei unvorstellbar, dass etwa
ein vietnamesischer Gerichtshof U.S.-amerikanische Staatsbrger fr Menschenrechtsverbrechen whrend des Vietnamkriegs belangen knne oder generell, dass Strafgerichtshfe der so genannten Dritten Welt Menschenrechtsverbrechen, die im Namen
oder Auftrag von Staaten der Ersten Welt verbt wurden, zur Anklage bringen. Derartige Ungleichbehandlung lasse sich auf der Grundlage einer auf Prinzipien beruhenden (retributiven) Strafgerechtigkeit nicht rechtfertigen.
Malamud-Goti untersucht aber ein anderes Dilemma. Er vertritt die These, dass mit
Blick auf innerstaatliche, im Namen des Staats verbte Menschenrechtsverbrechen
Strafgerechtigkeit nur durch Gerichte "von innen" erreicht werden kann, also von Gerichten, die die in Frage stehenden Taten aus der Perspektive der Tter und Opfer verstehen, was am ehesten dadurch gewhrleistet werden knne, dass die Richter zur selben politischen Gemeinschaft gehren wie die Opfer und Tter. Diese These hat die
Implikationen eines Dilemmas: Denn dem schon genannten Ziel der Bekmpfung von
Straflsigkeit steht gegenber, ein Strafverfolgungssystem vermeiden zu sollen, das der
Strafgerechtigkeit nicht dient. Das Ziel retributiver Gerechtigkeit sei aber, der Gesellschaft bei der Etablierung einer auf der gleichen Anerkennung der Rechte aller Mitglieder beruhenden Demokratie dadurch zu dienen, dass es die Opfer mit den Ttern gleichstellt, nmlich durch Bestrafung letzterer. Dieses Ziel knne nur erreicht werden, wenn
die Verfahren und die Urteile der Gerichte innerhalb der Gesellschaft, der die Opfer und
Tter angehren, als autoritativ anerkannt werden, und dies sei nur mglich, wenn die
35
36

Siehe L.H. Meyer, '"Gesetzen ihrer Ungerechtigkeit wegen die Geltung absprechen'", 319-62,
insbesondere 346-61.
Siehe auch O. Hoffe, Demokratie im Zeitalter der Globalisierung, 367-74, insbesondere 370.

Einleitung

33

Urteile erstens als angemessen gelten, weil sie der Wahrheit ber die Tatsachen entsprechen, und zweitens fr unparteilich gehalten werden, weil sie die richtigen Prinzipien,
Regeln und Werte reflektieren.
Solche Anerkennung beruht aber, so der Autor, und dies gelte gerade fr Urteile ber
Staatsverbrechen, auf der Glaubwrdigkeit des Gerichts, und glaubwrdig sei ein Gericht fr eine bestimmte Gruppe und aus anderen als blo formalen Grnden. Das Verhltnis zwischen dem Gericht und der jeweils relevanten ffentlichkeit sei ein subjektives, insofern fr die Glaubwrdigkeit des Gerichts nicht allein die unparteiliche Feststellung der Verantwortung des Tters sondern die Fhigkeit entscheidend sei, den Konflikt zu beenden, auf dem die Klage fut. Deshalb knne nicht berraschen, dass, wenn
fr Staatsverbrechen strafrechtliche Verantwortung zugeschrieben werde, die solcher
Zuschreibung zugrunde liegenden Kriterien den Umstand reflektieren, ob die Tter und
Richter derselben Gemeinschaft angehren oder nicht, ob es sich um ein Gericht "von
innen" oder "von auen" handelt, ob seine Glaubwrdigkeit auf seinem Verhltnis zur
Gemeinschaft der Opfer und Tter beruht oder auf dem Verhltnis zu einer dieser Gemeinschaft fremden ffentlichkeit. Gerichte von auen sind die Gerichte anderer Staaten aber auch internationale Tribunale und Gerichte. Als Illustration seiner These dient
dem Autor einerseits die Verurteilung Ernst von Weizsckers durch ein internationales
Militrtribunal 1945 - ein Gericht von auen, fr dessen Glaubwrdigkeit nicht die
deutsche sondern die ffentlichkeit der Siegermchte oder die Weltffentlichkeit entscheidend gewesen sei, daher die, so Malamud-Goti, nicht nachvollziehbar harsche
Schuldzuweisung und das harte Urteil - und andererseits die Verurteilung des Brigadegenerals Orlando Ramn Agosti durch ein argentinisches Gericht, dessen Richter den
Mitbrger zu einer angesichts der ihm nachgewiesenen Menschenrechtsverbrechen
mglicherweise formal rechtfertigbaren, aber jedenfalls uerst milden Gefngnisstrafe
verurteilte. Generell neigen Gerichte von innen, die whrend einer Transition to Democracy Staatsverbrechen des Vorgngerregimes beurteilen sollen, dazu, den besonderen politischen Umstnden der Tatzeit und der Gegenwart ein groes (und mglicherweise zu groes) Gewicht bei der Schuldzuweisung einzurumen. Hingegen neigen Gerichte von auen, wenn sie solche Flle verhandeln, dazu, die politische Realitt der
Gesellschaft, der der Tter angehrt, zu simplifizieren, weshalb sie innerhalb dieser Gesellschaft nur bei wenigen Autoritt genieen, die politische Spaltung der Gesellschaft
frdern und zur Etablierung rechtsstaatlicher Autoritt nicht beitragen.
Angesichts der heutigen Millionengefolgschaft Pinochets in Chile htte seine Verurteilung in Spanien durch einen spanischen Richter bestenfalls unvorhersehbare Konsequenzen fr die Etablierung einer rechtsstaatlichen Ordnung in Chile. Auch mit Blick
auf Pinochet verspricht sich Malamud-Goti durch ein Verfahren im eigenen Land und
durch ein Gericht, das die Binnenperspektive einnimmt, deutlich mehr mit Blick auf das
Ziel der Schaffung rechtsstaatlicher und demokratischer Verhltnisse whrend der (in
Chile andauernden) Transition to Democracy: Ein solches Gericht knnte erstens zur
Aufklrung ber das staatsterroristische Regime Pinochets beitragen wie auch zur differenzierten Beurteilung der direkten und indirekten Untersttzung oder Duldung dieses
Regimes und seiner Verbrechen durch weite Teile der Bevlkerung. Wenn am Ende nur
die hchstrangigen und schlimmsten Verbrecher strafrechtlich belangt wrden, knne
dies nur unter Verweis auf das Ziel der Schaffung demokratischer Autoritt legitimiert
werden.
Knnen aber derart auf die Herstellung rechtsstaatlich-demokratischer Verhltnisse
zielende Strafverfahren und Urteile als gerecht gelten? Malamud-Goti verweist darauf,
dass unter den genannten Bedingungen nur solche Verfahren autoritativ sein knnen,

34

Lukas H. Meyer

die nicht die Spaltung der Gesellschaft vertiefen und die die relevanten Tatsachen und
die richtigen Regeln und Prinzipien reflektieren, so dass durch die Bestrafung von Ttern dem Anspruch der zahlreichen Opfer auf Respekt und Wiederherstellung ihrer
Wrde gengt wird und in diesem Sinne retributive Gerechtigkeit sich gegen Rache und
das Schaffen von Sndenbcken durchsetzt. Angesichts der Qualitt der Verbrechen,
wie sie unter den Nazis aber auch unter anderen Regimen wie dem Pinochets begangen
wurden, sei der Versuch der gerechten retributiven Bestrafung im Sinne genauer und
vollstndiger Gerechtigkeit und eines ebensolchen Ausgleichs zwischen Opfern und
Ttern zum Scheitern verurteilt. Dann aber scheine die Verfolgung anderer, moralisch
wnschenswerter Ziele, wie die Frderung eines mglichst gerechten politischen Arrangements, durchaus vertretbar.37
Diese berlegungen zugunsten von Strafgerichten von innen, also Gerichten, die die
Binnenperspektive einnehmen, knnen aber nur relevant sein, so Malamud-Goti, wenn
solche Gerichte bestehen und im genannten Sinne erfolgreich sein knnen. Das knne
aber in der Regel nicht fr die Menschenrechtsverbrechen gelten, die bei ethnischen
Konflikten, wie denen, die zwischen Serben und Muslims im frheren Jugoslawien verbt wurden, oder bei Menschenrechtsverbrechen im Zuge internationaler Kriege. Auch
drfe die Kritik an Gerichten von auen, also internationalen Tribunalen und Gerichten
und Gerichten anderer Staaten, die die Auenperspektive einnehmen, nicht als Zurckweisung aller humanitren Zwangsmassnahmen verstanden werden. Die Kritik richte
sich gegen eine spezifische Form der strafrechtlichen Schuldzuschreibung fr Staatsverbrechen unter den Bedingungen einer Transition to Democracy.
Christian Tomuschat, der den Argumenten Malamud-Gotis zugunsten von Strafgerichten, die die Binnenperspektive einnehmen, viel abgewinnen kann, weist in seinem
Kommentar darauf hin, dass die von Malamud-Goti beschriebene Alternative zwischen
Strafgerichten von innen und Strafgerichten von auen hufig nicht besteht. Das kann
eine Reihe von Grnden haben. Generell wird sich, so Tomuschat, die Frage strafrechtlicher Verfolgung durch Gerichte anderer Staaten politisch nicht stellen, wenn das vorrechtsstaatliche Regime, unter dem Menschenrechtsverbrechen begangen wurden,
schnell und mit dem Ergebnis abgelst wird, dass die frhere innerstaatliche Opposition
unumstritten die Macht ausbt. Rechtlich stelle sich die Frage nicht, wenn andere Staaten keine Jurisdiktion im Sinne universeller Jurisdiktion beanspruchen knnen,38 und
37

38

Hierzu siehe ausfhrlicher Malamud-Gotis zielorientierten "victim-centered retributivism" in J.


Malamud-Goti, Game Without End, 9f, 15-17; ders., "Punishment and a Rights-Based Democracy",
3-13.
Mit Blick auf schwerste Menschenrechtsverbrechen, Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit und
Vlkermord beanspruchen Staaten universelle Jurisdiktion, gleich gegen wen und von wem die
Verbrechen verbt wurden, die USA zivilrechtlich und andere Lnder insbesondere auch strafrechtlich. Zur Praxis in den USA: Am 30.6.1980 entschied der United States Court of Appeals for
the Second Circuit, dass die paraguayischen Angehrigen eines Folteropfers Zivilklage gegen den
der Tat verdchtigten paraguayischen Polizisten bei einem amerikanischen Gericht erheben knnen
(Filartiga v. Pena-lrala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980)) (siehe The New York Times, 1.7.1980, Section B; S. 3, Spalte 5; siehe auch die Anmerkungen des Vorsitzenden Richters, Irving R. Kaufman,
der das Urteil geschrieben hat, in The New York Times, 9.11.1980, Section 6; 44, Spalte 1). Das
Gericht sttzte sich dabei auf ein lang vergessenes Gesetz aus dem Jahre 1789, dem Alien Tort
Claim Act (ATCA). Das ATCA verleiht US Bundesgerichten Jurisdiktion fr Zivilklagen von
NichtStaatsangehrigen wegen Verletzungen des Vlkerrechts oder von internationalen Vertrgen,
welche die USA geschlossen haben. Seitdem sind viele Flle auf dieser Grundlage entschieden
worden, unter ihnen auch von eben dem Gericht, das den Fall Pena entschieden hatte, der Fall Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 FJd 232 {2d Cir. 1995) (siehe T.R. Posner, "International Decision. Kadic v.
Karadzic", 658-64). Fr den Kontext dieser Entscheidungen siehe H.H. Koh, "Civil Remedies for

Einleitung

35

auch keine internationale Institution besteht, vor der die politisch Verantwortlichen
htten angeklagt werden knnen.39 Letztere Grnde htten fr die Ablsung des DDRRegimes gegolten. Im Sinne des Pldoyers Malamud-Gotis habe der Einigungsvertrag,
nicht zuletzt um den Eindruck der Siegerjustiz zu vermeiden, fr den strafrechtlichen

Uncivil Wrongs", 174-211, 193-5; B. Stephens und M. Ratner, International Human Rights Litigation in U.S. Courts; S.D. Murphy, "Contemporary Practice of the United States Relating to International Law", 132-62, 143-6. - Aber mit Blick auf schwerste Menschenrechtsverbrechen wird von
einigen Staaten universelle Jurisdiktion auch strafrechtlich beansprucht: z.B. hat ein dnisches Gericht 1994 Refik Saric, einen bosnischen Flchtling in Dnemark, wegen Verbrechen in einem Lager in Bosnien-Herzegovina verurteilt. Saric wurde am 22.11.1994 von einem Kopenhagener Gericht zu acht Jahren Gefngnis verurteilt (Ostre Landsrets 3d Div. (1994)) (fr eine Zusammenfassung siehe http://www.redress.org). Das belgische Parlament hat im Februar 1999 ein Gesetz verabschiedet, das den belgischen Gerichten universelle Jurisdiktion fr Genozid und Verbrechen gegen
die Menschlichkeit verleiht. Auf der Grundlage dieses Gesetzes hat ein belgischer Untersuchungsrichter einen internationalen Haftbefehl gegen den gegenwrtigen Auenminister der Demokratischen Republik Kongo, Abdulaye Yerodia Ndombasi, wegen schwerer Verletzungen humanitren
Vlkerrechts erlassen. Die Demokratische Republik Kongo hat Belgien deshalb vor dem Internationalen Gerichtshof (ICJ) verklagt (Arrest Warrant of 11 April 2000 (Democratic Republic of the
Congo v. Belgium) (http://www.icj-cij.org/icjwww/idocket/icobe/icobecr/icobe_icr_toc.html). Ebenfalls auf der Grundlage der Genfer Konventionen haben die Niederlande (Knezevic, HR 11 Nov.
1997), die Schweiz (siehe AR. Ziegler, "International Decision", 78-82), Australien (PolyuUwvich
v. Australia (1991) 101 A.LR. 545 (Austl.)) und Deutschland (Entscheidung des BayObLG (1997)
im Falle Djajic, Exzerpt des Urteils in Neue Juristische Wochenschrift (1998), 392) NichtStaatsangehrige fr an NichtStaatsangehrigen verbte Kriegsverbrechen verklagt. Auch England hat
jngst ein Gesetz verabschiedet, das solche Klagen erleichtern wird (The Geneva Conventions
(Amendment) Act, 1995, c. 27).
Das bedeutet auch, dass die nationalstaatlichen Entscheidungen ber Amnestie fr Menschenrechtsverbrechen (siehe unten Abschnitt 5.4), so wichtig sie fr die von ihnen Begnstigten auch
sind, an Bedeutung eingebt haben, weil die amnestierten Personen das Land nicht verlassen knnen, ohne Gefahr zu laufen, straf- und zivilrechtlich belangt zu werden. Allerdings hat der Internationale Gerichtshof im gennanten belgischen Fall entschieden (Case Concerning the Arrest Warrant
of 11 April 2000 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium), 14. Februar 2002 (www.icjcij.org/icjwww/idocket/iCOBE/iCOBEframe.htm)), dass ein frherer Auenminister eines Staates
nur mit Blick auf die Handlungen, die er "in a private capacity" ausgebt hat der Strafgerichtsbarkeit eines anderen Staats unterworfen werden darf, ein Auenminister also Immunitt geniet bei
internationalen Verbrechen, die er als Minister zu verantworten hat - sowohl whrend als auch nach
seiner Amtszeit. Diese Einschtzung des IGH ist scharf als weder vereinbar mit geltendem Gewohnheitsrecht noch der Strafgerechtigkeit dienlich kritisiert worden. Siehe z.B. A. Cassese,
"When May Senior State Officials Be Tried for International Crimes?", 853-875. Am 24. Juni 2003
hat die belgische Regierung nicht zuletzt auf Druck der USA beschlossen, dass "the rules of immunity enshrined in international and customary law will be integrated into the law", und die Jurisdiktion der belgischen Gerichte einzuschrnken: Sie sollen nur noch dann Jurisdiktion beanspruchen
knnen, wenn, erstens, die der Taten Verdchtigte Belgier sind oder ihren Wohnsitz in Belgien haben oder die Opfer Belgier sind oder ihren Wohnsitz seit mindestens drei Jahren in Belgien haben
und, zweitens, wenn die Verdchtigten Brger eines Lands sind, das die Taten nicht als Straftaten
verfolgt und kein faires Gerichtsverfahren garantiert. Siehe http://www.diplomatie.be/en/press/
homedetails.
39

Nach der Ratifizierung durch 60 Staaten ist das Statut des Internationalen Strafgerichtshof (IstGH)
(englisch: International Criminal Court (ICC)) am 1. Juli 2002 in Kraft getreten. Der IstGH beansprucht Jurisdiktion ber folgende Verbrechen: Genozid, Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit,
Kriegsverbrechen und Aggression (Art 5-9). Allerdings ist Aggression im Statut nicht definiert. Art
5(2) sieht vor, dass der IstGH dann Jurisdiktion ber Aggression haben wird, wenn eine entsprechende Definition durch nderung des Statuts gem Artikel 121 und 123 ergnzt wurde. Fr den
Text des Statuts siehe http://www.un.org/icc/romestat.htm und fr die Liste der Ratifizierungen
siehe http://www.un.org/law/icc/statute/status.htm).

36

Lukas H. Meyer

Umgang mit der DDR-Vergangenheit das Strafrecht der DDR zugrunde gelegt, sofem
es nicht generell anerkannten Menschenrechtsstandards widersprach.40
Politisch stelle sich die von Malamud-Goti diskutierte Alternative aber auch fr die
Flle nicht, in denen die Machthaber des frheren Regimes jedenfalls informell effektiv
die Macht weiterhin ausben und strafrechtliche Verfolgung im Land unterbinden, kein
internationaler Gerichtshof Jurisdiktion beanspruchen kann, und andere Staaten ihre
universelle Jurisdiktion nicht ausben knnen, weil sie der Straftter nicht habhaft werden. Die Situation in Guatemala nach dem Brgerkrieg knne als ein solcher Fall gelten. Strafrechtliche Verfolgung sei nur von innen mglich und erst wenn sich die
Machtverhltnisse effektiv gendert htten. Die Situation im frheren Jugoslawien sei
hnlich. Die politische Situation erlaube nicht, dass die Verantwortlichen der whrend
der 90er Jahre verbten Menschenrechtsverbrechen heute in den Nachfolgestaaten Jugoslawiens strafrechtlich verfolgt werden. Allerdings sei ein internationales Straftribunal eingerichtet worden, an das das frhere Staatsoberhaupt Jugoslawiens, Slobodan
Milosevic, ausgeliefert worden sei, nicht aber Radovan Karadzic und Ratko Mladic, die,
so Tomuschat, als Kommandeure fr das Genozid an den mnnlichen Einwohnern der
Stadt Srebenica verantwortlich seien. Diese befnden sich in relativer Sicherheit im
Land, obgleich die entsprechenden Haftbefehle ergangen seien.
Mit Blick auf dieses Tribunal pldiert Tomuschat fr folgende Einschtzung: Statt
sie als Gerichtsverfahren von auen im Sinne des Arguments Malamud-Gotis zu verwerfen, sei ein solches Tribunal der Straflsigkeit der fr die Staatsverbrechen Verantwortlichen vorzuziehen, zumal, wie im Fall der internationalen Tribunale fr die Naziverbrechen geschehen, die Legitimitt der Verfahren und Urteile auch im Land der Tter und Opfer in naher Zukunft Anerkennung finden knnten, und ohne die Arbeit eines
solchen Tribunals den Nachfolgestaaten die Aufnahme als gleichberechtigte Staaten in
die europische Staatenwelt verwehrt bliebe. Die Bedenken von Malamud-Goti gegen
Gerichte von auen wrden von der internationalen Gemeinschaft im brigen nicht nur
geteilt, sondern seien auch bei der Schaffung des Internationalen Strafgerichtshofs sowie der Einrichtung der Tribunale fr Kambodscha und Sierra Leone bercksichtigt
worden: Was ersteren angehe nicht zuletzt durch das Subsidiarittsprinzip, das die Vorzugswrdigkeit von Gerichten von innen klar ausdrcke, bei letzteren auch dadurch,
dass unter den Richtern Landsleute der Opfer und Tter sind, die fr die angemessene
Bercksichtigung des besonderen nationalen Kontexts einstehen, whrend die internationalen Richter des Tribunals die Fairness und Unparteilichkeit gewhrleisten sollen.
Mit Blick auf die gewissermaen idealtypische Gegenberstellung Malamud-Gotis
mchte Tomuschat darauf hinweisen, dass die Alternative Gerichte von innen oder von
auen hufig nicht besteht und internationale Institutionen der Strafverfolgung in ihren
Verfahren die Bedenken gegenber Gerichten von auen zu bercksichtigen bemht
sind, ohne das Ziel der Strafverfolgung und Bestrafung von Staatsverbrechen aufzugeben.
5.5

Transitorische Strafverfolgung in der Wahlsituation

Das vereinte Deutschland war im Vergleich zu Chile, Guatemala, Kambodscha, Sierra


Leone oder dem ehemaligen Jugoslawien sicher ein sehr viel versprechender Ort der
historischen Gerechtigkeit: die frheren Eliten der DDR hatten so gut wie keinen Ein40

Hierzu siehe L.H. Meyer, "'Gesetzen ihrer Ungerechtigkeit wegen die Geltung absprechen"', 34661.

Einleitung

37

fluss auf den Modus der Transition. Insbesondere auch ber die Frage der strafrechtlichen Sanktionierung der Regime verbrechen konnte bald nach dem Fall der Mauer frei
entschieden werde. Insofern kann man idealtypisch von einer Wahlsituation sprechen:
In der Wahlsituation kann eine neue Regierung den bergang zu rechtsstaatlichen und
demokratischen Verhltnissen bewerkstelligen und gleichzeitig Strafverfahren gegen
Personen effektiv durchfhren, die verdchtigt werden, Menschenrechtsverbrechen unter dem Vorgngerregime und in seinem Namen verbt zu haben. Diese Situation nenne
ich die Wahlsituation, weil in dieser Situation Strafverfolgung und gegebenenfalls Bestrafung der Menschenrechtsverbrechen eine Option sind, welche die Transition to Democracy nicht gefhrden.
Claus Offe und Ulrike Poppe errtern in ihrer soziologischen Studie zu Transitional
Justice in der frheren DDR nach dem Zusammenbruch des alten Regimes und in
Deutschland seit der Vereinigung, warum die Ergebnisse rckwrtsgewandter staatlicher Manahmen der strafrechtlichen Verfolgung und Bestrafung von Ttern41 und
deren Disqualifikation fr Ttigkeiten im ffentlichen Sektor ("Suberung"42) wenig
berzeugen knnen - und dies trotz der fr eine rechtsstaatlichen Prinzipien gengende
Aufarbeitung gnstigen Bedingungen im vereinten Deutschland.43 Dass eine Transition
to Democracy nur gelingen kann und glaubwrdig ist, wenn die notwendige Aufarbeitung des Regimeversagens und der Regime verbrechen den Ansprchen an Rechtsstaatlichkeit gengt, also die Aufarbeitung bereits dem Charakter des demokratischen und
rechtstaatlichen Nachfolgeregimes entspricht, ist eine Ausgangsthese der Autoren.
Im Vergleich zur historisch-moralischen Studie von David Lyons ist der Fokus der
Analyse von Offe und Poppe nicht die Begrndung der Zuschreibung von individueller
und kollektiver Verantwortung angesichts alternativer Handlungsoptionen, sondern die
Analyse und Bewertung auf solcher Einschtzung beruhender Manahmen und Sanktionen whrend der Transition to Democracy. Eine breite und dominante Koalition der
41
42

43

Siehe oben Fn. 32.


Suberung bezieht sich also auf die Entfernung von Personen aus mtern oder Positionen und nicht
auf Strafe im strafrechtlichen Sinne. Historisch gesprochen wurden allerdings Verfahren der Suberung hufig mit strafrechtlichen Manahmen vermischt. Fr vergleichende Untersuchungen und
Bewertungen von Suberung als eine unter anderen mglichen Reaktionen auf historisches Unrecht
siehe A. Rzeplinski, "A Lesser Evil?", Transitional Justice, 484-87; P. Steinbach, "Vergangenheitsbewltigungen in vergleichender Perspektive", 20; J.H. Herz, "Denacification and Related Policies", 275-92,279-81, 287,289.
Bei einer Transition to Democracy sind die Mglichkeiten der Durchsetzung kompensatorischer
wie auch distributiver Gerechtigkeitsansprche von Individuen und Gruppen hufig uerst beschrnkt, soll die Transition zu einer demokratischen Gesellschaft gelingen und langfristige Stabilitt und Prosperitt sichergestellt werden. Die entsprechenden pragmatischen Urteile beruhen auf
schwierigen empirischen Einschtzungen der wahrscheinlichen Konsequenzen alternativer politischer und konomischer Strategien, sind abhngig von komplexen Gterabwgungen und werden
hufig verbunden mit moralphilosophischen Einschtzungen der individuellen und kollektiven Verantwortung fr historisches Unrecht und seiner Konsequenzen. Fr hchst unterschiedliche Anstze
und Beitrge, sowohl was die Erklrung von Transitions to Democracy als auch die Politikempfehlungen angeht, vergleiche z.B. J.H. Herz, "Introduction", "Denacification and Related Policies" und
"Conclusion", 3-12, 275-292; G. O'Donnell und P.C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian
Rule, 28-32; S. Huntington, The Third Wave, 215-31; A. Przeworski, Democracy and the Market,
Kap. 1 und 2, insbesondere 2f, 23-40, 51-54, 65-99; B.A. Ackerman, The Future of Liberal
Revolution, 72-80; C.S. Nino, Radical Evil on Trial, Kap. 3, 117-34; J. Malamud-Goti, zuletzt in
"Dignity, Vengeance, and Fostering Democracy", 418-450; und J. Elster, C. Offe und U.K. Preu,
Institutional Design in Post-Communist Societies. Zur Frage der Vergleichbarkeit der Transitionsprozesse in Lateinamerika und Zentral- und Osteuropa siehe V. Bunce, "Comparing East and
South", 87-100; G.L. Munck und C.S. Leff, "Modes of Transition and Democratization", 343-62.

38

Lukas H. Meyer

politischen Akteure habe in Deutschland jedenfalls in den ersten Jahren nach dem Fall
der Mauer eine Interpretation des frheren DDR-Regimes fr richtig gehalten, nach
welcher die rechtliche oder jedenfalls moralische Verantwortung fr die negativen Ergebnisse des Regimes Individuen zugeschrieben werden kann, die Mitglieder des DDRRegimes gewesen sind. Diese Koalition vertrat auerdem die Auffassung, dass diese
Personen zur Rechenschaft zu ziehen sind. Offe und Poppe stellen heraus, dass diese
Interpretation gerade auch im Vergleich zu anderen frheren Staaten des so genannten
Ostblocks oder lateinamerikanischen Staaten und deren Transition to Democracy ungewhnlich ist. Das frhere Regime wird nicht als eine Katastrophe, sondern als ein
Verbrechen bewertet, moralisch-rechtliche Schuldzuschreibungen an Individuen werden
systemischen oder strukturalistischen Interpretationen vorgezogen, ferner sind es nicht
regimeexterne Akteure, denen die Verantwortung zugeschrieben wird, sondern Mitglieder der eigenen Gesellschaft, und schlielich sollen die Tter nicht etwa amnestiert und
die Verbrechen vergessen werden, sondern der Staat soll die Tter mit strafrechtlichen
und anderen Sanktionen belegen. Zu den Grnden fr diese jedenfalls in den ersten Jahren nach dem Fall der Mauer weithin geteilte Auffassung gehrten, so die Autoren, dass
wegen der besonderen Umstnde dieser Transition die frheren Eliten der DDR keinen
Einfluss auf die politischen Entscheidungen ber den Modus der Transition nehmen
konnten, dass die Erfolgsaussichten (rechtsstaatlichen Prinzipien gengender) strafrechtlicher Verfolgung zunchst berschtzt wurden wie auch die Aussichten, mit solchen Verfahren den Bedrfnissen der Opfer des DDR-Regimes und der Etablierung
rechtsstaatlicher Verhltnisse zu dienen, aber auch Grnde, die sich auf spezifische
historische Interpretationen der Defizite des Umgangs mit der Nazivergangenheit insbesondere in West-Deutschland und der DDR sttzen, und ferner durchaus instrumentellpolitische Erwgungen der verschiedenen Akteure.
Offe und Poppe weisen mit Nachdruck darauf hin, dass die Individualisierung der
unter dem DDR-Regime verbten Verbrechen, wie sie strafrechtliche Verfolgung erforderlich mache, deren systemische Qualitt verkennt, die eben nicht auf die persnlichen
Qualitten der Akteure und die moralische Qualitt ihrer Handlungen rckfhrbar sei.
Staatssozialistische Gesellschaften wie die der DDR htten alle Mittel der gesellschaftlichen Selbstbeobachtung, -bewertung und Kritik zerstrt und deren Verwendung verboten, was dazu fhrte, dass diese Gesellschaften von durchaus unredlichen und unreellen Selbstbeschreibungen abhngig gewesen seien und von der gewaltsamen Unterdrckung derer, die die Wahrheit zu berichten versuchten oder sie mit anderen teilen
wollten. Fr die Aufrechterhaltung solcher Selbstbeschreibung und der Unterdrckung
jeglicher Kritik seien enorme Ressourcen verwandt worden. Viele der vom DDR-Regime verursachten Schden lieen sich strafrechtlich nicht oder nur ungengend erfassen, gerade wenn rechtsstaatlichen Grundstzen entsprochen werden sollte, nmlich z.B.
die konomischen und kologischen Schden und auch die Schden, die sich der kulturellen Repression verdanken. Diese Schden seien dem System der DDR inhrent gewesen.
Im vereinten Deutschland seien seit Anfang der 90er Jahre drei staatliche Strategien
des Umgangs mit dem DDR-Regime parallel verfolgt worden: Erstens regulre strafrechtliche Verfolgung und Bestrafung durch eine spezielle polizeiliche Ermittlungsstelle, Staatsanwaltschaft und die Strafgerichte, zweitens und ab 1991 die Blostellung
von Ttern durch die Arbeit der so genannten Gauck-Behrde mit dem Ziel, den Opfern
des Regimes die fr sie relevanten Informationen bereitzustellen, aber auch strafrechtliche Verfolgung zu initiieren oder andere Sanktionen zu erlauben oder zu veranlassen
(insbesondere die Disqualifikation aus dem ffentlichen Dienst), und drittens die Arbeit

Einleitung

39

einer Enquete Kommission des Bundestages, die der zeitgeschichtlichen Erforschung


und politischen Debatte und Bewertung der DDR-Vergangenheit dient.
berraschen mag der geringe Erfolg der polizeilichen and staatsanwaltschaftlichen
Ermittlungen, misst man den Erfolg an der Zahl der Verurteilungen und verhngten
Gefngnisstrafen:44 Offe und Poppe berichten, dass es bis Ende Mrz 1991 in nur 0.1%
der ber 22.000 untersuchten Flle zu Gefngnisstrafen kam, nmlich in 20 Fllen, und
in nur gut 200 Fllen zu Verurteilungen. Dies sei nur zum Teil damit zu erklren, dass
die Strafverfolgungsbehrden und Gerichte rechtsstaatlichen Prinzipien verpflichtet
seien, und dass die im Einigungsvertrag festgeschriebenen Bedingungen die Mglichkeiten der Strafverfolgung und insbesondere der Bestrafung von unter dem DDR-Regime begangenen Handlungen weiter einschrnkten. Vielmehr sei die materielle und
politische Untersttzung fr die Strafverfolgung insbesondere durch die westdeutschen
Lnder zurckhaltend gewesen. Die Autoren benennen zahlreiche Grnde: das Interesse
westdeutscher Eliten, dass ihre Kooperation mit dem Regime der DDR nicht Gegenstand strafrechtlicher Untersuchungen wird, der Umstand, dass die berwiegende Mehrheit der Brger des vereinten Deutschlands nicht Opfer des DDR-Regimes waren, die
Einschtzung der Staatsverbrechen der DDR als wenig schlimm nicht nur im Vergleich
zu den Verbrechen des Naziregimes, sondern auch zu denen einiger anderer frherer
Ostblockstaaten, die Einschtzung, dass es angesichts insbesondere der Massenarbeitslosigkeit in der frheren DDR Wichtigeres zu tun gebe, und nicht zuletzt der Umstand,
dass der politische Einfluss der frheren DDR-Opposition und der Opfer des Regimes
im vereinten Deutschland sptestens nach den ersten Bundestagwahlen im vereinten
Deutschland gering war.
Auch angesichts der mageren Ergebnisse der strafrechtlichen Verfolgung war, so
Offe und Poppe, das Interesse an der Arbeit der Gauck-Behrde gro. Die Verwendung
der Informationen, die die Behrde spezifischen Akteuren zur Verfgung stellt, liegt
nicht in der Verantwortung der Behrde und fhrt hufig zu sozialen Sanktionen, gegen
die sich die Betroffenen mit Rechtsmitteln nicht wehren knnen, oder zu solchen Sanktionen, insbesondere der Entlassung aus dem ffentlichen Dienst, gegen welche zwar
zivilrechtliche Klage mglich ist und hufig auch erfolgreich war, wie Offe und Poppe
berichten, deren Begrndung aber weniger strikten Bedingungen unterliegt als strafrechtliche Manahmen. Die Angemessenheit der sozialen Sanktionen aufgrund der
durch die Gauck-Behrde zur Verfgung gestellten Informationen sei schon deshalb
hufig fragwrdig gewesen, weil der Wahrheitsgehalt der auf Unterlagen der frheren
DDR-Staatssicherheit beruhenden Informationen hufig umstritten und die Interpretation dieser Unterlagen jedenfalls schwierig sei. Zudem waren die Entlassungen aus dem
ffentlichen Dienst wohl kaum fair, denn die Praktiken der Lnder und der jeweils zustndigen Behrden innerhalb der Lnder divergierten erheblich. Der starke Bedarf an
bestimmten Beschftigten, etwa Polizisten, drfte dazu beigetragen haben, dass man
ausgerechnet ihnen gegenber Nachsicht walten lie, sie auch dann als Beamte weiterbeschftigte, wenn bekannt war, dass sie inoffizielle oder offizielle Mitarbeiter der Stasi
gewesen waren.
Schon der Umfang des Berichts der Enquete-Kommission, nmlich 18 verffentlichte Bnde, die zudem eine verhltnismig frhe Stufe der wissenschaftlichen Erforschung des DDR-Regimes reflektieren, haben dazu beigetragen, so Offe und Poppe,
dass die ffentliche Aufmerksamkeit fr den Bericht und auch seine bleibende Wirkung
beschrnkt sind. In der Sache kritisieren sie den einseitigen Fokus des Berichts auf den
44

Dies besttigt Teitels Interpretation transitorischer Strafgerechtigkeit. Siehe oben Fn. 32 und Text.

40

Lukas H. Meyer

Unterdrckungsapparat des DDR-Regimes und seine Opfer unter weitgehender Ausklammerung der systemischen konomischen und kologischen Defizite und Katastrophen und ohne Erwhnung der Bereiche des Regimes, die wenig beanstandenswert gewesen seien, etwa die Gesundheitsversorgung.
5.4

Transitorische Strafverfolgung in der Notsituation

Hatten die politischen Eliten des vereinten Deutschlands erheblichen Gestaltungsspielraum in der Wahl des Modus der Transition to Democracy und auch mit Blick auf die
Sanktionen ob der DDR-Regimeverbrechen, so knnen idealtypisch die politischen
Rahmenbedingungen der Transition im antiken Athen 403 v. Chr. und der sdafrikanischen Ablsung des Apartheidregimes durch eine demokratische Ordnung Anfang der
90er Jahre jeweils als eine Notsituation beschrieben werden: In beiden Fllen war zum
jeweiligen Zeitpunkt nur durch Verzicht auf insbesondere die Bestrafung der Verbrechen des Vorgngerregimes eine friedliche Transition mglich.45 Anders als im vereinten Deutschland, indem die frheren Eliten der DDR so gut wie keinen Einfluss auf die
Gestaltung der Transition to Democracy nehmen konnten und die zu treffenden Entscheidung in der Verantwortung insbesondere der westdeutschen Eliten lag, hat im Falle
der zweiten Transition im antiken Athen eine externe Macht, nmlich Sparta nicht nur
die Ablsung der vordem von Sparta protegierten Dreiig Tyrannen ermglicht sondern
seinen Einfluss auch zugunsten der Straffreiheit der Tyrannen und ihrer Helfershelfer
und des Schutzes ihrer Eigentumsinteressen eingesetzt. Im Falle Sdafrikas war eine
Bedingung fr eine friedliche Transition vom Apartheidregime zu einer demokratischen
Post-Apartheid-Ordnung, dass denen, die fr die im Name des Apartheidregimes verbten Verbrechen verantwortlich sind, eine wenn auch bedingte straf- und zivilrechtliche Amnestie eingerumt wurde. Andernfalls drohten Teile des Militrs und der Sicherheitskrfte mit Sabotage der Transition und Brgerkrieg.
In der so genannten Notsituation ist also der Verzicht auf Strafverfolgung und Bestrafung eine Bedingung des friedlichen bergangs zu rechtsstaatlichen Verhltnissen,
unter denen Menschenrechtsverbrechen effektiv verhindert werden knnen. Eine postdiktatorische Regierung kann sich hier nur unter Bedingungen einer weitgehenden Amnestierung der unter dem Vorgngerregime verbten politischen Straftaten etablieren.
Dass die je besonderen Umstnde einer Notsituation im Falle Athens und Sdafrikas
vorlagen wird von Jon Elster in seiner Interpretation der Transitions im antiken Athen
ebenso vorausgesetzt wie von David Crocker in seiner Kritik an den moralischen Argumenten von Erzbischof Desmond Tutu zugunsten der sdafrikanischen Wahrheitsund Vershnungskomission. Zwar drften externe Faktoren und insbesondere der Einfluss Spartas den Modus der Transition im Jahre 403 v. Chr. im starken Mae bestimmt
haben, aber, so Elsters zentrale These, die erheblichen Unterschiede der zwei kurz aufeinander folgenden Transitions to Democracy im antiken Athen, nmlich im Jahre 411
und 403 v. Chr., seien auch als Ausdruck eines Lernprozesses zu verstehen.46 Die erste
Transition habe im Wesentlichen das Ziel retributiver Gerechtigkeit und das Ziel der
Abschreckung weiterer diktatorischer Umsturzversuche zugunsten der Rckkehr zu
einer populistischen Demokratie verfolgt. Dies habe der Tradition einer bis auf die Be45
46

Ein anderer klarer Fall ist Chile. Siehe z.B. C.S. Jorge, "Dealing with Past Human Rights Violations", 1455-85, 1457-63. Siehe auch den Beitrag J. Malamud-Gotis in diesem Bd.
Zur Transition im Jahre 403 v. Chr. siehe auch schon J. Elster, "Coming to Terms With the Past"
7-48.

Einleitung

41

mhungen Solons zurckreichenden Serie von Reformen entsprochen, die zu Verhltnissen fhrten, in denen populre Macht weitgehend unbeschrnkt galt. War diesen
Verhltnissen schon die erste nur vier Monate dauernde Diktatur geschuldet, so zhlen
sie wenigstens auch zu den indirekten Ursachen der zweiten, nmlich der Diktatur der
Dreiig, die von Sparta untersttzt 404 v. Chr. ein Terrorregime einrichteten.
Die Transition to Democracy im Jahre 403 verfolgt das Ziel der Vershnung und des
Ausgleichs der Interessen der Brgerkriegsparteien durch bedingte Teilamnestie, die
Abschreckung von Klagen von Verbrechen, die unter die Amnestie fallen, das legalisierte Exil fr die, die nicht unter die Amnestie fallen, und den Schutz von unter der
Diktatur erworbenem beweglichen Eigentum. Die Schaffung rechtsstaatlicher Verhltnisse auf der Grundlage von Verfassungsnderungen habe der Stabilisierung demokratischer, nicht aber populistischer Verhltnisse gedient. Andere Manahmen sorgten dafr, dass die Tyrannen und ihre Helfershelfer lngerfristig von politischen Entscheidungsfunktionen ausgeschlossen wurden. Elster versteht diese zweite Transition nicht
einfach als von Sparta, dem frheren Verbndeten der Tyrannen, aufgezwungen, sondern als einem positiven Lernprozess geschuldet, der angesichts einer zweiten Diktatur
in kurzer Zeit auf die Schaffung eines stabilen demokratischen Regimes durch Interessenausgleich setzt, auch wenn dies bedeutete, auf strafrechtliche Verfolgung der fr die
Regimeverbrechen Verantwortlichen und ihrer Helfershelfer weitgehend zu verzichten
wie auch erhebliche Abstriche zu machen bei den durchaus legitimen Ansprchen auf
Kompensation der Opfer und der Eigentumsansprche der in die Stadt zurckkehrenden
Demokraten.
Erzbischof Desmond Tutu, war Vorsitzender der sdafrikanischen Wahrheits- und
Vershnungskommission (Truth- and Reconciliation Commission, im Weiteren TRC).
Nicht Tutus praktische Erwgungen, die die besonderen Umstnde der sdafrikanischen
Notsituation reflektieren, sondern dessen moralische Argumente zugunsten der mit der
TRC verbundenen bedingten Amnestie der unter dem Apartheidregime verbten Menschenrechtsverbrechen sind Gegenstand der Studie David Crackers. Crocker kritisiert
die moralische Rechtfertigung, die der neben Prsident Nelson Mandela wohl wichtigste
Reprsentant des neuen Sdafrika, Desmond Tutu fr den Modus der sdafrikanischen
Transition sowohl in seiner Rolle als Vorsitzender der TRC als auch als Autor gegeben
hat. Selbst wenn die Notsituation eine Transition nur unter der Bedingung einer Amnestie erlaubte, kann doch die ffentliche Rechtfertigung einer solchen Amnestie kritisiert werden. Crocker unterscheidet zwei Argumente Tutus, das "Argument gegen Rache" und das "Vershnungsargument", weist beide zurck und vertritt die These, dass
richtig verstanden Bestrafung und Vershnung uerst wichtige moralische Ziele sind,
die sich nicht ausschlieen mssen, wenn sie auf angemessene Weise verfolgt werden.
Tutus Argument gegen Rache sei ein nicht-konsequentialistisches Argument, das
Strafe mit Retribution identifiziere, Retribution mit Rache gleichsetze und zu dem
Schluss komme, dass Strafe moralisch falsch sei, weil Rache zu nehmen moralisch abzulehnen ist. Tutus Vershnungsargument sei ein konsequentialistisches Argument, das
die Bestrafung von Menschenrechtsverbrechern fr moralisch falsch hlt, weil sie frhere Feinde weiter entzweie und soziale Heilung verhindere. Vershnung, also die
(Wieder-) Herstellung sozialer Harmonie, werde am besten befrdert, wenn die Gesellschaft Amnestie gewhre und die Opfer den Ttem vergeben.
Mit Blick auf Tutus Argument gegen Rache weist Crocker daraufhin, dass Tutu
selbst die Drohung mit staatlicher Strafe fr legitim halten muss, denn das Amnestieangebot der TRC ist ein bedingtes, und fr Straftter, die die Bedingungen nicht erfllen,
gilt, dass sie strafrechtlich belangt werden sollen und drfen. Ferner knne Retribution

42

Lukas H. Meyer

"7

Einleitung

43

ten Menschenrechtsverbrecher (sowie die gerichtlich verordnete Restitution der Opfer)


zur Durchsetzung solcher Vershnung beitragen kann: Denn diese Urteile der Straf- und
Zivilgerichte, so sie gerecht und Ergebnis fairer Verfahren sind, knnen die wechselseitige Anerkennung aller als Brger mit gleichen Rechten in einer rechtsstaatlichen Demokratie frdern. Aus dem Umstand, dass das Angebot einer in Verbindung mit der
Einrichtung der Wahrheits- und Vershnungskommission gewhrten bedingten Amnestie in Sdafrika Voraussetzung fr die friedliche Transition zu einem Post-Apartheid
Regime gewesen sei, knne nicht geschlossen werden - und die entsprechenden empirischen Behauptungen Tutus hielten einer berprfung nicht stand -, dass staatliche
Strafe fr Regime verbrechen der Durchsetzung der fr eine Demokratie angemessenen
Konzeption von Vershnung generell abtrglich sei oder gar dass Vergebung der Opfer
und die Annahme solcher durch die Tter Voraussetzung fr Vershnung sei. Inwiefern
strafrechtliche Verfolgung und Bestrafung von schlimmen, im Namen des Vorgngerregimes verbten Verbrechen wnschenswert sei, ob solche Verfolgung und Bestrafung
Aufgabe der Institutionen des Nachfolgeregimes, der Institutionen anderer Staaten oder
internationaler Institutionen sein solle, ob und wie insbesondere Wahrheitskommissionen mit den Strafverfolgungsbehrden und Strafgerichten kooperieren sollen, und gegebenenfalls zu welchem Zeitpunkt retributive Gerechtigkeit ein angemessenes politisches
Ziel sein knne, dies seien Fragen, die nur unter Bercksichtigung der jeweils besonderen Bedingungen einer Transition zu rechtsstaatlichen Verhltnissen zu beantworten
und in hufig schwierigen Gterabwgungen zu begrnden seien. Gerade die jngste
internationale Praxis - etwa die Bemhungen um strafrechtliche Verfolgung Pinochets
und die Einrichtung internationaler Straftribunale und des internationalen Strafgerichtshofes - unterstreiche, dass die Durchsetzung retributiver Gerechtigkeit sowohl um ihrer
selbst willen als auch wegen ihrer positiven Auswirkungen fr eine Transition zu
rechtsstaatlichen Verhltnissen geschtzt werde.

nicht mit Strafe gleichgesetzt werden. Vielmehr sei Retribution eine Rechtfertigung fr
Strafe: Nur aufgrund seiner Straftat darf der Tter bestraft werden, weil er es dann verdient hat, in einer der Schwere der Straftat angemessenen Weise bestraft zu werden.
Solche Strafe knne aber auch abschreckende, den Tter rehabilitierende oder vershnende Wirkung haben. Allerdings seien solche Konsequenzen nach Auffassung des
Retributivisten keine Rechtfertigung fr staatliche Strafe.
Retribution drfe nicht mit Rache und Vergeltung gleichgesetzt werden. Zwar sei
richtig, dass Retribution und Rache in vorrechtlichen Sitten und der Praxis der Strafgerichte und des Strafvollzugs nicht immer und nicht vollstndig getrennt werden. Richtig
verstanden unterscheide sich Retribution aber von Rache in wenigstens den folgenden
Hinsichten: Retribution beziehe sich ausschlielich auf Unrechtshandlungen, nicht auf
irgendwelche Verletzungen oder Krnkungen, auf die mit Rache reagiert werden kann;
whrend Rache keine Grenzen kenne, unersttlich und unbeschrnkt sei, diene Retribution der Rechtfertigung und Festsetzung gerechter Strafe; retributive Strafe entspreche
dem Gerechtigkeitsideal der Unparteilichkeit, whrend Rache persnlich und parteilich
sei und auf Befriedigung dessen ziele, der Rache nehme, eine Emotion, die der Retribution fremd sei; retributive Strafe, nicht aber Rache sei dem Prinzip, gleiche Flle gleich
zu behandeln, verpflichtet; und Retribution erlaube nur die Bestrafung der Unrechtstter, whrend Rache auch an Mitgliedern der Gruppe oder Angehrigen der Tter genommen werden knne. Deshalb scheitere Tutus Argument gegen Rache: Auch wenn
Rache zu nehmen moralisch falsch sei, weil Rache gnzlich unabhngig von der unparteilichen Beurteilung des Verdiensts von Personen auf deren Verletzung ziele und auch
der Gleichbehandlung gleicher Flle nicht verpflichtet sei, knne sich daraus kein Argument gegen retributive Strafe ergeben.
Das konsequentialistische Vershnungsargument untersucht Crocker, indem er drei
Konzeptionen von Vershnung unterscheidet und argumentiert, dass einerseits die sozial heilende Wirkung von Amnestie und Vergebung nicht ber- und andererseits die
vershnende Kraft der Gerechtigkeit nicht unterschtzt werden drfe. Die erste Vershnungskonzeption ist das von Tutu vertretene Ideal des Ubuntu, das auf soziale Harmonie durch die Restitution der moralischen Beziehungen zwischen Ttern und Opfern als
hchstes Gut zielt. Weder sei aber, so Crocker, soziale Harmonie per se gut, noch biete
diese Konzeption Antworten auf die Fragen, wie mit denen umzugehen sei, die zur Vershnung nicht bereit seien, und wie die Aufrichtigkeit der verlangten moralischen Bemhungen der Brger zu berprfen ist. Viel weniger voraussetzungsreich sei die Vershnungskonzeption der friedlichen Koexistenz frherer Feinde. Solche Koexistenz
verlange von allen lediglich die Nicht-Verletzung der Grundrechte anderer. Deutlich
weniger voraussetzungsreich sei auch die Vershnungskonzeption der demokratischen
Reziprozitt, gem welcher von frheren Feinden, Ttern, Opfern und Unbeteiligten
verlangt werde, sich wechselseitig als Brger anzuerkennen, die gleichberechtigt an
demokratischen Verfahren teilhaben, mittels welcher Entscheidungen gerade auch ber
die Fragen getroffen werden, in denen kein Konsens erzielt wird. Beide Alternativen
verlangen von den Opfern keine Vergebung und zielen nicht notwendig auf Harmonie
im Sinne Tutus. Vershnung als demokratische Reziprozitt berlsst es den Brgern zu
entscheiden, in welchen Regelungsbereichen welche Werte welchen Rang genieen
sollen, und die Brger knnen sich gem dieser Vershnungskonzeption mit Blick auf
unter und im Namen des Vorgngerregimes verbte Menschenrechtsverbrechen fr Bestrafung der Tter im Sinne der Retribution entscheiden.
Crocker spricht sich fr die Vershnungskonzeption demokratische Reziprozitt aus
und argumentiert, dass die im Sinne der Retribution gerechte Bestrafung der schlimms-

Allerdings hat Crocker zwar Tutus Verstndnis retributiver Strafe kritisiert, aber kein
Argument zugunsten retributiver Strafe um ihrer selbst willen formuliert. Crocker ist
der Auffassung, dass strafrechtliche Verfolgung und staatliche Strafe von Regimeverbrechen unter Hinweis auf den Wert der Retribution zu rechtfertigen sind. Zugleich
hlt er die Entscheidung fr Sache des demokratischen Gesetzgebers. Offenbar vertritt
Crocker nicht die Position des positiven Retributivismus, die man so verstehen kann,
dass der Schuldige ohne Ausnahme bestraft werden muss und zwar in dem Mae, wie er
es aufgrund des von ihm verbten Unrechts verdient.47 Man knnte Crocker vielmehr
die Position eines schwachen Retributivismus zuschreiben: Staatliche Strafe kann zwar
unter Hinweis auf den Wert der Retribution legitimiert werden, kann aber nie allein unter Hinweis auf die durch Strafe realisierte retributive Gerechtigkeit legitimiert sein.
Gem dieser Position des schwachen Retributivismus ist Retribution also ein notwendiger, aber kein hinreichender Grund fr staatliche Strafe, oder werttheoretisch ausgedrckt, Retribution ist nur ein, womglich das zentrale konstitutive und intrinsisch
wertvolle Element gerechter Strafe. Retributive Gerechtigkeit fr sich genommen kann
47

Siehe J.L. Mackie, "Morality and the Retributive Emotions", 3-10; D. Dolinko, "Some Thoughts
about Retributivism", 537-59, 539-43. Die Behauptung, solche Bestrafung der Tter sei auch dem
Opfer geschuldet, ist eine zustzliche. Ein einflussreiches Argument zugunsten dieser Behauptung
lautet, dass der Unrechtstter sich durch die Tat einen unfairen Vorteil verschafft hat, indem er die
fr alle gleichermaen und zum Schutz aller geltenden Regeln der Verhaltenseinschrnkung verletzt hat, und dass seine Bestrafung dazu dient, ihm diesen Vorteil gegenber denen, welche die
Regeln einhalten, und insbesondere gegenber dem Opfer wieder zu nehmen (siehe z.B. J.B. Murphy, "Marxism and Retribution", 217-43).

44

Lukas H. Meyer

demnach den Staat nicht verpflichten, einen Straftter zu bestrafen, und erst recht gibt
sie dem Opfer kein Recht auf Bestrafung des Tters. Schwacher Retributivismus ist ein
Typ einer Mischtheorie der Rechtfertigung von staatlicher Strafe, insofern der schwache
Retributivismus retributive und andere Grnde fr notwendige und nur zusammen genommen hinreichende Rechtfertigungsgrnde staatlicher Strafe erachtet.
6. Die Haltung der Opfer
Crackers Kritik an den moralischen Argumenten Tutus zielen auf den Ausweis gerechter politischer Prinzipien der Transition to Democracy. David Heyd macht in seiner
vergleichenden Interpretation der Position Tutus und der berlegungen von Jean Amery
deutlich, dass, erstens, fr beide die moralische Reflektion, welche Haltung der Opfer
von schlimmen Regimeverbrechen angemessen ist, grundlegend ist, dass aber, zweitens,
im Falle Tutus diese Reflektion die Rechtfertigung zukunftsorientierter politischer Prinzipien fr die Transition to Democracy prgen, whrend Amery darauf beharrt, dass die
Plausibilitt der von ihm fr angemessen gehaltenen vergangenheitsorientierten Haltung
der Opfer nicht an ihren politischen Implikationen gemessen werden kann. Damit weist
Heyd auf eine fr das Verstndnis der Position Tutus wichtige moralische Dimension
hin, nmlich die Fundierung seiner politischen Bemhung um Vershnung in der
christlichen Moral. Zugleich erinnert seine Interpretation der Position Amerys daran,
dass eine moralisch plausible Haltung der Opfer, nmlich die des Ressentiments, mit
der Position Tutus unvereinbar ist.
Whrend Tutu im Post-Apartheid-Afrika auch in seiner Funktion als Vorsitzender
der Wahrheits- und Vershnungskommission fr restaurative Gerechtigkeit und Vershnung eintritt, verteidigt Amery das Ressentiment als moralische Reaktion des Opfers
von Unrecht. Bei seinem Vergleich der Positionen geht es Heyd insbesondere um zwei
Fragen: Erstens, sind und inwiefern sind die vergangenheitsorientierte Reaktion der
retributiven Gerechtigkeit und des Ressentiments und die zukunftsorientierte der restaurativen Gerechtigkeit und der Vershnung moralisch? Zweitens, in welchem Verhltnis
steht die moralische Reaktion des Opfers zu den moralisch ausweisbaren politischen
Prinzipien des Umgangs mit Unrecht und der Transition to Democracy?
Das moralische Urteil kann zukunfts- und vergangenheitsorientiert sein. Typischerweise soll ein solches Urteil handlungsanleitend sein. Andererseits kann ein solches
Urteil den Wert von Handlungen beurteilen, die lngst ausgefhrt und nicht mehr zu
beeinflussen sind. Der Gegenstand moralischer Urteile kann die distributiv gerechte
Verteilung von Gtern in der Zukunft sein, die retributiv gerechte Bestrafung sowie
verdammende oder belobigende Beurteilung von Menschen aufgrund von frheren
Handlungen oder Leistungen, aber auch die moralische Angemessenheit von mentalen
Einstellungen und persnlichen Reaktionen auf Unrecht. Auch letztere knnen zukunfts- oder vergangenheitsorientiert sein: Einerseits Hoffnung, die Bereitschaft zu Ver48

Der bekannteste Typ der Mischtheorie ist der von H.L.A. Hart, "Prolegomenon to the Principles of
Punishment", 1-27: Das Strafe generell rechtfertigende Ziel ist utilitaristisch aufzufassen, die Verfolgung dieses Ziels unterliegt aber einer retributivistischen Einschrnkung im Sinne des negativen
Retributivismus, gem welchem nur der Schuldige, der fr die Tat im relevanten Sinn Verantwortliche, bestraft werden darf. Gewissermaen ist Harts Position spiegelverkehrt zu der des
schwachen Retributivismus, insofern fr Hart andere als retributive Grnde, nmlich utilitaristische,
die zentralen Rechtfertigungsgrnde sind, whrend es fr den schwachen Retributivismus die retributiven sind. Siehe auch N. Lacey, State Punishment, Kap. 2. Fr eine Kritik des Retributivismus
siehe z.B. D. Dolinko, 'Three Mistakes of Retributivism", 1623-57.

Einleitung

45

shnung und dazu, die ursprngliche Beziehung wiederherzustellen, andererseits Rachsucht, Groll und nicht bereit zu sein zu vergessen und zu vergeben. Whrend die Gerechtigkeitsurteile politisch sind und beanspruchen, fr das Kollektiv handlungsanleitend zu sein, beziehen sich die Urteile ber die angemessene Haltung auf die Reaktion
insbesondere des Opfers von Unrecht. Gem Heyds Interpretation exemplifizieren die
Urteile Tutus und Amdrys ber die Angemessenheit der Reaktion der Opfer die Urteile
je eine der Orientierungen moralischer Urteile, die Zukunfts- und die Vergangenheitsorientierung.
Folgen wir der Interpretation Heyds, so ist fr Amery die Haltung der Opfer moralisch grundlegend. Von der Gesellschaft als Ganzer kann nur eine zukunftsorientierte,
ihre Fortexistenz sichernde Reaktion auf Unrecht erwartet werden. Die angemessene
Reaktion der Opfer ist aber die des Ressentiment, eine Haltung, die sie darauf insistieren lsst, dass das Unrecht erinnert wird, und auch von denen, die dazu neigen, es zu
vergessen. Diese Reaktion ist nach Auffassung Am6rys moralisch angemessen, obgleich
sie unnatrlich ist, sich gegen die natrliche Zukunftsorientierung unserer gewhnlichen
normativen Einschtzungen wendet. Die Reaktion des Ressentiments ist moralisch angemessen, auch wenn sie sich politisch nicht durchsetzen kann. Fr AmeYy ist die moralische Position, die zhlt, die persnliche des individuellen Opfers von Unrecht. Ressentiment als Haltung zielt weder auf die Bestrafung des Schuldigen noch auf die Vergebung der Schuld. Angesichts schlimmsten Unrechts zielt Moral, wie Amery sie versteht, weder auf einen retributiv gerechten Ausgleich noch den Neuanfang nach Schuldeingestndnis und Vergebung. Moral verlangt vielmehr, dass die Rechnung offen bleibt,
dass wir auf die Vergangenheit orientiert sind und bleiben. Groll ist die angemessene
Haltung der Opfer, Scham die derer, die der Ttergruppe angehren. Kollektive Scham
angesichts des in ihrem Namen verbten Unrechts sollte konstitutives Element der
Haltung der Nachfahren der Tter sein.49
Fr Tutu hingegen ist das Ziel der Auseinandersetzung mit historischem Unrecht die
(Wieder-)Herstellung gerechter Verhltnisse und die Vershnung von Opfern und Ttern. Ziel ist nicht Rache und Bestrafung, noch darf das Unrecht vergessen werden.
Vielmehr sollen Opfer und Tter im Verfahren der Wahrheits- und Vershnungskommission die Wahrheit ber die Unrechtstaten aufdecken und mit dieser Wahrheit konfrontiert ihre Beziehung heilen. Von den Ttem wird verlangt, dass sie ihre Tterschaft
vollstndig offen legen, den Opfern wird als wnschenswert nahegelegt, dass sie um der
Herstellung gerechter Verhltnisse willen ihren Groll und ihre Rachegefhle berwinden.50 Die Aufdeckung und autoritative Feststellung der Wahrheit dient der Transfor49
50

Hierzu siehe Fn. 28 oben.


Opfer des Apartheidregimes haben die sdafrikanische Wahrheits- und Vershungskommission
(Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)) insbesondere dafr kritisiert, dass die von der
Kommission gegebenenfalls gewhrte Amnestie auch alle zivilrechtlichen Ansprche der Opfer
ausschliet, also die Ansprche der Opfer auf Kompensation und Restitution gegen die Tler. Das
sdafrikanische Verfassungsgericht hat eine entsprechende Klage zurckgewiesen. Fr eine Analyse siehe F. Venter, "Die verfassungsmige berprfung der Rechtsgrundlagen von Sdafrikas
'Truth and Reconciliation Commission'", 147-57. Fr das Argument, dass Reparationsleistungen
durch die fr die Verbrechen unter dem Apartheidregime Verantwortlichen notwendige Voraussetzung fr die Koexistenz von schwarzer und weier Bevlkerung in Sdafrika sind, siehe W. Soyinka, The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, Teil I, insbesondere 35f. Die Republik
Sdafrika hat die Verantwortung fr Reparationszahlungen bernommen. Im Bericht der sdafrikanischen Wahrheitskommission wird auf die knappen Ressourcen des Staates hingewiesen, die angesichts der vielen direkten und indirekten Opfer des Apartheidregimes umfangreiche Reparationszahlungen an Personen, die Opfer politisch motivierter Menschenrechtsverbrechen unter dem
Apartheidregime geworden sind, ausschlieen (Truth and Reconciliation Conunission of South

46

Lukas H. Meyer

mation von Ttern und Opfern, der Heilung ihrer Beziehung und der (Wieder-) Herstellung gerechter Verhltnisse. Zwar kann von den Opfern nicht verlangt werden, dass
sie den Ttern vergeben. Politisch jedoch wird den Ttern, die ihre Tat bekennen, Amnestie gewhrt. Heyd weist darauf hin, dass Tutu, anders als Amery, in der bedingten
Amnestie der Tter nicht alleine einen politischen Kompromiss mit den Ttern erkennt,
der wegen der Transition zu rechtsstaatlichen Verhltnissen notwendig ist. Vergebung
ist fr Tutu christlich-theologisch fundiert. Auch Tter schlimmsten Unrechts sind
"Kinder Gottes". Vergebung setzt die Ehrlichkeit ihres Schuldeingestndnisses ebenso
wie ihre Fhigkeit, sich zu ndern voraus, und setzt zugleich auf die transformatorische
Wirkung der Vergebung.
Wenn die Position Tutus eine transitorische Auseinandersetzung mit der Vergangenheit verlangt, so dient diese dem zuknftigen Wohl der Gesellschaft als Ganzer. Amerys
Beharren auf dem Ressentiment als der moralisch einzig angemessenen, stndigen und
nicht zu transformierenden Haltung der Opfer, die auf die immer wieder zu aktualisierende Erinnerung von Unrecht zielt, ist damit schwer zu vereinbaren. Bleibt zu betonen,
dass Opfer, die die Haltung des Ressentiments einnehmen, auch keinem anderen transitorischen Programm dienen mchten.
7. Schlussbemerkung
Historische und transitorische Gerechtigkeit werfen unterschiedliche Fragen auf. Die
spezifischen philosophischen Probleme intergenerationeller Gerechtigkeit mit Blick auf
historisches Unrecht, nmlich insbesondere die mit der Kontingenz der Existenz und
Identitt von Personen verbundenen Probleme (Abschnitt 1), sind von praktischer Relevanz allein fr die Einschtzung der Ansprche der den Opfern von Unrecht nachfolgenden Generationen, der indirekten Opfer. Hufig sind indirekte Opfer historischen
Unrechts allerdings auch direkte Opfer von neuem schdigendem Unrecht. Dies ist z.B.
dann der Fall, wenn sie als indirekte Opfer keine Anerkennung finden und ihre Ansprche auf Kompensation oder Restitution deshalb nicht erfllt werden.51
Weder das Nicht-Identittsproblem noch die berlegungen, auf welchen Jeremy
Waldrons Aufhebungsthese beruhen, sind, wie in Abschnitten 1.2 und 3. betont, fr die
Interpretation aller besonderen Ansprche wegen historischen Unrechts und Pflichten
gegenber Opfern oder mit Blick auf Opfer historischen Unrechts relevant. Fr die
berlegungen, die fr die Abschwchung historischer Ansprche wegen vernderter
Umstnde sprechen, gilt, dass sie, so sie relevant sind, in unterschiedlichem Mae fr
die Einschtzung der Strke spezifischer historischer Ansprche und der Mglichkeiten
ihrer Realisierung relevant sind (3.2-3.3).
In einem konkreten Fall historischen Unrechts sind also eine Reihe von berlegungen wichtig fr die Einschtzung verschiedener Ansprche der Opfer und indirekten
Opfer sowie der Pflichten heute lebender Personen. Ein theoretisch sehr anspruchsvolles
Unterfangen wre es, alle diese berlegungen integrieren zu wollen, so dass wir ber
eine generelle Theorie der Gerechtigkeit in der Zeit verfgten, deren womglich univer-

51

Africa Report, Bde. 1-5, Bd. 1, 129).


Dies drfte fr die Nachfahren der Sklaven in den USA gelten (siehe den Beitrag von D. Lyons)
und fr die Nachfahren der Roma und Sinti, die Opfer des versuchten Genozids der Nazis gewesen
sind, auch wenn ihre Anerkennung als (indirekte) Opfer in jngster Zeit auch im Sinne der Durchsetzung von Kompensations- und Restitutionsansprchen deutliche Fortschritte aufweist. Zu den
Roma und Sinti, siehe L.H. Meyer, "Transnational Autonomy", 263-301, 268f, 277-9, 295-9.

Einleitung

47

seil geltende Prinzipien im konkreten Fall bestimmte Reaktionen auf das Unrecht als
geboten ausweisen knnten. Eine plausible Theorie dieser Art ist mir nicht bekannt.52
So bemhen sich die Autoren dieses Bandes vielmehr - wenn auch auf durchaus unterschiedlichen Ebenen der Abstraktion und Generalitt - um die Analyse der normativen
Signifikanz einzelner Aspekte historischen Unrechts sowie den kontextsensiblen Ausweis der Bedeutung solcher berlegungen fr die Einschtzung von Rechten, Ansprchen und Pflichten angesichts bestimmter Flle historischen Unrechts und ihrer anhaltend schdigenden Wirkung auf das Wohlergehen heute und zuknftig lebender Menschen.

52

Eine solche Theorie wre eine nicht-ideale Theorie oder schlsse jedenfalls eine nicht-ideale Theorie ein. Philosophen neigen zu der Auffassung, dass es eine generelle nicht-ideale Theorie nicht geben knne. So unterschiedlich etwa John Rawls' und Brian Barrys Auffassung auch mit Blick darauf sind, wie in einer vertragstheoretischen Argumentation nicht-ideale Handlungsbedingungen zu
bercksichtigen sind - siehe B. Barry, "Can States Be Moral?", 159-181, 169f; siehe auch die
Kritik der Rawlsschen Position durch G.A. Cohen in "Incentives, Inequality, and Community",
261-329; ders, "Where the Action Is", 3-30; fr eine Verteidigung der Rawlsschen Position siehe
T.W. Pogge, "On the Site of Distributive Justice", 137-69 -, teilen Rawls und Barry doch die
berzeugung, eine generelle Theorie des Verhltnisses von idealer normativer zu nicht-idealer
normativer Theorie knne es nicht geben (siehe J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 245-246, 351, 575f;
B. Barry, Theories of Justice). Auch Otfried Hoffe mochte in Strategien der Humanitt keine
generelle Theorie politisch-moralischer Entscheidung entwickeln, sondern "Bausteine" einer
Theorie der Entscheidungsfindung ber ffentliche Handlungen in modernen Industriegesellschaften ausweisen (siehe insbesondere 336-337). Gegen die Mglichkeit einer generellen nichtidealen Theorie spricht, worauf Jon Elster mit Nachdruck hinweist, dass wir keine Theorie haben,
die "can help us predict the long term steady-state consequences of global policy changes." (J.
Elster, "The Possibility of Rational Politics", 115-42, 122) Uns fehlt eine Theorie des "general
social and economic equilibrium", welche die Grundlage fr die entsprechenden Vorhersagen sein
knnte (siehe R.G. Lipset und K. Lancaster, 'The General Theory of the Second-Best", 11-32);
siehe auch A. Margalit, "Ideals and Second Bests", 77-90.
Jeremy Bentham und seine Anhnger waren da sehr viel ehrgeiziger. Bentham beanspruchte sowohl
ein letztgltiges, fr alle Handelnden gleichermaen und universell anzuwendendes Kriterium richtigen Handelns auszuweisen (das Nutzen-Prinzip) und auch eine universell anwendbare Methode
der Entscheidungsfindung (den so genannten hedonistischen Kalkulus). Siehe J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Kap. i "Of the Principle of Utility", 12; fr
den hedonistischen Kalkulus siehe Kap. iv "Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain, How to be Measured". Fr eine Kritik von Benthams Kalkulus als weder anwendbar noch als eine adquate Reflektion des Benthamschen Nutzen-Prinzips siehe O. Hoffe, Strategien der Humanitt. Fr eine Kritik
von Benthams Nachfolgern in der Wohlfahrtskonomie und der Theorie sozialer Entscheidung
siehe ebd., Kap. v.
Vielfach modifizierte utilitaristisch-konsequentialistische Positionen mit Blick auf die moralischen
Ansprche von Individuen unter nicht-idealen Bedingungen haben aber auch Verteidiger gefunden:
P. Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", 229-43; D. Birnbacher, Verantwortung fr zuknftige
Generationen, 16-23, 173-5, 187-90; und P. Unger, Living High and Letting Die. Fr eine Kritik
der utilitaristisch-konsequentialistischen moralischen Forderungen als unfair siehe L.B. Murphy,
Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory.

48

Lukas H. Meyer

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/.

Philosophical Perspectives

55

Redressing Historic Injustice1

Jeremy Waldron

1.
Each person, said Kant, and each group has the right to approach other peoples in the
world with a view to "offering to engage in commerce".2 Though the privilege3 is terribly abused, still "such abuse cannot annul the right of citizens of the world to try to establish community with all [others] and, to this end, to visit all regions of the earth."4
Kant insists that this is not the same as a right of settlement in lands which are already
inhabited. For that a genuine agreement is required, an agreement that does not allow
one or other party unscrupulously to take advantage of the other so far as the acquisition
of land is concerned.5
It is less clear what Kant thought should happen once violations of this principle
have become established, i.e. once settlement and intermingling have taken place, and
have become more or less permanent, even without the agreement of the original inhabitants. He had no doubt that such violations occurred - indeed he thought they were
pervasive in contemporary European incursions into Africa and the Americas. And he
had little patience with the justifications that were usually adduced for the colonial enFirst published in the University of Toronto Law Journal LII (2002), 135-160. Reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press.
This paper is an adaptation of a preliminary draft of the second ch. of a book entitled Cosmopolitan
Right. The book takes as its starting point Immanuel Kant's rather fragmentary discussion under the
same heading in The Metaphysics of Morals, trans, by M. Gregor, 158-9 (352-3 of Volume 6 of the
Prussian Academy edition of Kant's works). Ch. 1 of the draft, entitled "Kant's Heading
'Cosmopolitan Right'" (which is available upon request), sets out some of the main features of
Kant's cosmopolitanism. See also the discussion in J. Waldron, "What is Cosmopolitan?", 227. The
book is not intended as an exercise in Kant exegesis. As I say, it takes Kant's discussion as a
starting-point, but it proceeds from that starting point to continue doing (for our circumstances) the
sort of thing that Kant took himself to be doing (for his circumstances), and to continue asking and if possible answering - the general questions that Kant asked. The aim is not to say what Kant
did and why; but rather to approach certain problems (that might have been quite unfamiliar to
Kant) - problems around multi-culturalism and identity politics - in a Kantian spirit and under the
discipline of some general principles that Kant was rather insistent on. The most important such
Kantian principle is the one I call "the Proximity Principle" - viz., that everyone has a natural duty
to come to terms, in civil union, with those with whom he finds himself unavoidably side-by-side,
whether he likes them or trusts them or shares anything else with them (common culture, common
understandings) or not.
I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 158 (352).
It seems to be a privilege in Hohfeld's sense: i.e., no duty not to; but it doesn't correlate with any
duty to respond in any particular way, except not to act as though the overture itself were wrongful.
(See I. Kant, "Perpetual Peace", 106: "Hospitality ... means the right of a foreigner not to be treated
with hostility because he has arrived on the land of another. The other can turn him away, if this can
be done without destroying him, but as long as he behaves peaceably where he is, he cannot be
treated with hostility." (358)
I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 158 (353).

Ibid., 159(353).

56

Jeremy Waldron

terprise: bringing civilization to the natives,6 or Lockean arguments about the superiority of European modes of land use.7 He imagines someone asking whether the mere fact
of one's arrival in a country can justify setting up a colony, as a sort of application of
the Proximity Principle8 or as a way of fulfilling what he said in his cosmopolitan musings in Perpetual Peace about the importance of mankind spreading out over all the
earth:9
Lastly, it can still be asked whether, when neither nature nor chance, but just our own
will, brings us into the neighborhood of a people that holds out no prospect of a civil union with it, we should not be authorized to found colonies, by force if need be, in order to
establish a civil union with them and bring these men (savages) into a rightful condition
(as with the American Indians, the Hottentots, and the inhabitants of New Holland; or
(which is not much better) to found colonies by fraudulent purchase of their land, and so
become owners of their land, making use of our superiority without regard to their first
possession. Should we not be authorized to do this, especially since nature itself (which
abhors a vacuum) seems to demand it, and great expanses of land in other parts of the
world, which are now splendidly populated, would have otherwise remained uninhabited
by civilized people...?10
Kant's response is unequivocal: this would be an abuse of the Proximity Principle.
"It is easy", he says, "to see through this veil of injustice, ... which would sanction any

means to good ends. Such a way of acquiring land is, therefore, to be repudiated."1'
Still, there is a problem. Kant's response there turns crucially on the voluntary nature
of the would-be colonists' presence - "when neither nature nor chance, but just our own
will, brings us into the neighborhood of a people." That applies clearly enough to the
first generation of settlers, and maybe even the second. But today, we are talking about
people who are fourth - or fifth generation descendants of the original voluntary colonists, and for these people - us, here and now - there is little choice in the matter. This
is where we are settled - this is where we are - now we can say in truth unavoidably
side-by-side. And that remains true, in spite of the violations committed by our ancestors, and in spite of the transparent illegitimacy of their justifications. What are we to
say about this situation?
All Kant says in the Doctrine of Right is that the stain of historic injustice cannot be
erased from such settlement, by our present good intentions. He is right, and as we shall
see (towards the end of this chapter) this is something that we must pay attention to. But
it does not help very much in figuring out what now is to be done - as a practical matter
- so far as the rectification of the injustice is concerned.
My hunch, however, - and now, in this chapter, the argument becomes constructive,
not just interpretive - is that Kant held the view of common sense here. If a new settlement - originally wrong and unlawful under principles of cosmopolitan right - becomes
6
7
8

9
10
11

Idem.
Ibid., 89 (268f). See J. Locke, Two Treatises, II, sect. 41; see also J. Tully, "Rediscovering America".
I. Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 12 If: "When you cannot avoid living side-by-side with all others,
you ought to leave the state of nature and proceed with them into a rightful condition, that is, a condition of distributive justice" or (in Hastie's translation) "In the relation of unavoidable coexistence
with others, thou shalt pass from the state of nature into a juridical union constituted under the condition of a distributive justice."
See I. Kant, "Perpetual Peace", 110 (362-5); I deal with this in detail in ch. 1 of this book, and also
in J. Waldron, "What is Cosmopolitan?", 236f.
I. Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 86f (266).
Ibid., 87 (266).

Redressing Historic Injustice

57

established over several generations, then the descendants of the original settlers are
likely to have nowhere to return to. If that is the case, then - without denying the historical fact of the injustice - they and the descendants of those whom their ancestors
invaded and expropriated now have nothing to do but come to terms with one another
and establish a fair basis for sharing the lands and resources that surround them.
2.

Certainly, that is what is suggested by the Proximity Principle - that is, by the general
tenor of Kant's observation that people have a natural duty to enter into political society
with those with whom they find themselves in a condition of unavoidable co-existence.
True, if the coexistence is the product of my choice and I have the option of withdrawing, then, as we have seen, the Proximity Principle does not apply: I should not be there
in the first place, and I should turn round and leave. But if that option has evaporated
over the centuries, then our coexistence must be treated as a brute fact. Even if the explanation of our being side-by-side now is the existence of injustice in the past, still we
have a duty to bring our present relationship under the auspices of right and legality, and
that means we must form and sustain a political society among us - all of us - whether
we like one another, or the circumstances under which we came into one another's company or not.
It's worth reiterating, I think, the distinctive feature of Kant's Proximity Principle.
Though Kant used a contractarian model to illuminate the main features of his political
theory, his approach to basis of political cooperation did not have the voluntarist character of certain historical contract accounts. A theorist like John Locke might argue
that people have a choice whether to enter into political community with others or not:
The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the
bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community
for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any
number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they
were in the liberty of the state of nature.13
But for Kant, the implication - that it would be morally permissible to remain outside
the locally constituted political community - was quite unacceptable. And that was not
because of any jiggery-pokery with tacit consent. It was because entering into political
society with those with whom you were otherwise likely to be in conflict - was a matter
of natural duty. Indeed it is something that a person might legitimately be forced to do.14
Kant was well aware that the compulsory character of the move into civil society distinguished his version of contractarianism from that of others (like Locke).15 Qua contract,
he says, the contract establishing civil society "is of an exceptional nature":
In all social contracts, we find a union of many individuals for some common end which
12

13
14
15

In this regard Kant's approach is similar to John Rawls's early political theory: Rawls used a contractarian device to illuminate the content of justice; but the duty to be just was understood by him
as a categorical natural duty, not as a contractually-incurred obligation: see J. Rawls, Theory of
Justice, 114ff.
J. Locke, Two Treatises, II, sect. 95.
I. Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 122 (307).
This paragraph and the next are adapted from J. Waldron, "Kant's Legal Positivism", 1562ff. (See
also J. Waldron, The Dignity of Legislation, ch. 3.)

58

Jeremy Waldron
they all share. But a union as an end in itself which they all ought to share and which is
thus an absolute and primary duty in all external relationships whatsoever among human
beings (who cannot avoid mutually influencing one another), is only found in a society in
so far as it constitutes a civil state, i.e. a commonwealth.16

One can imagine a Lockean individual refusing to join the social contract because he
found the company of his prospective fellow-citizens uncongenial. He dislikes them;
their ancestors were mean to his ancestors; they don't share common understandings or
a common religion or a common culture or whatever. And for all these reasons he elects
to take his chances in the state of nature.
For Kant however there is something wrong in this posture, if it is the case that he is
going to have to interact with the others (with whom he is refusing to contract). The
very reasons which make the others uncongenial to him are likely also to be reasons
which put their views about how these interactions should be handled at odds with the
outsider's understanding of how these interactions should be handled. And it's no good
appealing to objective morality or natural law or the correct theory of justice to handle
this problem. The problem is one of disagreement and conflict (about what objective
morality or justice or natural law require):
[H]owever well disposed and law-abiding men might be, ... individual men ... can never
be secure against violence from one another, since each has [his] own right to do what
seems right and good to [him] and not to be dependent upon another's opinion about this.
So, unless [he] wants to renounce any concepts of Right, the first thing [he] has to resolve
upon is the principle that [he] must leave the state of nature, in which each follows [their]
own judgment, unite [himjself with all others (with which [he] cannot avoid interacting),
subject [him]self to a public lawful external coercion, and so enter into a condition in
which what is to be recognized as belonging to [him] is determined by law.17
The alternative is war and violence, justified on each side by contrary claims of justice, which for Kant is a moral obscenity.18
So, Kant suggests, if there are issues of resource use that need to be resolved among
us - and there almost always are when we are unavoidably side-by-side - then we must
come to terms with one another and resolve them in a common framework, that will
then stand authoritatively over us. It is not good enough for each to act towards the others as his conscience or his sense of justice dictates. We need to construct a common
sense of justice and embody it in our laws: we need, in other words, to set up a single
system of property, even despite (indeed, precisely because of) our disagreements over
what an appropriate system of property would be.
I find this position attractive. In recent communitarian political philosophy, there has
been a tendency to insist that a well-ordered society should be thought of as something
constructed among those who share certain fundamental understandings and beliefs.1
At a minimum, some have suggested that mutual trust should be a condition precedent
to the formation of any political community; and of course it is arguable that historic
injustice can undermine the basis for trust. By contrast, the great virtue of Immanuel
Kant's work in political philosophy (as also of the work of Thomas Hobbes) is that he
begins from the opposite assumption. Kant assumes that we are always likely to find
ourselves, in the first instance, alongside others we don't trust, others with whom we
16
17
18
19

I. Kant, "Theory and Practice", 73 (8:289).


I. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 124 (6:312).
For the explanation, see J. Waldron, "Kant's Legal Positivism", 1557-62 and The Dignity of
Legislation, 52-57.
See, e.g., M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice.

Redressing Historic Injustice

59

share little in the way of culture, mores or religion, others who disagree with us about
justice. Neverthless if we are to have dealings with them (which includes such things as
upholding putative property rights - or any rights - against them) we must enter into political community, where mine and thine (or even ours and theirs) can be determined as
a matter of positive law. The presence or absence of trust, or shared culture, or shared
understandings, are simply irrelevant to that moral necessity. For my money, that approach seems both more realistic in the mixed-up circumstances of the modern world,
and less dangerous than the opposite, communitarian view. It is less dangerous, certainly, when one thinks what is likely to be done - what has in fact been done - to turn
the communitarian assumption into a self-fulfilling prophecy.20
3.

The argument of section 2 takes us only so far. Kant's Proximity Principle gives us arguments against things like separatism, ethnic cleansing, and the sort of fastidious abhorrence of one another (on, say, ethnic or historical grounds) that might impede political cooperation. Those strategies are wrong in themselves; and a fortiori they cannot be
justified by the historical fact of injustice in past dealings between peoples. But it still
leaves open the question of what justice requires in relation to the historic injustice to
which we are stipulating. That we are required to come to terms with each other, and set
up a system of property that takes account of all our claims, is quite compatible with an
insistence that such property system should attempt to respond to the injustice and iniquity of the events that brought us into each other's proximity in this way. That we are
required to come to terms with one another in political community, under the auspices
of positive law, doesn't mean that we are required to let bygones be bygones so far as
issues of compensation or the rectification of injustice are concerned.
Arguments can be imagined, of course, in this context for wiping the slate clean, or
for treating the grievances of persons or peoples as mere historic sentiments, irrelevant
to issues of justice. The best known argument of this sort is that of David Hume in Book
III of the Treatise of Human Nature. On the Humean model, we start from an assumption of something like Hobbesian conflict driven by limited altruism and moderate scarcity. People grab things and use them; they argue and fight over them. Over time, the
holdings determined in this way are going to be largely arbitrary. Nevertheless if any
sort of stable pattern of de facto possession emerges, then something like a peace dividend may be available. It may be possible for everyone to gain, both in terms of the
diminution of conflict and in terms of the prospects for market exchange, by an agreement not to fight any more over possessions. I agree to respect what you have managed
to hang on to, and you agree to respect what I have managed to hang on to: "By this
means, every one knows what he may safely possess".21 Such an agreement, if it lasts,
may amount over time to a ratification of de facto holdings as de jure property. According to Hume we should not concern ourselves, he argues, with the distributive features of the possessory regime that emerges from the era of conflict. Our aim should be
to ratify any distribution that seems salient - that is, any distribution support for which
20
21

This last paragraph is adapted from J. Waldron, "Cultural Identity and Civic Responsibility".
Hume, Treatise, Bk. Ill, Part II, sect, ii, 489. For a modern version of the Humean approach, see
J.M. Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty, esp. chs. 1-4. The account (and the criticism) of the Humean
approach in the text is adapted from J. Waldron, "The Advantages and Difficulties of the Humean
Theory of Property".

60

Jeremy Waldron

promises to move us away from fighting about who uses what, and towards the benefits
promised by a system of positive law and an orderly marketplace.
Indeed, Hume says it is kind of a pragmatic self-contradiction to complain of the distributive injustice of the system that emerges or of the injustice by which resources were
seized by various people during the era of conflict. Issues of justice, he insists, are logically posterior to settlement on property rights. If justice is a matter of "To each his
own", then no question of it can be raised until some system of "mine" and "thine" is
agreed.
After this convention, concerning abstinence from the possessions of others, is enter'd
into, and everyone has acquir'd a stability in his possessions, there immediately arise the
ideas of justice and injustice; as also those of property, right, and obligation. The latter
are altogether unintelligible without first understanding the former.22
The claim is that those who lost control of resources in the era of unregulated conflict
can hardly complain on grounds of justice without kicking away the very foundation of
the intelligibility of justice-discourse. Justice discourse does not become possible, Hume
says, until a settlement of resources has been achieved on some basis other than justice.
And so, he argues, we can't then turn round and use the principles of justice established
on that basis to criticize the events that took place priori (and as a way of establishing)
the foundation.
But the Humean argument is fallacious. Even if we accept his point about the logical
priority of the establishment of a distribution to the emergence of sentiments of justice,
it does not follow that those sentiments cannot then be intelligibly applied with regard to
events temporally prior to the establishment of the distribution. Of course, we cannot
hope now to regulate those events. But we do have control over the ramifications that
those events are taken to have in our present day system of property rights, and those
ramifications can intelligibly be informed by the sense of justice established after the
events in question took place. In other words, suppose our sentiments of justice date
from a settlement in (say) 1840. Then obviously we cannot use those sentiments to
regulate events that took place prior to that in (say) 1825. But we can develop post-1840
principles which make what is to happen now a function of what we can find out about
what took place in 1825. And there is nothing self-contradictory or unintelligible about
deploying and applying such a principle in (say) 2001.23
22
23

Hume, Treatise, 490f.


Of course this assumes that as part of the 1840 settlement, people develop procedural (historical)
principles of justice. Why would they do this, on the Humean account? Well, suppose a Humean
convention has been set up in 1840, so that people recognize and respect one another's holdings.
What happens if new resources are discovered or come into existence after that date? Are we then
to go through the same process all over again - fighting and grabbing until a pattern of retention
emerges? Hume says "No" ... tho' the rule of the assignment of property to the present possessor be ... useful, yet its utility
extends not beyond the first formation of society; nor would anything be more pernicious, than the
constant observance of it; by which restitution wou'd be excluded and every injustice would be
authoriz'd and rewarded. We must, therefore, seek for some other circumstance, that may give rise
to property after society is once establish'd.... (Treatise, Bk. Ill, Part II, sect, iii, 505.)
He argues for the establishment historical/procedural principle - the Principle of First Occupancy as a post-convention principle of acquisition (on several grounds including the disutility of leaving
any issue of property rights unsettled while a new resource passes through several hands). But if
this principle gets established in popular consciousness as the appropriate standard to use to judge
post-1840 acquisitions, then it is quite imaginable that people are tempted in time to apply it also to
what they know about the origin of pre-1840 holdings. And what they will find is an incongruity,
since if anything the principle on which pre-convention holdings were recognized was a principle of

Redressing Historic Injustice

61

So judgements about past injustice, and demands for compensation for past injustice,
and a structuring of the present system of property so that it takes account of the dire
and unfair effects of past injustice - none of this can be ruled out on the Humean approach. Our Kantian responsibility to set up a system of justice is not necessarily a requirement that we do so in a "ground-zero" sort of way. If there are difficulties with the
idea of present-day reparations for historic injustice - and I believe there are - they
must have a different sort of basis.
4.
In an article published some time ago, I drew attention to some of the difficulties that
historic rectification would involve. 4 Suppose, first, that it is our aim to do justice to
the legitimate grievances and claims of individuals25 in this context. If the individuals
whose entitlements were violated were still alive, then we could deal with the matter by
way of direct restitution and compensation. But of course they are not. Many generations have passed since the injustice complained of took place. The best hope of reparation is to make some sort of adjustment in the present circumstances of those who are
descended from the persons who suffered injustice (and also anyone else whose present
position has been affected by these past events).
It seems, then, the task of reparation is to transform the present so that it matches as
closely as possibly the way things would be now if the injustice had not occurred. This
is the approach urged by Robert Nozick in his account of the role played by a principle
of rectification in a theory of historic entitlement:
This principle uses historical information about previous situations and injustices done in
them (as defined by thefirsttwo principles of justice [justice in acquisition and justice in
transfer]...), and information about the actual course of events that flowed from these injustices, until the present, and it yields a description (or descriptions) of holdings in the
society. The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of
subjunctive information about what would have occurred (or a probability distribution
over what might have occurred, using the expected value) if the injustice had not taken
place. If the actual description of holdings turns out to be one of the descriptions yielded

24
25

Last Occupancy, relative to 1840, not First Occupancy. No matter who first held or occupied or
made or cultivated some resource, no matter how many times it was subsequently lost or seized or
grabbed, the person who got the benefit of the rights established through the convention was the
person left holding it that moment. People are likely therefore to criticize that process, much as we
find critics bringing (say) quasi-Lockean standards to bear on issues of aboriginal rights. Now if
those governed by the convention deploy their new standards of justice in this way, Hume can
hardly argue that they are making a logical mistake. Even though they could no< have had such
standards to apply to any acquisition unless pre-convention holdings had been ratified, still, once
the deployment of such standards has gotten underway, there is nothing contradictory about turning
them on the pre-convention holdings themselves and calling the whole basis of subsequent transactions into question. Thus, showing (as Hume does) that recognition of existing holdings is a precondition for the deployment of any principle of justice is not, in itself, a way of showing that the
recognized holdings and the market outcomes that flow from them cannot be scrutinized by such a
principle.
See J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 4-28. An earlier version of this paper was
published as "Historic Injustice: Its Remembrance and Supersession".
Bear with me on this. We move to considering injustice done to groups in a moment (towards the
end of this section and in the sections that follow).

62

by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be realized.26


The difficulties in this task are those of all counterfactual speculation. How can we
know what would have happened if some event which in fact did occur had not taken
place? The difficulty is particularly acute when we are tracing a counterfactual sequence
of events that is not understood as a deterministic sequence. The sequence of events that
interests us is a sequence that involves choice. When we ask 'What would have happened if this injustice, had not occurred?' we are imagining a train of events involving
human agents - the bearers of entitlements - and their exercise of freedom.
For example, suppose (counterfactually) a certain block of land in New Zealand had
not been wrongfully appropriated from some Maori group in 1865. Then we must ask
ourselves, 'What would the rightful owners of that land have done with it, if the wrongful appropriation had not taken place?' To ask that is to ask in part about how they
would have exercised their freedom if they had a real choice. Would they have held on
to the land, and passed it on to their children and grand-children? Or would they have
sold it - but this time for a fair price - in response to the first honest offer they were
given? And, if they had, then what would the purchaser have done with it? Sold it
again? Passed it on to his children? Lost it in a poker game?
Part of our difficulty in answering these questions is that it is not at all clear what we
are doing when we try to make guesses about the way in which free will would have
been exercised. I don't mean that the exercise of choice is necessarily unpredictable. We
make predictions all the time about how people will exercise their freedom. But it is not
clear why our best guess or prediction on such a matter should have moral authority in
the sort of speculations we are considering. 7 Let me repeat: this is not an epistemic difficulty. It is not that there is some fact of the matter (what A would have chosen to do
with his land if things had been different) and our difficulty lies in discovering what it
is. The thing about freedom is that there is no fact of the matter anywhere - knowable or
unknowable - until the choice has been made.
Worse still, particularly in the contexts with which we are concerned, the events of
justice and injustice may make a considerable difference to who exists at a later time.
We cannot simply hold the dramatis personae constant in our speculations. Children
may be conceived and born, and leave descendants, who would not have existed if the
injustice had not occurred. Short of putting them to death for their repugnancy to our
counterfactuals, the Nozickian approach offers no guidance at all as to how their claims
are to be dealt with.
Does it make any difference to this critique that the violated entitlements in fact belonged to a group (e.g. a tribe) rather than a natural (and mortal) individual? Often the
injustice complained of in these cases is that some renegade member of the tribe has
26
27

Redressing Historic Injustice

Jeremy Waldron

R. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 152f.


Suppose I am trying to predict how my uncle will dispose of his estate. My best guess, based on all
the evidence, is that since he has no children he will leave it to me, his favorite nephew. So I make
that prediction, communicate it to my friends ... and we sit down to watch what happens. In fact, my
uncle surprises us by leaving his whole estate whimsically to an obscure home for stray dogs that he
has only just heard of. My prediction is confounded. Even though it was a reasonable prediction the best available - it is my uncle's whimsical decision that carries the day. My reasonable guess
has no normative authority whatever with regard to the disposition of his estate. Now if this is true
of decision-making in the real world, then I think it plays havoc with the idea that, normatively, the
appropriate thing to do in the rectification of injustice is to make rational and informed guesses
about how people would have exercised their freedom. For if such guesses carry no moral weight in
the real world, why should any moral weight be associated with their use in counterfactual speculation?

63

disposed of tribal property as though it were his own private property. If a piece of land
is tribaJly owned and its alienation prohibited by tribal custom, is there any point in
asking counterfactually how it would have been disposed of if the injustice in this individual's dealing with it had not occurred? Some will say: surely we can assume that, if
the land had not been wrongfully disposed of, it would have remained tribal property; so
there should be no difficulty in showing that the counterfactual approach requires its
present restoration to the tribe.
Unfortunately, things are more complicated than that. The members of the tribe
might have decided, in the exercise of their powers as communal owners, to sell some
of the land; or the members of the tribe might have decided, in the exercise of their sovereign powers over their own laws and customs, to abrogate the system of communal
property. Both possibilities need to be taken into account in any realistic estimation of
what would have happened if the injustice had not taken place. The second possibility is
particularly important. All societies change their customs and laws, including their
property laws, from time to time, and there is every reason to suppose that such change
might be a probable and legitimate response to changing conditions on the part of such
flexible and resourceful polities as Maori tribes. If we are honestly inquiring into what
would have happened in a just world, we have to take at least the possibility of such
adaptive exercises of sovereignty into account. More abstractly, the problem of the role
of contingency and choice in a counterfactual account does not evaporate when we shift
the focus from individuals to groups. Groups can act freely too; and there is the same
problem of saying how they would have exercised that freedom, if certain other events
had not taken place.
5.
Individual men and women are mortal; but groups are not, or not necessarily, certainly
not in the same way. I said at the beginning of section 4 that if the persons whose entitlements were violated were still alive, then we could deal with the injustice by way of
direct restitution and compensation. Now in fact many of the legal persons whose entitlements were violated have survived: in New Zealand the historic injustices complained of were done to tribes and other groups - iwi and hapu - as well as to individual men
and women, and the iwi and the hapu are still there, even if their individual membership
has changed.
This ought to make a great deal of difference. For if the person whose rights were
violated remains in being, then the first priority, particularly in the case of a property
right, is to put an end to the violation by restoring the property to its rightful owner. So
far as that imperative is concerned, counterfactual speculation about what the owner
would have done with the property in the meantime is quite irrelevant.
Suppose someone stole my car yesterday. That is an unjust act that took place at a
certain place and at a certain time: at 9.30 a.m. on September 14, my car was stolen
from the parking lot. Clearly anyone committed to the prevention of injustice should
have tried to stop the theft taking place. But once the car has been driven nefariously out
of the parking lot, the matter does not end there. For now there is a continuing injustice:
I lack possession of an automobile to which I am entitled, and the thief possesses an
automobile to which he is not entitled. Taking the car away from the thief and returning
it to me, the rightful owner, is not a way of compensating me for an injustice that took
place in the past, or adjusting the present to fit some counterfactual hypothesis; it is

64

Redressing Historic Injustice

Jeremy Waldron

simply a way of remitting an injustice that is on-going into the present. Phrases like 'Let
bygones be bygones' are inappropriate here. The loss of my car is not a bygone: it is a
continuing state of affairs.
The implications of this example are clear for the historic cases we are considering.
Instead of regarding the expropriation of aboriginal lands as an isolated act of injustice
that took place at a certain time now relegated firmly to the past, we may think of it as a
persisting injustice. The injustice persists and it is perpetuated by the legal system as
long as the land that was expropriated is not returned to those from whom it was taken.
On this model, the rectification of injustice is a much simpler matter than the approach
we discussed in the previous section. We do not have to engage in any counterfactual
speculation. We simply give the property back to the person or group from whom it was
taken, and thus put an end to what would otherwise be its continued expropriation.
This is a very important difference of perspective. But the move works only if two
conditions are met. First, we must be sure that the person who makes the claim in the
present really is the same person as the person who suffered the original injustice.
Nominal identity is not sufficient; we need an assurance of actual identity in the relevant
sense. Secondly, we must be sure that the entitlement (of the surviving person or group)
that was originally violated all those years ago is an entitlement that survives into the
present. The approach we are considering depends on the claim that the right that was
violated when white settlers first seized the land can be identified as a right that is still
being violated today by settlers' successors in title. Their possession of the land today is
said to be as wrongful vis--vis the present tribal owners as the original expropriation.
Can this view be justified?29 Obviously the two conditions are connected. But they are
not the same. I will deal with them in the two sections that follow.
6.

For example, suppose an injustice is done to a certain family, Gm, at a time, m, when
families have comprehensive responsibility for the social and economic well-being of
their members: there is no social "safety-net" beyond that, no public education etc. The
injustice at m deprives Gm of most of its wealth. As time passes - and that specific injustice remains unrectified - the social structure changes, and now the wider community
or the state takes on the socio-economic responsibilities that were previously vested in
the family. But G survives - at least nominally - as an enduring entity that outlasts its
individual members: the family at time m, i.e. Gm, has survived through to time n, many
generations later. It now presents itself as Gn. And Gn demands reparation of the original
injustice. Are we so sure, in light of the changed social structure, that Gn is identical in
the relevant sense to Gm? They are certainly identical in some sense, but can we be sure
that the sense in which Gn and Gm are identical is a sense that is relevant for the purposes of restitution and historic reparation?30 Here's an example of the difference it
might make. The violation against Gm was a very serious one. But the best account of
that seriousness makes reference to Gm's responsibilities for the welfare of its members,
which are responsibilities Gn does not have. G has endured as Gn, but Gn does not play
the role that Gm played. Can we say that the outstanding violation - now conceived as a
violation against Gn - is as serious now as it was when it took place?
Or suppose that people organize themselves into groups at time n on quite a different
basis than the basis on which they organized themselves into groups at the time, m,
when the injustice was committed. The original group survives, in some sense, but people configure themselves differently in relation to groups. Take a concrete example the issue posed in a recent New Zealand case about Maori fishing rights.31 The Court of
Appeal had to consider whether schemes to settle Maori grievances about the expropriation of fishing rights in the nineteenth century should be focused solely on traditional tribes or iwi or whether beneficiaries might also include more recently constituted
Urban Maori Authorities. Justice Thomas provides some background:
With the advent of colonization after 1840, the tribes were systematically dispossessed of
their lands by purchase, confiscation or legal artifices. From the 1860s Maori fishing
rights were under threat, and Maori struggled to retain fishing rights independent of land.
... Gradually the rights were all but fully lost. A burgeoning Maori population on an inadequate land base meant that life in tribal polities was no longer tenable. Urban migration followed, especially in the post-war years, actively encouraged by the urban relocation programme of the government of the day. ... Maori underwent the fastest urbanization of any indigenous peoples in the world. In 1956, 76 per cent of Maori were considered rural; by 1976, 78 per cent had become urban. ... The reality for Maori today is that
most no longer live in compact kin-based tribal collectives on a defined land base. Their
people live in scattered whanau units both within and away from the old tribal boundaries. ... A number of Maori, 112,566 to be precise, indicated in the last census taken that
they did not know the name of their iwi, while another 40,917 neither specified nor identified their iwi. Twenty-five per cent of Maori either do not know their iwi or for some
reason or other choose not to affiliate with it.... But Maori are a communal people. The ...
transformation of tribalism ... led to the emergence of quasi-tribes in the form of urban

I hope somebody has got a little bit further along than I have in their thinking about
what it is for a group (such as a tribe) to survive over (say) four or five generations, in
the context of claims about injustice. My hunch is that survival in the relevant sense
may not be the same as the notional inheritance of a group name and structure. It is not
enough to point to some present-day entity or group that may be regarded for some purposes as identical to an entity or group whose rights were violated in the past. We must
be sure that they are identical in a sense that is relevant and appropriate so far as the
issue of justice - and the specific approach intimated in section 5 - are concerned.

28

29

These is a corresponding question also about the entity that committed the injustice. But we do
seem to be dealing, in the New Zealand case, with an entity - the Crown, or the New Zealand government - that is committed to taking responsibility for crimes committed by and in the name of the
British crown, or the imperial authorities, in the period after 1840. So there would seem to be less
of a problem at that end.
By saying "we must be sure..." I don't mean to suggest anything in particular about the burden of
proof. This is political philosophy and claims about burden of proof are out-of-place given the leisure that philosophers have and the inconsequentiality of their conclusions. But if there were a burden of proof issue I guess it would be governed by at least two considerations: (i) those proposing a
massive disturbance in the status quo have some sort of burden of proof to show that the status quo
is so tainted by persisting injustice as to have no special claim on our forbearance; and (ii) those
who acknowledge or ought to acknowledge that historic injustice did actually take place have some
sort of burden of proof to advance reason why it should not now be rectified. I have no idea how to
balance these considerations against each other.

65

30

31

To flesh out the algebra: take the oldest surviving English aristocratic dynasty that you can think of,
and consider the earliest unrectfied injustice done to that family that anyone can remember. So - the
value of F is the Delacey's, for example, and the values of m and n, respectively, are 1086 and
2000, respectively. Suppose the 1086 injustice deprived the first Baron Delacey of his place at the
King's Great Council. Are we sure that the late twentieth century Delacey family survives as the
entity which still suffers this deprivation?
E.g., Te Waka Hi Ika o TeArawa v. Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission [2000] 1 NZLR 285.

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Jeremy Waldron
Redressing Historic Injustice
Maori organizations. A mix of tribal, religious and secular groups were formed for the
purpose of providing material and spiritual support for Maori and the preservation of
Maori culture. These voluntary groups perform the functions once carried out by the tribe.
Urban marae developed. ... Many of these groups became delivery and service mechanisms for the government. To the forefront in this transformation have been the Urban
Maori Authorities (UMA).32

However, the political process whereby redress for historic injustice is sought under
the auspices of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) has been dominated, on the Maori side, by
representatives of the traditional iwi, for they through their chiefs were of course the
signatories to the Treaty. The settlement reached in regard to fisheries provided, in effect, that the assets held by the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission be distributed
to traditional iwi, or other descent-based groups. A number of UMA challenged this
settlement, on the grounds that it would not benefit a very large number of urban Maori
no longer affiliated with iwi. The response by counsel, Joseph Williams, for the Commission was that since iwi had had the fishing rights wrongfully taken away from them,
it is to iwi that they should be returned: UMA had not suffered comparable injustice, for
they did not exist at the time the expropriations took place, and so they were not entitled
to any redress. That argument prevailed with the majority in the Court of Appeal (insofar as they went beyond simple statutory interpretation).
The settlement was of the historical grievances of a tribal people. It ought to be implemented in a manner consistent with that fact. With all due respect to UMA, who are
formed on the basis of kaupapa not whakapapa, they cannot fulfil such a role. In saying
this we do not intend to disparage UMA. They are worthy organizations of great value to
Maoridom and to the wider New Zealand community. They are, and should be, held in
high regard. In their short histories they have accomplished much good and their role in
the delivery of benefits emanating from central and local government is vital and increasing. But they cannot legitimately claim to be tribes or the successors of tribes.33
But it seems to me the dissenting Appeal Court judges had a point when they remarked that
the argument confuses the benefit of collective rights of individual Maori with the benefit
to be conferred pursuant to the settlement. ... Mr. Williams asserts that the benefit of the
settlement should be directed to those who have lost their rights; that is, on his argument,
the traditional tribes. This, he argued, is only logical. But the settlement is for the benefit
of all Maori, not just the traditional tribes. In whatever manner distribution is effected, the
benefit of the settlement is to go to all Maori, not just the members affiliated with the
tribes who claim to have been the holders of the fishing rights which have been extinguished.34
In other words, there is a sort of unhealthy formalism about an argument that moves
from the sociological proposition that "[t]he settlement was of the historical grievances
of a tribal people" to the conclusion that the particular tribal entities that suffered the
violation should be the sole beneficiary of the settlement, notwithstanding the very different and attenuated position that those entities presently occupy in modern Maori society. And I think this formalism is the occupational hazard of those who simply cast
around to find a way - any way will do - of sustaining the business of historic reparations without regard to the human circumstances of those they claim to be benefitting.
32
33
34

Ibid., 338f (per Thomas J., dissenting).


Ibid., 377f (per Blanchard J.).
Ibid., 341 (per Thomas J., dissenting).

67

Even if we were sure that we had the right entity - the right right-bearer - we would
need additional assurance that the right in question had survived, if we were to pursue
the approach intimated in section 5. (Remember the argument there was that the counterfactual conundrums of section 4 are irrelevant: we simply give the property rights
back to the enduring group from whom they were taken, and thus put a stop to what
would otherwise be on-going injustice.) So now we have to ask whether the rights remain stable during the prodigious lifetime of the group.
On the face of it, it seems implausible that they would remain stable. After all, there
have been massive changes in the last century or two, in a country like New Zealand,
whose history we acknowledge has ben marred by injustice and expropriation. The most
striking change is in population: there is now a huge settled population - Maori, pakeha
and mixed-ancestry - larger by a factor of about twenty than the population in (say)
1840. There is no question of the descendants of European settlers returning en masse to
Europe or anywhere else (although concern has been expressed from time to time about
the number who do!) And so the land and other resources of the country are now used
on a basis that is staggeringly different from the basis on which they were used at the
time the violations took place. This, I think, has to make a difference to how we think
about rights - even violated rights - which are alleged to have survived from that earlier
era into the present.
Consider the following hypothetical example.35 It involves two alternative scenarios.
(1) On a large bounded plain, a number of groups appropriate water holes, in conditions
where it is known that there are enough water holes for each group. So long as those
conditions obtain, it seems reasonable for the members of a given group, G, to use the
water hole they have appropriated (Hg) without asking permission of other groups with
whom they share the plain; and it may even seem reasonable for them to exclude members of other groups from the casual use of Hg, saying to them, "You have your own
water hole. Go off and use that, and leave ours alone." But suppose one year there is an
ecological disaster, and all the waterholes dry up except the one that the members of G
are using. Then in these changed circumstances, notwithstanding the legitimacy of their
original appropriation, it is surely no longer permissible for G to exclude others from
Hg. Indeed it may no longer be in order for members of G to casually use Hg as "their
own" waterhole in the way they did before. In the new circumstances, it may be incumbent on them to draw up a rationing scheme that allows for the needs of everyone in the
territory to be satisfied from this one resource. Changing circumstances can have an
effect on ownership rights notwithstanding the legitimacy of the original appropriation.
(2) Suppose as before that in circumstances of plenty various groups on the savannah
are legitimately in possession of their respective waterholes. One day, motivated purely
by greed, members of group F descend on the waterhole, Hg, used and possessed by
group G and insist on sharing that with them. (What's more they do not allow reciprocity; they do not allow members of G to share the water hole Hf that was legitimately in
possession of the F group.) That is an injustice. But then, as in story (1), circumstances
change, and all the water holes of the territory dry up except the one that originally belonged to G. The members of group F are already sharing that Hg on the basis of their
35

The example is drawn from J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice". It was suggested to me
originally by the arguments in D. Lyons, "The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land",
371.

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Jeremy Waldron

earlier incursion. But now that circumstances have changed, they are entitled to share
that water hole. Their use of Hg no longer counts as an injustice; it is now in fact part of
what justice now requires. The initial injustice by F against G has been superseded by
circumstances.
I do not think this possibility - of the supersession of historic injustice - can be denied, except at the cost of making one's theory of historical entitlement utterly impervious to variations in the circumstances in which holdings are acquired and withheld from
others. If circumstances make a difference to what counts as a just acquisition, then they
must make a difference also to what counts as an unjust incursion. And if they make a
difference to that, then in principle we must concede that a change in circumstances can
affect whether a particular continuation of adverse possession remains an injustice or
not.
So everything depends on whether circumstances make a difference. I think it is very
difficult to resist the conclusion that entitlements are sensitive to circumstances. Certainly, the level of our concern for various human predicaments is sensitive to the circumstances that constitute those predicaments. One's concern about poverty, for example, varies depending on the extent of the opportunities available to the poor: to be poor
but to have some opportunity for amelioration is to be in a better predicament than to be
poor with no opportunities at all. Similarly, our concern for the homeless may vary with
the season of the year or the climate of the state in which they live; and global warming
may make their predicament a little bit less of a concern than it was. Moreover, these
are not just fluctuations in subjective response: they are circumstantially sensitive
variations in what we would take to be the appropriate level of concern.
Once this is conceded then the argument for the circumstantial variability of property
rights is straightforward. The (appropriate) level of our concern about the poor and the
needy is directly related to the burden of justification that must be shouldered by those
who defend property rights.36 I will argue the point for an individual owner, though I
think it is petty clear it applies to collective or group owners as well. If an individual
makes a claim to the exclusive use or possession of some resource, then the burden of
defending and sustaining that individual's claim as a moral proposition varies in proportion to the level of concern that one has about the plight of other persons or groups
who will have to be excluded from the resource if her claim is recognized. (The only
theory of property entitlement that would be totally immune to variations in background
circumstances would be one that did not accept any burden of justification at all in relation to such concerns.) We can express this claim about sensitivity to circumstances as
follows. In the case of almost every putative entitlement, it is possible to imagine a pair
of different circumstances, Ci and C2, such that the entitlement can only barely be justified in Ci and cannot be justified at all in C2. The shift from Ci to C2 represents a tipping point so far as the justification of the entitlement is concerned.
Thus a scale of appropriation that might be appropriate in a plentiful environment
with a small population may be quite inappropriate in the same environment with a
large population, or with the same population once natural resources have become depleted. In a plentiful environment with a small population, an individual appropriation
of land makes no-one worse off. As John Locke put it:
He that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.
No Body could think himself injur'd by the drinking of another Man, though he took a
good Draught, who had a whole River of the same Water left him to quench his thirst.
36

For an argument to this effect, see J. Waldron, "Property, Justification and Need", 185-215.

Redressing Historic Injustice

69

And the Case of Land and Water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.37
But as Locke also recognized, the picture changed once population increased to the
point where scarcity was felt. If one person's appropriation cast a shadow on the survival prospects of others, then evidently it raised questions of a moral character that
were not raised when resources were as plentiful as water in a river. One does not need
the exact formulation of a "Lockean proviso" to see this. The point is simply that there
are real moral concerns that have to be addressed in the one case that are not present in
the other.38
So far I have talked about one acquisitive act, Ai, taking place in one set of circumstances, Ci, and another acquisitive act, A2, taking place in different circumstances, C2.
What happens, though, if circumstances change after the moment of the acquisitive act
but during the time that the act has effect, i.e. during the period of ownership to which
the acquisitive action gives rise? An individual performs an acquisitive act Aj, in circumstances Ci that make it legitimate. It establishes a title that endures through time.
During that time circumstances change, so that conditions C2 now obtain, and conditions C2 are such that an equivalent act of appropriation would not be legitimate. What
effect does this change have on the legitimacy of the title founded by action A|?
The answer has to be that it calls the legitimacy of the individual's entitlement into
question. Property entitlements constrain others over a period of time and they do so
continually in the literal sense that, again and again, the owner repels boarders, so to
speak, rebuffing their claim that they ought to have access to the resource in question or
participate in its management. Day after day, the owner faces explicit or implicit challenges from others, wanting to use her resource; if she didn't have the entitlement to
rely on she would not be in a moral position to rebut or resist these challenges. So each
time she resists an encroachment, she relies on the entitlement founded by A|. At each
of those times, the legitimacy of what she does depends on the appropriateness of her
entitlement as a moral right at that time. Now, so long as circumstances remain unchanged or so long as any changes are broadly consonant with the necessary conditions
for the legitimacy of her entitlement, the entitlement is, so to speak, renewed automatically. But if circumstances change radically in the way we have been envisaging, then
continued application of her entitlement can not be taken for granted. (It's like the
automatic renewal of a library book until another reader puts in a request for it.)
If this is accepted so far as justice in acquisition is concerned, it must also apply to
issues and allegations of /justice. Suppose a person has legitimately acquired an object
in circumstances of plenty, C\, and another person comes along and snatches it from
him. That act of snatching, we may say, is an injustice. But the very same action of
snatching an already appropriated object may not be wrong in a different set of circumstances, C2, where desperate scarcity has set in and the snatcher has no other means of

37
38

J. Locke, Two Treatises, II, sect. 33.


The same point is recognized by R. Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia, 174ff). The principle of
acquisition that forms the lynch-pin of Nozick's theory depends for its acceptability on the claim
that individual appropriations of previously unowned goods do not worsen anybody's situation.
(Nozick wishes, as far as possible, to present initial acquisition in the same light of Pareto-improvement as consensual transfer.) We need not worry about the exact details of this proviso. What
is clear is that in any plausible theory of historic entitlement, there is some spectrum of social circumstances, relating to the effect a putative acquisition would have on the prospects and lifechances of other people, such that the further one goes along this spectrum the less inclined we are
to say that the acquisition in question generates legitimate rights.

70

staying alive. One and the same type of action may be an injustice in one set of circumstances and not an injustice in another.
And that is where our second story about the waterholes comes in. I said that the
burden of justifying an entitlement depends (in part) on a moral assessment of the impact on others' interests of their being excluded from the resources in question, and that
that impact is likely to vary as circumstances change. Similarly an acquisition which is
legitimate in one set of circumstances may not be legitimate in another set of circumstances. From this I inferred that an initially legitimate acquisition may become illegitimate or have its legitimacy restricted (as the basis of an on-going entitlement) at a later
time on account of a change in circumstances. By exactly similar reasoning, it seems
possible that an act which counted as an injustice when it was committed in circumstances Ci may be transformed, so far as its on-going effect is concerned, into a just
situation if circumstances change in the meantime from C\ to C2. When this happens, I
shall say the injustice has been superseded.
None of this changes when we move from individuals to groups: for all the argument
posits is that there are others affected by the acquisition and by its continuance as an
entitlement, and that the legitimacy of their exclusion maybe called in question by
changes in circumstances. It is a mistake to think that there is any less difficulty in justifying collective entitlements than in justifying individual entitlements.39 There would be
a difference if the collective comprised all those who might conceivably have a claim
against the resource. But that is not usually the case, and it is certainly not the case in
New Zealand where the groups at the focus of debates about historic injustice were historically and prehistorically engaged in the warlike exclusion of other groups from the
use of the resources they now claim.
It may be objected that the whole line of reasoning in this section generates a moral
hazard - an incentive for wrongdoers to seize others' lands confident in the knowledge
that if they hang on to them wrongfully for long enough their possession may eventually
become rightful. But the argument of this section is not that the passage of time per se
supersedes all claims of injustice. Rather, the argument is that claims about justice and
injustice must be responsive to changes in circumstances. Suppose there had been no
injustice: still, a change in circumstances (such as a great increase in world population)
might justify our forcing the aboriginal inhabitants of some territory to share their land
with others. If this is so, then the same change in circumstances in the real world can
justify our saying that the others' occupation of some of their lands, which was previously wrongful, may become morally permissible. There is no moral hazard in this supersession because the aboriginal inhabitants would have had to share their lands,
whether the original injustice had taken place or not.
I do not think this possibility - of the supersession of historic injustice, of historic injustice being, so to speak, overtaken by circumstances - can be denied, except at the
cost of making one's theory of historical entitlement utterly impervious to variations in
the circumstances in which holdings are acquired and withheld from others. If circumstances make a difference to what counts as a just acquisition, then they must make a
39

Redressing Historic Injustice

Jeremy Waldron

See R. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 178: "We should note that it is not only persons
favoring private property who need a theory of how property rights originate. Those believing in
collective property, for example those believing that a group of persons living in an area jointly
own the territory, or its mineral resources, also must provide a theory of how such property rights
arise; they must show why the persons living there have rights to determine what is done with the
land and resources there that person's living elsewhere don't have (with regard to the same land and
resources)."

71

difference also to what counts as an unjust incursion. And if they make a difference to
that, then we cannot deny that a change in circumstances can affect whether a particular
continuation of adverse possession remains an injustice or not.
Of course, from the fact that supersession is a possibility, it does not follow that it always happens. Everything depends on which circumstances are taken to be morally significant, and how as matter of fact circumstances have changed. It may be that some of
the historic injustices that concern us have not been superseded, and that, even under
modern circumstances, the possession of certain aboriginal lands by the descendants of
those who expropriated their original owners remains a crying injustice. My argument is
not intended to rule that out. But there have been huge changes since North America
and Australasia were settled by white colonists. The population has increased many
fold, and most of the descendants of the colonists, unlike their ancestors, have nowhere
else to go. We cannot be sure that these changes in circumstances supersede the injustice of their continued possession of aboriginal lands, but it would not be surprising if
they did. The facts that have changed are exactly the sort of facts one would expect to
make a difference to the justice of a set of entitlements.
Quite apart from anything else, the changes that have taken place over the past two
hundred years mean that the costs of respecting primeval entitlements are much greater
now than they were in 1800. Two hundred years ago, a small aboriginal group could
have exclusive domination of "a large and fruitful Territory"40 without much prejudice
to the needs and interests of very many other human beings. Today, such exclusive
rights would mean that many people going hungry who might otherwise be fed, and
many people living in poverty who might otherwise have an opportunity to make a decent life. Irrespective of the occurrence of past injustice, this imbalance would have to
be rectified sooner or later. That is the basis for my argument that claims about historic
injustice predicated on the status quo ante may be superseded by our determination to
distribute the resources of the world in a way that is fair to all of its existing inhabitants
in their existing circumstances.

There is, as I said, a connection between the question raised in section 6 - has the group
G survived in the relevant sense, into the present as successor to grievances arising form
events that took place generations ago? - and the question raised in section 7 - does G
have the same rights now that it had at the time the historic violation took place?
The questions come together when we consider the basis of Gm's initial entitlement.
It was based on the fact that the structure of Gm, as a collective entity, was oriented to
Gm's organization of the means of subsistence for its members. The importance of Gm's
entitlement is related not to the sheer metaphysics of Gm's existence as an enduring
group but to the human role that it played in a particular society. Property rights are often defended on the ground of the pervasive role that a resource comes to play in the life
of its owner. An individual who takes possession of an object or a piece of land, and
who works on it, alters it and uses it, makes it in effect a part of her life, a pivotal point
in her thinking, planning and action. She shapes it in a certain way - ploughing it, for
example, or practicing good husbandry in her hunting over it - so as to allow it to perform a certain role in her life and activity not only now but in the future. If someone
40

The phrase is from J. Locke, Two Treatises, II, sect. 41.

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Jeremy Waldron

else comes along and seizes the resource, then this whole structure of action is disrupted. And that's the basis of the injustice.
But if this is the sort of line we take about the importance of property, then unfortunately our justification is going to be vulnerable to something like historical prescription: we are going to have a justification that is weakened by the historic persistence of
dispossession, a justification that does fade over time. If something was taken from me
decades ago, then the claim that it now forms the center of my life and that it is still indispensable to the exercise of my autonomy is much less credible. For I must have
found some way to live in the meantime; I must have developed some structure of subsistence. And that will be where my efforts have gone, and where my planning and my
practical thinking have been focused. I may of course yearn for the lost resource and
spend a lot of time wishing that I had it back. I may even organize my life around the
campaign for its restoration. But that is not the same thing as the basis of the original
claim. The original entitlement is based on the idea that I have organized my life around
the use of this object, not that I have organized my life around the specific project of
hanging onto it or getting it back. It is probably a little harsh to say that this is the case
with some of the groups that are now claiming the benefit of historic reparations: that
whereas Gm was a group oriented to its members' subsistence and treasured its property
rights accordingly, Gn is a group oriented mainly to its historic grievances and treasures
its (violated) property rights as a source of lingering claims against others, well aware
that its members have now for several generations been organizing their subsistence on
a different basis altogether. As I say, that's a bit harsh, as applied for example to Maori
groups. Butt here is more than a grain of truth in it - certainly enough to raise questions
about whether the group now demanding the property rights back is similar in any important respect to the group of the same name that 150 years ago was demanding that its
property right not be violated.
Again, the moral hazard objection rears its head. Some will object that this argument
furnishes an incentive to anyone who is inclined to violate another's rights. The thief
knows that if he steals resources and hangs on to the proceeds, his victim will have to
re-order her life and, once she does, she will no longer be in a position to claim that the
stolen resources should be restored because of their centrality to her plans. But I do not
see how this difficulty can be avoided. We cannot pretend that a long-stolen resource
continues to play a part in its original owner's life when in fact it does not, merely in
order to avoid a moral hazard. What the objection shows, I think, is that the normal line
of argument for property entitlements is simply insufficient to establish imprescriptible
rights. And I can't conceive what would be sufficient to establish property rights in
contested resources that were fully imprescriptible.
9.
It does not follow from what has been said we should attach no importance to historic
injustice of the sort that disfigured the colonial history of countries like New Zealand.
The arguments made in sections 4-8 are directed at a particular way of thinking about
that injustice and a particular way of approaching its remediation. I have criticized the
approach that aims, as it were, to wind the tape back to the injustice and try and make
the world as though the injustice had never happened: I have argued that the counterfactuals that that involves are impossible to figure out (if not incoherent), and I have
argued too that such an approach tries to do justice to the wrong entities (viz. modern

Redressing Historic Injustice

73

day successors to the groups that were important at the time the injustice took place)
and to vindicate the wrong rights (rights that obtained in virtue of circumstances quite
different from those of the modern world). The reparationist enterprise fails to take
proper account of the fact that the people, entities and circumstances in relation to
which justice must now be done have changed radically form the peoples, entities and
circumstances in relation which violations were historically committed. Some of those
changes are a result of the historic injustice. But, as I argued in the early sections of the
chapter, that doesn't mean they can be ignored or reversed. We must come to terms with
each other here and now, irrespective of how we all got here.
Behind the thesis of supersession lies a determination to focus upon present and prospective costs - the suffering and the deprivation over which we still have some control.
The idea is that any conception of justice which is to be made practically relevant for
the way we act now must be a scheme that takes into account modern circumstances and
the way those impact on the conditions under which people presently live their lives.
Arguments for reparation take as conclusive claims of entitlement oriented towards circumstances that are radically different from those we actually face: claims of entitlement based on the habitation of a territory by a small fraction of its present population,
and claims of entitlement based on a determination to ignore the present dispersal of
persons and peoples on the face of the earth, simply because the historic mechanisms of
such dispersal were savagely implicated in injustice. And yet, here we all are. The present circumstances are the ones that are real: it is in the actual world that people starve or
are hurt or degraded if the demands of justice in relation to their circumstances are not
met. Justice, we say, is a matter of the greatest importance. But the importance to be
accorded it is relative to what may actually happen if justice is not done, not to what
might have happened if injustice in the past had been avoided.
I have tried not to make the argument of this chapter depend on anything about the
sheer passage of time or the need for social amnesia. Some people do believe that violated rights are capable of "fading away" in their moral importance by virtue of the passage of time, i.e., by the sheer persistence over the generations of what was originally a
wrongful infringement. In the law of property, we recognize doctrines of prescription
and adverse possession. In criminal procedure and in torts, we think it important to have
statutes of limitations. The familiarity of these doctrines no doubt contributes to the
widespread belief that, after several generations have passed, certain wrongs are simply
not worth correcting. And despite the perennial objection about moral hazard - an incentive for wrongdoers to cling to their ill-gotten gains, in the hope that the entitlement
they violated will fade away because of their adverse possession -, that view (that certain rights are prescriptable) does have something to be said for it. Some of the things
favor prescriptability are simply pragmatic. Statutes of limitations are inspired as much
by procedural difficulties about evidence and memory, as by any doctrine about rights.
It is hard to establish what happened if we are enquiring into events that occurred decades or generations ago. There are non-procedural pragmatic arguments also. For better
or worse, people build up structures of expectation around the resources that are actually
under their control. If a person controls a resource over a long enough period, then she
and others may organize their lives and their economic activity around the premise that
that resource is 'hers', without much regard to the distant provenance of her entitlement.
Upsetting these expectations in the name of restitutive justice is bound to be costly and
disruptive.
But in this chapter I have tried not to rest on these considerations except to the extent
that they enter into the meaning and application of other substantive principles. (I have

74

in mind here the argument developed in section 8.) For it is not appropriate to simply
announce a principle of prescription. The important thing is to understand the living
issues of morality and justice that such a principle expresses in its bluff, peremptory
way. So I have tried to focus on the underlying issues, and I have not been particularly
concerned whether a bland one-size-fits-all principle of prescription can be erected on
the basis of them.
I rely even less on the plea, that is sometimes heard, for a sort of collective amnesia.
"Can't we forget about the past?" people complain, "Why do we have to keep dredging
up these historic grievances. Can't bygones be bygones." There are many important
reasons why the answer to that question must be a categorical "No", and why it is very
important for me that my argument in this chapter should be taken as an argument
against a particular misuse of historic memory and not at all against the importance of
historic memory as such.
To begin with, those who plead for forgetfulness with the slogan "Let bygones by
bygones" are acting complacently as though they have nothing to learn from their own
history. An historical judgement about the past, if it is also a moral judgement, necessarily says something for the present and future. All moral judgments are practical and
prescriptive in their illocutionary force; they purport to guide choices.41 When I make a
moral judgement about an event E, I do so not in terms of the irreducible particularity of
E but on the basis of some reproducible feature of E that other events might share. In
saying, "E was unjust", I am saying, "There is something about E and the circumstances
in which it was performed, such that any act of that kind performed in such circumstances would be unjust." Thus, I am not so much prescribing the avoidance of E itself
(a prescription that makes no sense if E is in the past), but prescribing the avoidance of
E-type events. Though E occurred 150 years ago, to condemn it is to express a determination now that, in the choices we face, we will avoid actions of this kind. The point of
doing this is not that we learn new (and better) moral standards for our lives now from
the judgments we make about the past. Unless we had those standards already, we
wouldn't make those judgments. But our moral understanding of the past is often the
best way of bringing to life the force and full implications of principles to which we are
already in theory committed. To be disposed to act morally, it is not enough to be
equipped with a list of appropriate principles and values. One also needs a sense of the
type of situation in which these things may be suddenly at stake, of the sort of temptations or difficulties that might lead one to betray them, of the circumstances and entanglements that lead otherwise virtuous people to start acting viciously. That, among other
things, is what history provides. And one of the most lamentable features of the mythmaking that is sometimes substituted for history is that, by making the past look better
and more straightforward than it was, it obscures this invaluable sense of what is like to
face real moral danger.
Beyond that, there is an importance to the historical recollection of injustice that has
to do with identity and contingency. It is a well-known characteristic of great injustice
that those who suffer it go to their deaths with the conviction that these things must not
be forgotten. It is easy to misread that as a vain desire for vindication, a futile threat of
infamy upon the perpetrators of an atrocity. But perhaps the determination to remember
41

Redressing Historic Injustice

Jeremy Waldron

Opinions differ in meta-ethics about whether this illocutionary function provides a complete explanation of the distinctively moral meaning of words like 'right', 'wrong', 'unjust', etc. For the view
that it does, see R.M. Hare, The Language of Morals. But most moral philosophers concede that
even if it is not the whole story, still it is an essential part of the explanation of the meaning of such
a words that they have this prescriptive function.

75

is bound up with the desire to sustain a specific character as a person or community


against a background of infinite possibility. That this happened rather than that - that
people were massacred (though they need not have been), that lands were taken (though
they might have been bought fairly), that promises were broken (though they might
have been kept) - the historic record has a fragility that consists, for large part, in the
sheer contingency of what happened in the past. What happened might have been otherwise, and, just because of that, it is not something one can reason back to if what actually took place has been forgotten or concealed.42
Each person establishes a sense of herself in terms of her ability to identify the subject or agency of her present thinking with that of certain acts and events that took place
in the past, and in terms of her ability to hold fast to a distinction between memory so
understood and wishes, fantasies, or various other ideas of things that might have happened but did not.43 But remembrance in this sense is equally important to communities
- families, tribes, nations, parties - that is, to human entities that exist often for much
longer than individual men and women. To neglect the historical record is to do violence to this identity and thus to the community that it sustains. And since communities
help generate a deeper sense of identity for the individuals they comprise, neglecting or
expunging the historical record is a way of undermining and insulting individuals as
well.
When we arc- told to let bygones be bygones, we need to bear in mind also that the
forgetfulness being urged on us is seldom the blank slate of historical oblivion. Thinking quickly fills up the vacuum with plausible tales of self-satisfaction, on the one side,
and self-deprecation on the other. Those who as a matter of fact benefited from their
ancestors' injustice will persuade themselves readily enough that their good fortune is
due to the virtue of their race, while the descendants of their victims may too easily accept the story that they and their kind were always good for nothing. In the face of all
this, only the deliberate enterprise of recollection (the enterprise we call history), coupled with the most determined sense that there is a difference between what happened
and what we would like to think happened, can sustain the moral and cultural reality of
self and community.
I also want to mention the role that the payment of money (or the return of lands or
artifacts) may play in the embodiment of communal remembrance. Quite apart from any
attempt to genuinely compensate victims or offset their losses, reparations may symbolize a society's undertaking not to forget or deny that a particular injustice took place,
and to respect and help sustain a dignified sense of identity-in-memory for the people
affected. A prominent recent example of this is the payment of token sums of compensation by the American government to the survivors of Japanese-American families uprooted, interned and concentrated in 1942. The point of these payments was not to make
up for the loss of home, business, opportunity, and standing in the community which
these people suffered at the hands of their fellow-citizens, nor was it to make up for the
discomfort and degradation of their internment. If that were the aim, much more would
be necessary. The point was to mark - with something that counts in the United States a clear public recognition that this injustice did happen, that it was the American people
and their government that inflicted it, and that these people were among its victims. The
payments give an earnest of good faith or sincerity to that acknowledgment. Like the
gift I buy for someone I have stood up, the payment is a method of putting oneself out,
42
43

For a moving discussion, see H. Arendt, "Truth and Politics".


See J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, ch. xxvii, sects. 9-10.

76

Jeremy Waldron

or going out of one's way, to apologize. It is no objection to this that the payments are
purely symbolic. Since identity is bound up with symbolism, a symbolic gesture may be
as important to people as any material compensation.
I want to end by emphasizing two other points that qualify or clarify my thesis of the
supersession of historic injustice. First, what I have said applies only if an honest attempt is being made to arrange things justly for the future. If no such attempt is being
made, there is nothing to overwhelm or supersede the enterprise of reparation. My thesis
is not intended as a defense of complacency or inactivity, and to the extent that opponents of reparation are complacent about the injustice of the status quo, their resistance
is rightly condemned. Repairing historic injustice is, as we have seen, a difficult business and, as a matter of fact, it is almost always undertaken by people of good will. The
only thing that can trump that enterprise is an honest and committed resolve to do justice for the future, a resolve to address present circumstances in a way that respects the
claims and needs of everyone.
Secondly, my thesis is not that such resolve has priority over all rectificatory actions.
I claim only that it has priority over reparation which might carry us in a direction contrary to that which is indicated by a prospective theory of justice. Often and understandably, claims based on reparation and claims based on forward-looking principles
will coincide, for, as we saw in Section Three, past injustice is not without its present
effects. It is a fact that many of the descendants of those who were defrauded and expropriated live demoralized in lives of relative poverty - relative, that is, to the descendants of those who defrauded them. If the relief of poverty and the more equal distribution of resources is the aim of a prospective theory of justice, it is likely that the effect
of rectifying past wrongs will carry us some distance in this direction. All the same, it is
worth stressing that it is the impulse to justice now that should lead the way in this process, not the reparation of something whose wrongness is understood primarily in relation to conditions that no longer obtain.
Entitlements that fade with time, counterfactuals that are impossible to verify, injustices that are overtaken by circumstances - all this is a bit distant, I am afraid, from the
simple conviction that, if something was wrongly taken, it must be right to give it back.
The arguments I have made may seem to deflate a lot of the honest enthusiasm that surrounds aboriginal claims, and the hope that now for the first time in centuries we may
be ready to do justice to people and peoples whom we have perennially maltreated. The
arguments may also seem to compromise justice unnecessarily, as they shift from the
straightforward logic of compensation to an arcane and calculative casuistry that tries to
balance incommensurable claims.
But societies are not simple circumstances, and it does not detract one bit from the
importance of justice nor from the force of the duties it generates, to insist that its requirements are complex and that they may be sensitive to differences in circumstance. It
is true that in many cases the complexity of these issues does not diminish our ability to
recognize acts of injustice - stark and awful - like direct expropriation and genocide.
The fallacy lies in thinking that the directness of such perception and the outrage that
attends it translate into simple and straightforward certainty about what is to be done
once such injustices have occurred. "First come, first served." "We were here first."
These simplicities have always been unpleasant ways of denying present aspirations or
resisting current claims of need. They become no more pleasant, and in the end no more
persuasive, by being associated with respect for aboriginal peoples or revulsion from the
violence and expropriation that have disfigured our history.

Redressing Historic Injustice

77

Bibliography
Arendt, H., "Truth and Politics", Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future. Six Exercises in Political Thought, Viking Press, 1968.
Buchanan, J.M., The Limits of Liberty. Between Anarchy and Leviathan, University of
Chicago Press, 1975.
Hare, R.M., Vie Language of Morals, Clarendon Press, 1952.
Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Kant, I., "Cosmopolitan Right", The Metaphysics of Morals, trans, by Mary Gregor,
Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Kant, I., "Perpetual Peace", Immanuel Kant, Political Writings, ed. H. Reiss, transl. by
H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Kant, I., "Theory and Practice", Immanuel Kant, Political Writings.
Kant, I., Kants Werke, Bd. vi, Akademie Werkausgabe, Walter de Gruyter, 1968.
Kant, I., Kants Werke, Bd. viii, Akademie Werkausgabe, Walter de Gruyter, 1968.
Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Clarendon Press, 1987.
Locke, J., Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Lyons, D., 'The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land", Reading Nozick, ed.
J. Paul, Basil Blackwell, 1982.
Nozick, R., Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basil Blackwell, 1974.
Rawls, J., Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Tully, J., "Rediscovering America. The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights", Tully,
An Approach to Political Philosophy. Locke in Contexts, Cambridge University
Press, 1993.
Waitangi Fisheries Commission, Te Waka Hi Ika o Te Arawa v. Treaty of Waitangi
Fisheries Commission [2000] 1 NZLR 285.
Waldron, J., "Historic Injustice. Its Remembrance and Supersession", Justice, Ethics
and New Zealand Society, ed. G. Oddie and R. Perrett, Oxford University Press,
1992.
Waldron, J., "Superseding Historic Injustice", Ethics 103 (1992).
Waldron, J., "Property, Justification and Need", Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 6 (1993).
Waldron, J., "The Advantages and Difficulties of the Humean Theory of Property", Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (1994).
Waldron, J., "Kant's Legal Positivism", Harvard Law Review 109 (1996).
Waldron, J., The Dignity of Legislation. The 1996 Seeley Lectures, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Waldron, J., "Cultural Identity and Civic Responsibility", Citizenship in Diverse Societies, ed. W. Kymlicka and W. Norman, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Waldron, J., "What is Cosmopolitan?", Journal of Political Philosophy 8 (2000).
Walzer, M., Spheres of Justice, Basic Books, 1983.

79

Historical Rights

Chaim Gans

Contents
1.

Introduction. Two Conceptions of Historical Rights

79

2.

First Occupancy

84

2.1 First Occupancy as Grounds for Sovereignty

84

2.2 Grounds for Determining the Location of a People's Self-determination

86

3.

88

The Right to Formative Territories

3.1 Grounds for Territorial Sovereignty

88

3.2 Grounds for Determining the Site of Self-determination

92

1. Introduction. Two Conceptions of Historical Rights


The people of Sparta submitted various petitions to Emperor Tiberius during the first
few decades of the Common Era demanding the return of Messene to their possession.1
They had lost it to the Thebans some centuries earlier (in 371 BC). The Spartans regarded Messene as part of their fatherland. When they lost Messene, their crown prince
Archidamus bewailed it, equating its loss with the loss of Sparta itself.2 This sounds familiar and totally contemporary. Many or perhaps most of the territorial disputes in the
last two centuries revolve around similar demands. The Serb demands to hold on to the
Albanian-populated Kosovo is the most recent example. One or both parties to these
territorial disputes base their claim on what they usually call their "historical rights" to
the territory. Claims on the basis of "historical rights" are perhaps not confined to the
realm of territory alone. Thus, for example, Melina Mercury, Greece's Minister of Culture in the 1970s, demanded the return of the Acropolis treasures from the British Museum on the basis of similar arguments.
When political philosophers refer to historical rights they have in mind such rights as
A's right to a piece of land because he was first to occupy and cultivate it, or because he

1
2

See Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, ch. 43.


"I should feel disgraced [...] if I did not strive with all the strength that is in me to prevent this territory, which our fathers left to us, from becoming the possession of our slaves [...]. To be sure, if
we are in a mood not to defend our title to anything, not even if they demand that we abandon
Sparta itself, it is idle to be concerned about Messene; but if not one of you would consent to live if
torn from the fatherland, then you ought to be of the same mind about that country; for in both cases
we can advance the same justifications and the same reasons for our claim." (Isocrates, Archidamus, ch. 8-11, 24). (I am grateful to Irad Malkin for pointing out this example to me.)

80

acquired it by means of a contract, or will or through matrimony.3 These rights are different from such rights as the right to freedom of speech, the right to a minimum wage,
or the right to privacy. The latter can be said to be ahistorical. Their holders acquire
them by virtue of belonging to general categories, such as being human or adult citizens, and not by virtue of particular events with which they are specifically associated.
The rights of the former type are "historical" because their holders acquire them by virtue of specific events that occurred at particular points in time.4 In this very broad sense
of the term, whatever takes place in time is "historical". Thus, every sneeze and hiccup
could be considered historical. However, the term "historical" is usually used in more
narrow contexts. It does not denote each and every event occurring in time, but rather
those events that we perceive as significant. For example, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo on a summer morning in 1914 is regarded as an event worthy of being called "historical", in contrast, for example, to the fact that the Archduke
brushed his teeth the same morning.5 The historical rights to be discussed here - those
that are used in nationalist disputes mainly in order to justify territorial claims - are
"historical" in this narrow sense; that is, they are historical by virtue of being acquired
through significant events (or series of events). In public and academic political discourse, the notion of historical rights in this narrower sense oscillates between two conceptions. One conception focuses on the primacy of the national group in the history of
the territory over which it demands sovereignty, while the other conception focuses on
the primacy of that territory in the history of the national group demanding the sovereignty.
According to the first conception, the fact that a national group was first to occupy a
disputed territory (at least in relation to existing national groups), is conceived within
modern nationalist disputes (and perhaps not only modern disputes) as a crucial link in
the history of that temtory for the purpose of determining sovereignty over it. On the
basis of such a claim, Thomas Masaryk tried to convince the leaders of the countries
that won World War I to include the Sudeten district, then mostly inhabited by Germans, within the Czechoslovakian republic. Masaryk referred to Czechoslovakia's right
to sovereignty in the Sudeten district as a historical right, as it was the first in a succession of sovereigns in that area.7 This conception of historical.rights, a "first occupancy
conception", is also implicit in Iraq's demand for Kuwait and in that of the Iranians for
3
4
5
6

Historical Rights

Chaim Gans

The tradition of calling such rights "historical" has developed since R. Nozick's book Anarchy,
State and Utopia.
Compare with the analogous distinction between special and general rights, H.L.A. Hart, "Are
There Any Natural Rights?", 84.
Philosophers of history call this "the problem of selection". See W.H. Dray, Philosophy of History,
37f.
Without taking sides in the dispute regarding whether or not, and to what extent nationalism is a
modern phenomenon, it should be noted that territorial conflicts in which national or quasi-national
groups invoke their primacy in the disputed territory are not entirely modern. The Spartans' complaint to Tiberius mentioned earlier is not the only example. A very similar story appears in the
Talmud (Sanhedrin 91, 1). It is about a dispute between the Israelites and Canaanites which was
brought before Alexander the Great. The Canaanites argued that they had lived in Canaan before
the Israelites and supported their claim with evidence from the Torah according to which the land of
Canaan was promised to the Israelites. ("Command the children of Israel, and say unto them, When
ye come into the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall unto you for an inheritance, even the
land of Canaan according to the borders thereof.)" (Numbers 34:1)). By calling it the land of Canaan, the Torah in fact admits that the Canaanites had indeed inhabited the land before the Jews.
The Canaanites should therefore own it.
T.G. Masaryk, The Making of a State, 385f.

81

some of the islands of Abu Musa from the United Arab Emirates.8 The same conception
figures in the Tamil-Sinhalese dispute over Sri Lanka, the Jewish-Palestinian dispute
over Palestine, and the territorial demands which Native Americans, New-Zealanders
and Australians have made against the European populations of their countries.9
The great appeal of this argument in disputes between nations is sometimes demonstrated by the fact that the parties that seem to be the underdogs in these disputes do not
try to deny the validity of this argument. What they do instead is construct a genealogy
that supposedly demonstrates their kinship ties to extinct peoples who had occupied the
disputed territories before their rivals. They thus win the argument by themselves becoming the first occupants. For example, among the peoples that exist today, the Hungarians were the first to maintain organized settlements in Transylvania. Romanians try
to prove that they were the first by claiming to be descendants of the Romans who conquered Dacia (of which Transylvania is a part), in the Second Century AD.10 Since
among the peoples that exist today, the Jews were the first to maintain an organized settlement in Canaan, that is, Eretz Yisrael or Palestine, the Palestinians have tried to prove
they were the first occupants by claiming to have descended from the Canaanites, who
had occupied the land before the ancient Hebrews."
According to the second conception, the fact that the disputed territory is of primary
importance in forming the historical identity of the group, is considered as strong
enough reason for purposes of determining sovereignty over it. Israel's declaration of
independence clearly expresses this conception. It states that it was in Eretz Yisrael that
"the Jewish people came into being", and that it was there that "the people's spiritual,
religious and political image was forged", where "it lived a life of sovereign independence, in which it created national and universal cultural treasures". "Bearing this historical tie", the declaration goes on to say, "the Jews of every generation have striven to
return and re-embrace their ancient homeland." These passages express a view according to which the experiences which the Jews underwent in Palestine were formative in
their becoming a nation. This is why they strive now to return to Palestine. As implied
here, the Jews have an historical right to Eretz Yisrael, not because they were the first
among contemporary peoples to occupy it, but rather because it was of primary importance in forming their identity as an historical entity.
The second conception of historical rights shifts the emphasis from a people's primacy in a given territory to the primacy of this territory for a given people. One result of
this shift is that the primacy considered relevant is mainly value-based rather than
chronological. Moreover, according to the first occupancy conception, the normative
importance of the entitling fact is based upon its chronological primacy, while within
the second conception which could be called "the formative territories conception", the
chronological primacy is based on the normative importance of the territory. Because
the territory is of primary importance in the formation of the group, it is also the first
territory in the chronological sense in which the group as such ever existed.
8
9

10
11

See F. Mehr, A Colonial Legacy.


On the demands of the aboriginal peoples against the settlers' nations see for example: D. Lyons,
'The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land"; J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice"; J.A. Simmons, "Historical Rights and Fair Shares"; M. Moore, "The Territorial Dimension of
Self-determination"; A. Sharp, Justice and the Maori; R. Poole, Nation and Identity; D. Ivison, P.
Patton and W. Sanders, Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
See N. Stoicescu, The Continuity of the Romanian People.
Few years ago an Israeli daily published a news item with the following title: "Palestinian Archeologists: We have uncovered Canaanite buildings from 3000 B.C., which confirms our historical
right to Palestine." (Ha'aretz, 4 August 1998.)

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Chaim Gans

Both conceptions of historical rights, namely, that of "first occupancy" and that of
the "right to formative territories", involve problems that pertain to the criteria to be
used in order to apply each of their key concepts. That is, with regard to first occupancy,
when can a people be said to "occupy" a territory? Can a people occupy a territory that
lies beyond the area actually inhabited by its members?12 Similar problems are raised by
the notion of historical rights as rights to formative territories. When can a territory or
an object justly be said to be "of formative value" to the historical identity of a given
people? Should we adopt objective and uniform criteria for answering the above questions? Or should we ascribe some importance to the subjective feelings of the people
whose right is in question, provided that there is documentation of these feelings?
I believe these difficulties can somehow be resolved, but do not wish to elaborate on
them here. The more significant problems concerning historical rights do not pertain to
how the conceptions of occupancy and formativeness should be applied, but rather to
the normative status of these conceptions. Does the fact that a given people were the
first to occupy a certain territory, or that the territory is of formative value for a given
people indeed justify granting this people sovereignty over this territory and/or the right
to demographic and cultural presence there?13 In answering this question, the significance of claiming a right to sovereignty must be borne in mind. A right to sovereignty
over a given territory means a power to subject the whole world to the right-holder's
decisions regarding life within this territory and to his or her decisions regarding the use
and enjoyment of this territory and the resources which it contains.14 To sustain such
significant consequences, a claim to such a right must be backed by powerful considerations.
In what follows I will examine what considerations regarding vital needs and interests of the people concerned could be linked to first occupancy and formativeness respectively. However, my discussion requires two further distinctions. The first distinction pertains to whether first occupancy and formativeness could justify acquisition of
territorial rights within the framework of distributive justice, as opposed to whether
they could justify restitution of territorial rights within the framework of corrective justice. When national groups nowadays invoke historical rights in order to justify territorial claims they usually do so in order to demand the restitution of territorial rights.
However, it must be noted that such demands for restitution are inconceivable if the
historical rights under consideration did not also justify rights of acquisition in the first
place. If the demand to restore the sovereignty of a given nation in a given territory is
based either on first occupancy or on a formative tie, then it necessarily presupposes
that this occupancy and formative tie were also grounds for its sovereignty over the territory in question before the physical tie with that territory was lost. Only if this presup-

Historical Rights

position is indeed valid, that is, only if the historical rights under discussion here constitute primary rights of acquisition within distributive justice, can the loss of the physical tie with the territory be considered a wrong which must be remitted by returning the
territory to the possession and sovereignty of the group that has lost it.
The distinction between the role of historical rights as grounds for acquisition within
distributive justice, and the role of historical rights as grounds for restitution within corrective justice is important in practice not only because their validity as rights of distributive justice is a necessary condition for their ability to play a role within corrective
justice, but also because this validity is merely a necessary condition. As we shall see
below, historical rights as grounds for acquisition do not constitute a sufficient condition for restitution. Especially for reasons associated with limitation, prescription and
adverse possession, the fact that historical rights may play a certain role within the context of distributive justice, does not automatically justify granting them a similar role
within the context of corrective justice, especially not for purposes of restitution.1
The second distinction that my discussion requires is between the right to territorial
sovereignty and, on the other hand, how the location of territorial sovereignty is to be
determined. The need to make this distinction stems from the fact that peoples' right to
territorial sovereignty could be based on ahistorical considerations such as their right to
self-determination and independent statehood. National groups could be entitled to independent statehood and therefore to territorial sovereignty simply by virtue of being
national groups and not by virtue of particular events with which they may specifically
be associated. If national groups have a right to territorial sovereignty, then in order to
exercise it, questions concerning the location of the territories to be under their sovereignty must first be resolved. First occupancy and formativeness could serve as bases
for resolving the issue of location even if they cannot serve as bases for the very right to
territorial sovereignty. However, it must be noted that considerations for determining
the location of sovereignty do not necessarily apply to the scope of this sovereignty. The
scope of this sovereignty could perhaps be determined by the size of the groups, their
lifestyles and other factors. Thus, it could be the case that the territorial sovereignty of a
given national group (the specific location of which is determined either by first occupancy or formativeness) would extend only over part of the territory which was first
occupied by that group or with which this group has formative ties. It need not necessarily extend over the entire territory. Hence the practical importance of the present
distinction.
In the second section below, I shall discuss the possibility that historical rights in
their first conception - that of first occupancy - could form a basis for the right to terri15

12

13

14

With regard to this point, Rousseau scoffed at the practice of fifteenth and sixteenth-century European discoverers to stake a claim to the places they reached by sounding declarations in ceremonies
held for this purpose. See J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, ch. 9.
Answering these normative questions is my main concern in this article. However, this should not
conceal the fact that national movements invoke claims of historical rights as mobilizing tools and
that their efficiency as such deserves a separate discussion. It should be noted that such claims usually sustain popular participation in national movements only to the extent that they are supported
by expectations of concrete gains or losses. Moreover, it also should be noted that claims to sovereignty over territories have more often been recognized not as a result of acknowledging their moral
justifiability, but rather because of victory in war or international treaties that support a particular
balance of power.
Thus, territorial sovereignty seems to be more than ownership. On the need to distinguish between
the two see L. Brilmayer, "Consent, Contract and Territory", 15.

83

It must be stressed that the existence of corrective/remedial rights in the realms of sovereignly and
property, though they are necessarily historical (for people have them by virtue of events with
which they are specifically connected), does not entail the existence of distributive/primary historical rights. John Simmons seems to believe otherwise. According to him, since our moral and legal
practices take historical rights of rectification very seriously, we need also take historical rights in
acquisition seriously (See J.A. Simmons, "Historical Rights and Fair Shares", 156). However, it
seems to me that this conclusion is misconceived. One may take rectification rights seriously, as legal and moral practices in fact do. Yet this does not entail that the primary rights themselves are
historical. It is possible for a person to have been the owner of a piece of property not necessarily
because he was the first to occupy it or because he had a formative tie with it, but because like everyone else, he is entitled to a piece of property for one reason or another. If one believes that X
ought to compensate Y for a piece of land of which he dispossessed him, one need not necessarily
believe that Y's original title to this piece was based necessarily on Y's first occupancy of it, or his
formative tie with it. On the relationship between distributive and corrective historical rights see
also note 35 below.

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Chaim Gans

torial sovereignty. In the third section, I shall discuss the possibility that historical rights
in their second conception - that of formative ties - could form such a basis. The first
conception (first occupancy) has been discussed extensively in the legal and philosophical literature dealing with the right to private property. Within this literature, first occupancy has been a dead horse for a long time. This issue should perhaps be invoked again
in the context of national disputes because it is frequently used by nationalists. In any
case, it might help clarify the role played by historical rights in national disputes when
they are conceived as rights to formative territories. In the next section, after rejecting
first occupancy as a basis for the very right to territorial sovereignty, I shall argue that it
can serve as a basis for the right to determine the site of sovereignty for purposes of acquisition, but not for purposes of restitution. In section 3 I shall argue that formative ties
could also not serve as a basis for the very right to sovereignty. However, formative ties
could serve as a basis for determining the site of national self-determination, sometimes
not only with regard to the original acquisition and preservation of that site, but also in
order to restitute physical ties with it.
2.
2.1

First Occupancy
First Occupancy as Grounds for Sovereignty

According to Raz, to have a right means to have an interest that justifies imposing a
duty or duties on others.16 If we accept this definition, then it follows that a nation's first
occupancy of a given territory justifies its sovereignty over it if it has interests in it (due
to the fact that it was its first occupant) that justify imposing the duties that correspond
to sovereignty rights on the whole world. It is clear that neither the interest that national
groups have in their own continuous survival, nor their interests in self-determination
(such as the interest in cultural preservation, or the interest in determining their own
destiny), necessarily require their sovereignty over the territories in which they were the
first occupants. With regard to the interest in continuous survival, national groups could
also survive without any sovereignty rights. This, in fact, has been the case for many
national groups. The survival of national groups certainly does not depend on gaining
sovereignty over the specific territories that they were first to occupy. As for the interests in self-determination, it is widely believed that the fulfillment of these interests
usually requires territorial sovereignty. I shall argue below that self-determination is,
indeed, typically connected with the specific territories that have acquired primacy in
the nation's history. However, it is not clear why self-determination has anything to do
with first occupancy in any specific territory. The interests which national groups have
in self-determination do not seem to derive from the fact that they were first to occupy a
given territory. Nor does it seem that the satisfaction of these interests depends on the
territories that they were first to occupy.

Historical Rights

may develop such expectations because they did not evict anyone from the territories in
which they were first occupants. However, most nations existing today, including those
who resort to historical rights, cannot seriously claim that they are first occupants in this
sense (except, perhaps, for some of the aboriginal peoples of North America, Australia
and New Zealand). At most they can claim that they are first relative to all other nations that exist today.19 They therefore expect that none of the latter should object to
their occupation for reasons related to a common past. However, could such expectations serve as a basis for sovereignty rights? It seems that the answer to this question
must be negative not only with regard to occupants whose occupancy is first relative to
all other nations that exist today, but also with regard to occupants whose primacy is
absolute. If absolute first occupants still occupy the territories in which they were the
first occupants, then they could at most assume that it is prima facie undesirable to push
them out of these territories by resorting to violent or fraudulent means. Those who are
first occupants only in the relative sense could assume, ex hypothesis, that no existing
nation could resort to grievances pertaining to a common past in order to justify evicting
them. However, this does not justify sovereignty rights, since sovereignty means a right
to govern the territory even if others are currently occupying it. The duties corresponding to this right involve the risk of losing sources of livelihood as well as the conditions necessary for freedom. It seems unlikely that the expectations of absolute first
occupants, and especially the expectations of those whose occupancy is first only relative to other existing nations, could be important enough to justify endangering such urgent interests. Rousseau stated this point clearly. "How can one man or a whole people
take possession of vast territories, thereby excluding the rest of the world from their enjoyment, save by an act of criminal usurpation, since, as the result of such an act, the
rest of humanity is deprived of the amenities for dwelling and subsistence which nature
has provided for their common enjoyment?"21
The above quote from Rousseau contains two points. One pertains to the intensity of
the sacrifice entailed by the duties corresponding to sovereignty rights. The other concerns the inequality resulting from the imposition of these duties. Rousseau deals with
the possibility of obtaining sovereignty by virtue of first occupancy, without specifying
the interest which is to be protected by granting sovereignty to first occupants. However, it seems safe to believe that his arguments and conclusion apply if the interest in
question is the first occupant's interest that his expectations be respected. People develop various sorts of expectations and might have an interest that their expectations be
18

19

If first occupancy plays any special role whatsoever, that is, if it constitutes a source
of any human interest, then this interest must in some way be related to the expectations
held by the first occupants with regard to the territories they occupied. David Hume was
of the opinion that first occupants of a territory would eventually develop expectations
to continue occupying this territory for a prolonged period.17 Perhaps first occupants
20
16
17

See J. Raz, The Morality of Freedom, ch. 7.


See Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, ch. 2, sect. 3. See also J. Bentham, "Principles of the Civil
Code"; J. Waldron, The Right to Private Property, 286.

85

21

It is likely that only some of these groups could claim absolute primacy in these territories. See W.
Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, 220. Ross Poole argues that the Australian aborigines have
lived there for 60,000 years. "In terms of any conceivable human experience of time, the Aborigines have been in Australia forever." (R. Poole, Nation and Identity, 129). See also M. Moore, 'The
Territorial Dimension of Self-determination", 143.
According to the Talmudic source cited in note 6 above, the Jews who presented their dispute with
the Canaanites to Alexander acknowledged the fact that they were not really the first occupants in
Canaan. To overcome this difficulty, they quoted the biblical curse according to which the Canaanites were doomed to be slaves. ("Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants shall he be unto his
brethren" (Genesis 9, 25)). They then argued that slaves could not own property. Again, this is
similar to the Spartan-Messenian case. The Spartans acknowledged the fact that they were not the
first occupants of Messene, but claimed sovereignty over it since they regarded its original occupants to be their slaves. This is explicitly stated by Archidamus quoted in note 2 above.
These points are similar to those cited by Waldron from Kant and others with regard first occupancy as a basis for the right to private property. See J. Waldron, The Right to Private Property,
267f.
J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, ch. 9.

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respected. However, whether these expectations could serve as a basis for rights depends on the price others would have to pay for respecting these rights. In our case it
seems quite obvious that first occupancy cannot serve as a basis for acquiring sovereignty.
Many of those who use the historical rights argument in the first occupancy sense
tend to speak of first occupancy without adding elements which play a central role in
what is held to be the best philosophical version of the original acquisition argument for
private property, namely, that proposed by John Locke. Locke insisted not merely on
first occupancy, but on first cultivation of what beforehand had been common property.
One might want to believe that the first occupancy argument for sovereignty could be
rescued if it were stated in terms of Locke's original acquisition argument for private
property. However, this would not save the argument. Rousseau's objections against
first occupancy regarding the magnitude of the burdens imposed by acknowledging first
occupancy as grounds for sovereignty, and the inequality entailed by such recognition
also apply to original acquisition by labor and cultivation.22
The purpose of the above arguments is to deny the possibility of granting sovereignty
to first occupants who still occupy the territories over which they claim sovereignty.
According to these arguments, first occupancy cannot be a basis for acquiring and preserving sovereignty within the framework of distributive justice. However, as noted
above, the national groups that usually resort to arguments based on historical rights are
national groups that lost their occupancy many generations ago and wish to restore it.
They do not demand the preservation of the status quo, but rather the restitution of a
previous state of affairs. If the wisdom inherent in Rousseau's dictum is sufficient for
denying sovereignty to first occupants who still occupy the territory in question, then, a
fortiori, it must be sufficient for denying sovereignty to first occupants who have lost
their occupancy. From this it does not follow that a possession fraudulently or violently
usurped in recent times need not be returned to its former possessor. However, what the
perpetrator could grant the victim is that the victim repossess the property. If the arguments which claim that first occupancy in a territory cannot justify sovereignty over it
in the first place are sound, then first occupancy cannot justify sovereignty merely because the occupant had been dispossessed and was later reinstated.

2.2

Grounds for Determining the Location of a People 's Self-determination

Thus, first occupancy cannot serve as grounds for territorial sovereignty. However, if a
general right of nations to territorial sovereignty could be justified by ahistorical considerations such as their interests in self-determination, should first occupancy serve as
the basis for resolving the issue of determining the site of this sovereignty? I would like
to argue that it could in principle serve as such a basis, since merely determining the
location of a given people's sovereignty does not involve imposing on others the type of
concessions that derive from the duties and liabilities corresponding to sovereignty
rights. Given the scarcity of resources and space in the world, grounding sovereignty
22

Jeremy Waldron has convincingly shown this in detail with regard to private property and with regard to all possible sorts of unilateral acquisition, not only with regard to first occupancy. He formulated Rousseau's arguments in terms of contractarian political morality. Waldron also has demonstrated how the standard method by which adherents of original acquisition theories of property
attempt to avoid the present criticism, namely, modifying it by a Lockian Proviso, is bound to fail.
See J. Waldron, The Right to Private Property, ch. 7.

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rights on first occupancy may, as shown above, endanger the livelihood and autonomy
of many people. However, no such danger is involved if first occupancy only serves as
grounds for determining the location of sovereignty. People will only have to pay the
price of being excluded from specific areas. These areas would not be any larger than
those from which they would in any case be excluded, if the territorial rights accompanying self-determination were justly distributed among national groups.
Furthermore, unlike the expectations of first occupants that they be granted sovereignty, their expectation that first occupancy should serve to determine the site where
their territorial rights are to be realized is justifiable. This is so since the issue of the site
for the realization of such rights, as opposed to, for example, the issue of the scope of
these territories, can only be resolved by methods of pure procedural justice such as
flipping a coin.23 There are no independent substantive criteria for determining this issue.24 Since chance is involved here, why not resort to historical chance, that is, to the
fact that certain peoples happened to occupy certain regions before others did? Why is
flipping a coin any better for that purpose than historical chance? In order to see that
this is indeed the situation, it is sufficient to imagine a kind of original position with a
Rawlsian veil of ignorance. What people know is that they belong to a certain people
and that this people is located in a certain territory. However, they don't know which
people they belong to and which territory it occupies. Would they opt for flipping a coin
or for staying put? The risk of moving to worse places due to flipping the coin is equal
to the risk of being in a bad spot due to staying put. Consequently, they are likely to
choose the latter. Moreover, the criterion of first occupancy provides the simplest, most
convenient and most economical procedure for solving the problem of determining the
site of the territorial sovereignty (or lesser territorial rights accompanying self-determination) of various peoples. Any other procedure would entail the relocation of peoples,
which would be costly and would involve extreme discomfort. The expectation of the
first occupants of a territory that their occupancy should serve as grounds for locating
their territorial rights are thus sound, and can serve as grounds for determining the site
of these rights.
All this, however, if it indeed proves to be correct, applies only when the first occupant is also the present occupant. First occupancy could serve as a basis for determining
the site of sovereignty for the purpose of acquiring and preserving it. If a certain people
was the first occupant of a given territory but lost its physical tie with it, then considerations of convenience and economy can no longer be invoked to justify the location of
this peoples' self-determination in that particular territory. To the contrary, these considerations now favor determining the territory in question as the site for the current occupants' self-determination. Of course, this is subject to the condition that the later occupant did not attain occupancy through morally objectionable means. If this occupancy
was attained through such means then, firstly, it would not be supported by one of the
reasons cited above as supporting the current occupancy as grounds for determining the
location of sovereignty, i.e.: historical coincidence as preferable to flipping a coin, for
the occupancy is not a result of a morally neutral coincidence. Secondly, there would be
reasons for not allowing the present occupant to enjoy the occupancy since it was attained through violence. However, if the later occupancies are not associated with such
moral wrongs, or if they are associated with ancient wrongs that are subject to prescrip-

23
24

On the concept of pure procedural justice see J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 86.
Such substantive criteria could, for example, be different peoples' taking turns in occupying given
territories. However, this of course is impractical.

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tion, then these later occupancies rather than the first occupancy are supported by the
reasons presented above as favoring first occupancy.
Hence, in cases of restoring a previous state of affairs, first occupancy does not only
fail to provide a basis for territorial sovereignty, but also fails to justify a more limited
potential right, namely, a right to determine the site of territorial sovereignty. This is
significant in view of the fact that historical rights are most often employed to demand
the restitution of old regimes, not the preservation of existing ones. As we shall see below, the alternative construal of historical rights as rights to formative territories may
constitute a better basis for the restitution of sites for sovereignty, a basis which may be
of practical significance in at least some cases.
3.
3.1

The Right to Formative Territories


Grounds for Territorial Sovereignty

Unlike the above interpretation of historical rights, if historical rights are interpreted as
rights to formative territories, it is not difficult to identify interests that these rights are
meant to protect. Attempts to identify such interests are far less unnatural than my
above efforts to extricate a particular interest that is to be protected by historical rights
in their first occupancy conception. If the events thought to have formed the historical
identity of a national group took place in specific territories, it seems likely that these
territories would be perceived by the members of that group as bearing deep and significant ties to their national identity. A natural analogy which would explain the ties between peoples and their formative territories is that of the ties between individuals and
their parents. Many languages have a term for the concept of "fatherland".25 This concept represents an abstraction of territories common in many cultures, and is consistent
with the above analogy.26 If we appeal to this analogy, then the claim that national
groups possess some important interests in their formative territories is in need of no
elaborate proof. Providing evidence for the existence of such an interest is much like
attempting to prove that the tie between children and their parents forms a source of
special interests. The existence of such interests would seem to be clear and self-evident, requiring no proof. However, while no evidence is necessary for the existence of
these interests, the normative implications that they entail do require some elaboration.
The interest in formative territories which the parental ties analogy represents is the
desire to be in close physical proximity to one's loved ones, that is, not to be separated
from them or to spend one's life in a state of pining. The crucial question is whether the
force of these interests renders them solid grounds for sovereignty rights, which, as
noted above, imply the power to subject the whole world to the right-holder's decisions
regarding the regulation of life within the territory over which he/she is the sovereign
and to his/her decisions regarding the use and enjoyment of this territory. In order to
25

26

See the quote from Archidamus in note 2, above. The notion of fatherland was common not only in
ancient European civilization (on this see, for example, M. Viroli, For Love of Country, 18), but
also in the pre-European American world. "In 1761," says Tully "the Chippewa leader Minivavana
enlightened the English trader Alexander Harvey at Michilimackinace in the following typical
manner: 'Englishman, although you have conquered the French, you have not yet conquered us. We
are not your slaves. These lakes, these woods and mountains, were left to us by our ancestors. They
are our inheritances: and we will part with them to none.' " (J. Tully, Strange Multiplicity, 119).
On this abstraction see A.D. Smith, "States and Homelands", 196f. See also A.D. Smith, National
Identity; L.K.D. Kristof, "The State-Idea, The National Idea and the Image of the Fatherland".

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89

answer this question I would like to return here to the example of Melina Mercury's
demand that the British restore the treasures of the Acropolis to Greece. A comparison
between this case and historical rights as grounds for territorial sovereignty may serve
to provide a comparative perspective. The interest that the British have in the prestige of
their museums would seem to constitute a rather weak rival to the historical interest that
the Greeks have in the treasures of the Acropolis. It would seem that the latter could
rather easily override the former. However, can the interest national groups have in their
formative territories also easily override its rivals, namely, people's interests in their
livelihood and freedom? The interest in formative territories is certainly a much more
serious candidate for overriding the interests in livelihood and freedom than the interests underlying first occupancy claims. This is so not only because it is a more real and
powerful interest, but also because acknowledging it as a basis for sovereignty does not
endanger the interests that others might have "in dwelling and subsistence" to the same
extent that acknowledging first occupancy does. The reason for this is that the process
in which formative relations are formed between a territory and a national group is a
relatively slow and long process whereas first occupancy can be acquired instantly. The
danger of the sort to which Rousseau was referring, namely, the danger of depriving
people of the "amenities for dwelling and subsistence", seems much less threatening
when one acknowledges formative links between nations and territories as a basis for
sovereignty, than when one recognizes first occupancy as such a basis. However, dangers smaller than other dangers could nevertheless be serious. Since national entities are
dynamic in their nature, since new ones are continually formed and old ones expand or
shrink, the danger under consideration is far from negligible. It therefore seems to me
that it is dangerous to acknowledge the interest national groups have in their formative
territories as a basis for territorial sovereignty. The last two centuries provide ample examples as to why this is so.
We must here discern various types of cases. The first type consists of national
groups whose sovereignty actually extends over their formative territories. However,
some of those territories are vacant and could serve the basic needs of some other community. The second type consists of national groups whose sovereignty actually extends
over their formative territories. Yet, some of these territories are actually inhabited by
another group and serve its members' basic needs. The third type includes groups
whose sovereignty actually extends over their formative territories, while the population
of some of those territories is not homogeneous in its nationality. Cases of national
groups who have no sovereignty whatsoever but have formative ties with vacant territories which are under the sovereignty of others form the fourth type. The fifth category
comprises national groups that have no sovereignty, but have formative ties with territories that are inhabited and ruled by others. Most of these are of course abstractions from
concrete examples, some of which I mentioned earlier. Should the Serbs hold on to their
sovereignty over Kosovo with which they claim to have formative ties, despite the fact
that its population is mostly Albanian? Should Transylvania be under Hungarian or
Romanian sovereignty? Should the fact that the native minorities of North America do
not enjoy sovereignty in any way determine whether their formative ties to territories
there could serve as a basis for sovereignty rights over some of these territories, at least
those which are vacant? Should the fact that the Jewish people did not enjoy sovereignty determine whether its formative ties to Eretz Yisrael could serve as a basis for
sovereignty rights in those territories, even if those territories were populated?
These cases demonstrate that, given the world's scarce territorial resources, the
question of the territorial sovereignty of particular national groups can hardly ever be

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determined only on the basis of their formative ties with certain territories. The first two
types of cases show that a formative tie can probably not be the basis for sovereignty
even from the point of view of distributive justice and for the purposes of acquiring
sovereignty and retaining it. The first case is of the type in which a group has sovereignty over its formative territories some of which are vacant. These vacant territories
are required in order to satisfy the basic needs of other populations which do not actually reside there. Recognizing a formative tie as the basis for sovereignty in cases like
this means, in the name of this tie, allowing one group to ignore the most urgent material interests of another group, namely, their interests in "amenities for dwelling and
subsistence." This is so because sovereignty over a territory includes the authority to
refuse any sort of use by other parties. (This does not, of course, entail the conclusion
that in every case in which one party's sovereignty allows it to ignore the basic needs of
another, the sovereignty of the former party is nullified. All that is claimed here is that
formative ties cannot be sufficient grounds in and of themselves for justifying the creation of such situations.) The second case is that of groups exercising sovereignty over
their formative territories, some of which are inhabited by other groups. To regard the
formative tie as a basis for sovereignty in such cases would in effect mean to deny the
interests of the other groups in self-government, since sovereignty over a territory also
includes political rule over its population. Some typical contenders for historical rights
in cases of the present type try to circumvent the fact that their position implies the denial of other peoples' rights to self-government, by expressing a willingness to grant
certain limited governance prerogatives to the populations of the territories over which
they continue to assert their dominance. The Serbs are currently being forced to make
such an offer to the Albanians of Kosovo. In the last decade, Israel has been under pressure to make such an offer to the Arabs living in the West Bank. (Israel still refuses to
grant the same rights to the Arabs living in East Jerusalem). We must bear in mind that
this sort of attempt at circumvention cannot succeed, because what is offered are limited
governance rights that would perpetuate the political inferiority of the populations in
question. It should be noted that it is not logically possible to offer more than such limited governance rights while simultaneously endorsing the position that the formative
ties form a sufficient basis for sovereignty rights. To offer the other group more in effect
means to offer it either sovereignty or joint sovereignty. In either case, the first group's
sovereignty or at least it's exclusive sovereignty is forfeited.
Cases where historical rights are used to justify demands to restore a prior state of affairs are, of course, more problematic, at least with regard to demands by national
groups to return and resume their sovereignty over currently inhabited territories as well
as their presence in these territories. There are three reasons why this is more problematic. The most significant of these reasons is the danger of uprooting the territory's present inhabitants and turning them into refugees. How substantial this danger may be depends, of course, on the density of the population of this territory, the size of the returning population, the relations that develop between them, the relative political and
military strength of these groups as well as other factors. Despite the fact that such dangers may not actually be realized, we may deduce from history that these dangers may
indeed be significant. The second reason for rejecting formative ties as grounds for restoring former sovereignties over populated territories is that doing so means denying
the rights of the current populations of these territories to self-government. I clarified
this point earlier when discussing the possibility of viewing historical rights as grounds
for acquiring and/or perpetuating sovereignties over territories populated by other national groups. The third argument against recognizing formative ties as grounds for re-

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storing old sovereignties over populated territories is that such recognition sometimes
entails ignoring the formative ties that the present inhabitants have with the territory. It
should be remembered that specific territories could play a formative role in the historical identity of more than one national group.27 Take for example the Maori and Pakeha
in Aotearoa/New Zealand, or the Jews and Palestinians in Eretz-Yisrael/Palestine. To
acknowledge only the formative role of Aotearoa in the Maori identity means to ignore
the formative role New Zealand plays in the Pakeha identity. To acknowledge only the
formative role that Eretz-Yisrael has in Jewish identity means to ignore the formative
role of Palestine, in the Palestinian identity.
Incidentally, it should be noted that this fact, namely, that specific territories do
sometimes play a formative role in the historical identity of more than one national
group, is the major disadvantage of historical rights arguments when understood under
the formative territories conception, compared to the first occupancy conception. Unlike
the latter conception, the formative territories conception of historical rights does not
imply that the right in question is necessarily an exclusive one. This point should be
emphasized as it reveals the elusive ambiguity of the notion of historical rights. If a territorial right is historical due to the primacy of the people in the history of the territory,
then this people is the exclusive possessor of this right. This is so because (notwithstanding the difficulties concerning the individuation of territories), it is unlikely that
more than one people was the first in the history of a given territory.28 Conversely, if the
right is historical due to the primacy of the territory in the history of the people, this
does not necessarily mean that the people in question is the exclusive possessor of such
a right. A single territory could obviously be primary in the history of more than one
people. In addition to the aforementioned examples of Palestine/Eretz-Yisrael for the
Palestinians and the Jews, and New-Zealand/Aotearoa for the Pakeha and Maori, one
might also cite Transylvania for Romanians and Hungarians, Sri Lanka for the Tamil
and Sinhalese, Kosovo for the Serbs and Albanians, as well as many other cases. All
this makes the ambiguity of the notion of historical rights a potential source for political
self-deception or malicious manipulation. Those who most frequently resort to historical
rights in order to claim sovereignty prefer (even if inadvertently) to oscillate between its
two meanings, thus enjoying the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they seek the
exclusivity attached to historical rights in the first occupancy conception. On the other
hand, they wish to take advantage of the considerable normative power of historical
rights when construed as rights to formative possessions. However, if historical rights
are first occupancy rights, then they do indeed belong exclusively to one group but they
are also, as shown earlier, normatively void for purposes of corrective justice and restitution. On the other hand, if historical rights are rights to formative possessions, then
they do have a ceitain normative weight but they are not necessarily exclusive. The
formative ties of the nation occupying the territory compete with the formative ties of
the nation demanding restitution. Allowing restitution would mean ignoring the ties of
the occupying nation.
Let me return to the main discussion. As I noted earlier, questions of territorial sovereignty must mainly be decided by considering interests more urgent than people's in27
28

See O. O'Neill, "Justice and Boundaries", 77.


The proviso concerning problems of individuating territories is important, for a people can claim to
be the first occupant of a territory which it conceives as one individuated territory, while another
people can claim to be first occupant on part of that territory, and regard this specific part as a separate territory. For example, the Sinhalese claim to be the first occupants of Sri Lanka, while the
Tamil claim to be the first occupants of the northern part of the island.

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terest in not being cut off from the territories from which their national groups originated. Such interests are, firstly, their interest in "amenities for dwelling and subsistence" and then their interest in self-government. Given the limited territorial resources
of the world, as well as its demographics, these interests do not allow much leeway for
people's interests in their formative territories to serve as grounds for sovereignty rights.
But does this imply that the fact that certain territories constitute formative territories
for a given nation is normatively meaningless? I will now try to answer this question
negatively. I will try to show that if considerations of self-determination can indeed
serve as justification for granting territorial rights to national groups, then historical
rights as rights to formative territories ought to play a role in determining the location
of these rights. This would pertain to the acquisition of such rights, the preservation of
such rights as well as, in some cases, for purposes of restitution.
3.2

Grounds for Determining the Site of Self-determination

The distinction between justifying territorial rights and determining their site was explained in my earlier discussion of historical rights as first occupancy rights. I shall adhere to the assumption I made there/namely, that peoples have territorial rights and that
these are derivatives of the right to national self-determination. This justification for territorial rights does not address the question of determining the location where these
rights should be realized. I would like to argue that if first occupancy can sometimes
serve as grounds for resolving the issue of location for purposes of acquiring territorial
rights, then, a fortiori, the formative links that a given people might have to a particular
territory could also serve as such grounds.
As noted above, the fact that a given group was the first to occupy a particular territory can serve as grounds for determining the location of this group's self-determination
in that territory. This is so because the burdens that this will impose on others do not
involve the type of sacrifices required by the duties corresponding to the actual right to
territorial sovereignty. Determining the site of sovereignties, does not necessarily entail
that sovereignty applies to all of the historical territories. Consequently, the burdens involved do not include the possibility that people may have to risk their interests in
"amenities for dwelling and subsistence". They only involve the risk that people will
have to abstain from realizing these interests in certain territories, that is, in the territories where others have attained realization of their own right to sovereignty. (However,
they will have to abstain not from areas any larger than those from which they would in
any case be excluded, if sovereignty rights are justly distributed among national
groups.)
If these sacrifices are considered acceptable in relation to first occupancy, then it is
all the more acceptable in relation to the interest of peoples and their members in their
formative territories. For peoples and nationally conscious individuals, the interest in
not being severed from their formative territories touches on emotions that are inextricably intertwined with their conception of their identities. The expectations and emotions that accompany this matter concern a much deeper human level than the expectations and emotions stirred in first occupants. As we have seen, the expectations of the
latter type, if indeed sound, are sound by virtue of considerations of objective rationality
which, from a personal point of view, are totally neutral. Just the opposite is true of the
emotions and expectations regarding the interest in formative possessions, these are
interests tied to some of the deepest layers of identity, both in their origin (the percep-

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tion of selfhood) and in the consequences which result from the deprivation of these
needs (feelings of alienation and longing).
Perhaps there is more to it than that. Given the centrality of historical territories in
the formation of national identities, there seems to be an inherent link between these
territories and the right to national self-determination. Unlike the case of first occupancy, the territories in question are not only suitable for determining the location of
this right. They are territories that are essential for determining this location.
This inherent link is implied in the considerations used by certain contemporary
writers to account for the distinction they make between rights to self-government and
polyethnic rights. According to these writers, self-government rights, which enable
members of a national group to live their lives as fully as possible within their national
culture, apply to national groups living in their homeland. 9 Moreover, multicultural or
polyethnic rights, according to which groups of common national origin may express
their original culture while mainly living their lives outside that culture, apply in cases
of national groups not living in their homeland. If living in the homeland may indeed be
considered a criterion for the distinction between the cases in which self-government
rights apply, and those in which polyethnic rights are warranted, then this presupposes
that historical territories under their present conception are essential for the realization
of self-determination. If living in the homeland were not a condition for exercising the
right to self-determination, why would it then be improper to grant self-government
rights in places where national groups have no formative ties, and to grant polyethnic
rights in places where they do have such ties? The claim that formative territories are
not merely suitable but also essential for the implementation of the right to self-determination also enjoys certain empirical support. History has shown that the chances for
successfully implementing this right in territories to which national groups have no
historical ties are very slim indeed. Experiments in this field are of course very rare. The
only one known to me is the case of the Jewish people. The attempts to realize its right
to self-determination outside its formative territories were failures; e.g., Britain's plan in
East Africa (the "Uganda Plan"), and Stalin's attempt to establish Jewish autonomy in
Birobidzhan. In contrast, the attempt to implement Jewish self-determination in territories to which Jews had historical connections did succeed.30
The force with which the interest in formative territories provides grounds for determining the location of self-determination is not its only advantage over the grounds that
first occupancy provides for this purpose. It has additional advantages. One of them is
that the formative tie is not dependent on whether the group demanding to realize its
sovereignty at that particular site was really the first occupant in this territory. As noted
earlier, most national groups cannot seriously make territorial claims on the basis of
historical rights if they mean to claim that they were first to appropriate and live in the
territories in question. As stressed above, most groups demanding territories in the name
of historical rights were first occupants only relative to other groups that exist today.
Their occupancy was usually acquired by means of crimes committed by them against
the previous occupants of the territories in question and by bringing about the physical
or at least cultural and political destruction of the latter. Thus, it is not clear why this
justifies sovereignty rights, or even rights to determine the location of sovereignty. The
interpretation of historical rights as based not on the primacy of given national groups in
the history of given territories but rather on the primacy of these territories in the histo29
30

See W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, mainly 26-31. Raz distinguishes between these two
sorts of rights without resorting to homelands (J. Raz, Ethics in the Public Domain, ch. 6 and 8).
See also A.D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation, 219f.

94

ries of the groups in question does not involve this moral entanglement. It is not dependent on the question of whether the group invoking historical rights was really the
first group to inhabit the territory, or on the means by which it became first relatively to
other groups that exist today.
However, the main advantage of historical rights as rights to formative territories is
that they are a serious candidate for determining the location of self-determination not
only for purposes of acquisition and perpetuating existing states of affairs, but also for
purposes of restoring former states of affairs. As explained earlier, first occupancy cannot do this. It can provide grounds for determining the location of self-determination
only for the purpose of acquiring this site within the framework of distributive justice.
Some of the reasons due to which first occupancy can serve as grounds for determining
the location of self-determination, that is, reasons of economy, convenience and simplicity, lose their force when the first occupant ceases to occupy the territory in question. In contrast, the interest in formative territories is not tainted by this disadvantage.
A national group's interest not to be cut off from its formative territories remains in
force regardless of whether or not the group and its members are currently occupying
these territories. This applies when members of the national group have sustained this
tie despite physical separation. In this sense the physical separation between members
of a national group and their formative territories is not dissimilar to the physical separation between people and their respective family members. Both constitute ties that can
continue to be a part of one's being and identity even when they are not physically
manifest. Hence, unlike the reasons supporting a national group's expectations as first
occupants, a national group's interest in occupying their formative territories, does not
necessarily disappear with the loss of the physical connection to these territories.
Nevertheless, does the fact that formative ties do not lose their force with the loss of
the physical connection constitute a sufficient reason for determining the location of national self-determination in cases where restoring former states of affairs is in question?
Or does it merely constitute support in favor of this solution? Given the geo-demographic conditions of the world and given its history, it is likely that the cases in which
national groups resort to their formative ties to territories as grounds for returning to
these territories, will be cases where all the relevant territories are inhabited by members of other national groups in a way which does not allow exclusive or even dominant
presence of the claimant group without placing at least some of the current residents of
these territories in danger of being uprooted. From the normative standpoint, groups that
aspire to have their sovereignty in sites located within their historical territories would
find themselves in a situation very similar to the position they would have been in if
they had resorted to their histories as grounds for their very right to sovereignty. They
would be placing the current residents of these territories in danger of being uprooted,
and in any case would be denying them of their right to self-rule. It must be noted that
these geo-demographic problems cast a shadow not only on the possibility that the historical tie would have some practical impact on determining the location of the right to
territorial sovereignty for purposes of restitution, but also require further qualification of
my earlier comments about the possibility of viewing formative ties as grounds for locating national sovereignty for the purpose of perpetuating the status quo. In cases in
which the historical territories of certain national groups cease to be solely or mainly
populated by these groups (following migration, or war, or population transfers), doubts
arise as to whether such territories can be subject to the territorial sovereignty of those
31

Historical Rights

Chaim Gans

See J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 17, note 13.

95

groups. In fact, it is because of problems of this type that I elsewhere rejected the statist
conception of the right to national self-determination and consequently the possibility
that this right could ever be a basis for the right of national groups to territorial sovereignty.32
However, it must be noted that rejecting this possibility does not entail denying any
normative value whatsoever to historical ties as formative ties. Such ties could still
serve as a basis for establishing the location of self-determination under sub-statist conceptions of this right, both for purposes of acquisition and for purposes of restitution.
Such self-determination does not involve sovereignty of the national group over the territory in which it exercises self-determination. It merely involves demographic and cultural presence that could be exclusive only if the historical territories of the group
include vacant territories.33 This would not be possible if no such vacant territories existed. Accordingly, the formative ties of the Jewish people to Eretz-Yisrael could have
justified its choice of that particular place in order to realize its national self-determination. However, since Eretz-Yisrael was not a vacant territory, not even at the inception
of Zionism, the Jews were not justified in interpreting their right to self-determination
there as a right to statist and territorial sovereignty. The ordinary justifications of the
right to self-determination certainly could not justify the right of the Jewish people to
statist and territorial sovereignty. As noted above, the historical rights of a given nation
to a given territory, when understood as referring to the primacy of the territory in the
history of that nation, are not always the exclusive rights of the claimant nation. The
case of the Jewish people and Eretz-Yisrael is a paradigmatic case of this sort. As noted
above, the territory in question is Palestine for the Palestinians. In my view, the only
way in which the Jewish people could have exercised its right to self-determination in
Eretz-Yisrael/Palestine is under a sub-statist conception of self-determination, which
allows both Jews and Palestinians to realize their self-determination there.34
If what I said in relation to the Jewish example is correct, then historical rights as
rights to formative territories are valid for purposes of restitution regardless of whether
the national group that presently occupies the territory is the group that dispossessed the
group demanding restitution. If nations have an equal right to sub-statist self-determination, and if it is correct that such a right is essentially linked with the concept of
homeland, then the question of whether the nation which presently occupies the territory
is the nation which caused the dispossession of the claimant nation does not make much
difference in terms of the applicability of this right. The restoration of the group to its
homeland thus seems to be a realization of a type of justice which is partly corrective
and partly distributive. It is corrective because it revolves around restoring previous
states of affairs, and it is distributive because the party which is required to make the
concession is required to do so not because it wronged the other party, but because the
32
33
34

C. Gans, The Limits of Nationalism, ch. 3.


On the sub-statist conception of self-determination see C. Gans, The Limits of Nationalism, ch. 3.
This must be qualified with one reservation. During the 1930s and 1940s in Europe, the Jews' need
for political independence was not only a consequence of the usual interests justifying self-determination. For many of them, this need was also motivated by the most basic human interests, namely,
those in life, in bodily integrity, in self-respect, and in "amenities for dwelling and subsistence".
These interests were violated in the most brutal manner. In this particular period it seems to have
been justifiable or at least excusable for the Jewish people to try to achieve independent statehood.
Its formative historical connection with Eretz Yisrael was good reason for this attempt to be located
there rather than elsewhere. However, this could not justify all the means which were used by the
Jewish community in Palestine for this purpose. It certainly cannot justify Israel's current attempts
at territorial expansion in the name of Jewish historical rights.

96

Chaim Gans

Historical Rights

97

present distribution of the right to self-determination among national groups demands


this concession.
If historical rights as rights to formative territories have practical significance in
cases where the current occupants of the territories have not wronged those demanding
to return to the territory in question, then historical rights are certainly of practical significance if a wrong has been committed. There may be doubts concerning the right of
the Jewish people to realize its self-determination in Palestine because the Palestinians
did not originally wrong them. However, such doubts could not apply to the right of the
aboriginal peoples of North America, Australia and New Zealand to restore their selfdetermination in territories from which they were dispossessed by the European settler
nations. The latter are the ones who dispossessed the former from these territories. Even
if the first occupancy and the formative tie of the aboriginal peoples did not justify the
realization of their self-determination in all the territories which they in fact occupied
and from which they were dispossessed by the settler nations, they surely justified their
self-determination in some of these territories proportional to their size (and perhaps
also their lifestyles) at different times. If, as a result of the dispossession, the aboriginal
nations lost their physical ties with lands in which their self-determination should have
been realized, the dispossessing nations must return some of these territories to their
possession, either for their exclusive presence, or for their joint presence (demographic
and cultural).35 They need not return all these territories, firstly because it is not certain
that they all should have been under the aboriginal peoples' self-determination at the
time of dispossession, and mainly because in the centuries that have passed since the
original dispossession, the settler nations have themselves forged formative ties with
some of these territories. Moreover, members of the dispossessing nations have their
lives established there.36 The questions of what proportion of these territories ought to
be restored to the native nations' possession, in what proportion of these territories
should the groups reside side by side, and what proportion of these territories should be
allocated to each group separately, are matters to be resolved by complex calculations
which cannot be very accurate.37 My main concern here was firstly, to distinguish historical rights as rights to formative territories from historical rights as rights of first occupancy or original acquisition. Secondly, I attempted to show that historical rights as
rights to formative territories are valid not only within the context of distributive justice
and for purposes acquiring and preserving certain territorial rights, but also for purposes
of restitution. The purpose of all the above was mainly to emphasize the concept of the
homeland in the context of national self-determination.38 Recent judicial decisions made

in Australia and Canada are compatible with this approach that stresses the notion of
homeland. In view of this emphasis on this notion, the aboriginal peoples are entitled to
demographic and cultural presence in certain territories because of the identity relationship that they have with these territories.39 At least in some of these territories, they
have to live with the settler nations because the latter also have identity relations and
material needs which justify this.40
In sum, what I have salvaged of the historical rights argument is much less than what
most proponents of historical rights could wish. The proponents of historical rights vacillate between their national groups' precedence in the histories of the territories over
which they claim sovereignty, and the primacy of these territories in the histories of
their national groups. They use historical rights as justification for the very right of sovereignty, and in general as grounds for claims to territorial expansion. I rejected the possibility that claims to historical rights in these two senses could serve as grounds for the
very right to sovereignty. If my arguments on this matter have been persuasive, then
historical rights cannot be grounds for the claims of national groups who enjoy self-determination and sovereignty to expand their sovereignty to additional territories. Among
all the claims to a historical right, I have tried to salvage a consideration for determining
the location of peoples' territorial rights. If used for the purpose of perpetuating an existing state of affairs, both the right of first occupancy and the right to formative territories could serve as grounds for determining the location of the territorial rights of national groups. If used for the purpose of restoring the status quo ante, it is only the right
to formative territories that may be used as a consideration for determining the location
groups' territorial rights. This consideration determines the location of such rights if
they follow from the right to self-determination.

35
36
37

39

38

On the possibility of participatory presence see also M. Langton, "Estate of Mind", 73.
See, e.g., P. Haveman, Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Australia, Canada & New Zealand, 4.
These calculations must be based on principles of distributive and corrective justice. With regard to
distributive justice, the present size of the groups, their lifestyles, and how deeply they identify with
different parts of the territories in question must be considered. With regard to corrective justice,
the damages suffered by the dispossessed group from the time of the dispossession must be considered. On the other hand, the fact that the present members and institutions of the dispossessing
group are not personally responsible for the dispossession must be considered. However, it must be
noted that the wrongs committed by their ancestors form a part of their collective identity. They
might therefore feel responsible for the rectification of these wrongs. Each of these points requires a
detailed and complex discussion that is beyond the scope of the present study. On this matter see J.
Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice"; J.A. Simmons, "Historical Rights and Fair Shares"; G.
Sher, Approximate Justice, ch. 1; D. Lyons, "The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land".
On the importance of homelands in national identities and for national self-determination see also
D. Miller, "Secession and the Principle of Nationality", 68; M. Moore, The Ethics of Nationalism,
167,176,191.

40

On the importance of traditional lands for the identities of aboriginal peoples see J. Borrows,
"'Landed' Citizenship"; J. Tully, An Approach to Political Philosophy, 153f; R. Poole, Nation and
Identity, 131.
R.H. Bartlett, "Native Title in Australia", 417f, emphasizes the historical and traditional identity
links of the Australian aborigines to their lands as the central reason for the change that the Mabo
no. 2 case (Mabo v. Queensland (no. 2) (1992) 175 CLR1) brought about with regard to their title in
their traditional lands. He emphasized the centrality of their lands in their identities, and not their
primacy in these lands relative to the European settlers, as the reason for acknowledging their title.
Other writers (such as J. Webber, "Beyond Regret", 72ff) emphasize the constitutional significance
of the Mabo no. 2 case and similar recent decisions (Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) 153
DLR (4th) 193 (SCC)). They argue that these decisions do not only pertain to property law but also
to the constitutional issues of self-determination. Self-determination is linked with the formative
role that the traditional lands have in the identities of the aboriginal nations. The present writers
also emphasize that for these reasons the settler nations must share sovereignty with the native nations.
See also R. Poole, Nation and Identity, 138.

98

Chaim Gans

Bibliography
Bartlett, R.H., "Native Title in Australia. Denial, Recognition, and Dispossession", Indigenous Peoples', Rights in Australia, Canada & New Zealand, ed. P. Haveman,
Oxford University Press, 1999.
Bentham, J., "Principles of the Civil Code", The Theory of Legislation, ed. C.K. Ogden,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931.
Borrows, J., "'Landed' Citizenship. Narratives of Aboriginal Political Participation",
Citizenship in Diverse Societies, ed. W. Kymlicka and W. Norman, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Brilmayer, L., "Consent, Contract and Territory", Minnesota Law Review 74 (1989).
Dray, W.H., Philosophy of History, 2nd edition, Prentice Hall, 1993.
Gans, C , The Limits of Nationalism, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Hart, H.L.A., "Are There Any Natural Rights?", Theories of Rights, ed. J. Waldron, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Haveman, P., Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Australia, Canada & New Zealand, Oxford
University Press, 1999.
Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford University Press, 1973.
Ivison, D., P. Patton and W. Sanders (eds.), Political Theory and the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Kristof, L.K.D., "The State-Idea, The National Idea and the Image of the Fatherland",
Orbis II (1961).
Kymlicka, W., Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Clarendon Press, 1995.
Langton, M., "Estate of Mind. The Growing Cooperation between Indigenous and
Mainstream Managers of Northern Australian Landscapes and the Challenge for
Educators and Researchers", Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Australia, Canada &
New Zealand, ed. Haveman, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Lyons, D., "The New Indian Claims and Original Rights to Land", Reading Nozick. Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia, ed. J. Paul, Basil Blackwell, 1982.
Masaryk, T.G., The Making of a State, George Allen and Unwin, 1927.
Mehr, F., A Colonial Legacy. The Dispute over the Islands of Abu Musa, and the
Greater and Lesser Tumbs, University Press of America, 1997.
Miller, D., "Secession and the Principle of Nationality", National Self-determination
and Secession, ed. M. Moore, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Moore, M., "The Territorial Dimension of Self-determination", National Self-determination and Secession, ed. M. Moore, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Moore, M., The Ethics of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Nozick, R., Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basil Blackwell, 1974.
O'Neill, O., "Justice and Boundaries", Political Restructuring in Europe. Ethical Perspectives, ed. C. Brown, Routledge, 1994.
Poole, R., Nation and Identity, Routledge, 1999.
Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1973.
Raz, J., The Morality of Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Raz, J., Ethics in the Public Domain. Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics, revised edition, Clarendon Press, 1994.
Rousseau, J.J., The Social Contract, book I.
Sharp, A., Justice and the Maori. The Philosophy and Practice of Maori Claims in New
Zealand since the 1970s, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997.

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Sher, G., Approximate Justice. Studies in Non-ideal Theory, Rowman & Littlefield,
1997.
Simmons, J.A., "Historical Rights and Fair Shares", Law and Philosophy 14 (1995).
Smith, A.D., "States and Homelands. The Social and Geopolitical Implications of National Territory", Millennium 10 (1981).
Smith, A.D., National Identity, Penguin, 1991.
Smith, A.D., Myths and Memories of the Nation, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Stoicescu, N., The Continuity of the Romanian People, Editura Stiintifica si Enciclopedica, 1983.
Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, 1973.
Tully, J., An Approach to Political Philosophy. Locke in Contexts, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Tully, J., Strange Multiplicity. Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity, Cambridge
University Press, 1995.
Viroli, M., For Love of Country. An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Waldron, J., The Right to Private Property, Clarendon Press, 1988.
Waldron, J., "Superseding Historic Injustice", Ethics 103 (1992).
Webber, J., "Beyond Regret. Mabo's Implications for Australian Constitutionalism",
Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ed. D. Ivison, P. Patton and
W. Sanders, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

101
Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices1

Janna Thompson

Contents
1.

Historical Titles

102

2.

Theories of Collective Responsibility

103

3.

Posterity-binding Commitments

107

4.

Respect for Nations

110

5.

Advantages of the Theory

112

When the Prime Minister of my country (Australia) is asked to make an official apology
for the injustices inflicted on Aborigines in the last two centuries of colonization, he
customaiily replies that present generations of citizens should not be expected to take
responsibility for the deeds of past generations.2 He is expressing an attitude to demands
for reparation for historical injustice that many people are inclined to share. If it is unjust to punish people for crimes committed by others, then why isn't it equally unjust to
demand an apology or reparation from those who had no role in committing the
wrongs? Even if we allow that the debts of parents can sometimes be visited on their
children this does not explain why all citizens of a certain category - for example all
non-Aboriginal Australians - should apologize or make reparation. Many citizens of a
nation are likely to deny that they possess an inherited debt - either on the grounds that
they or their ancestors were recent immigrants to the country or because their ancestors
had no role in committing the wrong.3
This chapter defends the view that historical obligations and entitlements exist. A
historical obligation is a moral responsibility incurred by individuals as citizens, owners
or executives of corporations, or members of some other inter-generational association
or community, as the result of the commitments or actions of their predecessors. Those
to whom this obligation is owed have a historical entitlement. The relationship between
past actions and present responsibilities or entitlements is established by a moral argument. 'We ought to keep the treaty made by our national predecessors because treaties
Some parts of the argument of this paper were presented in "Historical Obligations", and a detailed
account of my theory is presented in Taking Responsibility for the Past.
John Howard, Speech to the Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne, Australia, 26 May, 1997.
Howard has repeated the same opinion on many occasions. Other politicians and commentators
have expressed similar views. Committing on demands that the US government make an official
apology for slavery, C. Paglia, writes that 'an apology can be extended only by persons who committed the original offence1 ("Who is Really to Blame for the Historical Scar of Black Slavery?",
353).
Paglia (ibid., 353) adds that her grandparents were born in Italy and had nothing to do with the African slave trade.

102 Janna Thompson

ought to be honored.' 'We ought to make recompense for the dispossession of indigenous people because this was unjust, and injustice require reparation'. The past is a
source of obligation or right not merely because of the effect of past deeds on present
conditions. Historical obligations and entitlements are duties or rights defined by past
happenings - by the fact that a treaty was signed or an unjust deed done.
Historical obligations belong to the more general category of 'past-referring obligations' which include the duty to keep promises and honor contracts, to pay debts and
make compensation for wrongs done, and to punish only the guilty. Past referring obligations are historical when those who are supposed to be responsible for keeping the
promise, honoring the contract, paying the debt or making reparation are not the ones
who made the promise or did the deeds but their descendants or successors. In many
cases those to whom historical obligations are owed are not the victims themselves but
their descendants or successors. These successors are claiming a historical entitlement.
A historical injustice, as I will understand it, is a wrong done either to or by (or both to
and by) past people. I will focus on claims for reparation for historical injustices which,
like many of those done to indigenous people, occurred before most people now living
were born or came to maturity. And I will be concerned in this paper only with wrongs
done by and to 'nations' - understood in this paper to be politically organized inter-generational communities (but not merely nation-states).
1. Historical Titles
In most philosophical discussions the existence of historical entitlements and obligations is predicated on the existence of 'historical titles' - that is, on historically acquired
rights of property or possession that are passed on to people of succeeding generations.
If someone takes possession of a good that was before unowned, says Robert Nozick,
then he or she has thereby acquired a right of possession. If she chooses to give or sell it
to someone else then by this act she transfers the entitlement to the recipient. If a person's right of possession is violated then she has a right to 'rectification' - to be returned, so far as this is possible, to the situation that would have existed if the injustice
had not been done.4 A historical entitlement to rectification exists, according to this account, if and only if someone's historical title has been unjustly violated. This person, or
her descendants or successors, has a right to get back what was taken, or an equivalent
in compensation. The existence of her entitlement is a sufficient reason for requiring
illegitimate possessors to give it back. There is no need to establish guilt or the complicity of ancestors. According to this account, historical obligations depend wholly on
the existence of a historical entitlement.
Whether historical titles exist at all is a controversial issue. Whether they persist long
enough to justify reparative claims made by community members long after the injustice has occurred is even more doubtful.5 Even if titles persist in some form, changed
circumstances are likely to make it unjustifiable for heirs to demand back all of what
their ancestors once possessed.6 Most discussions of Nozick's view of rectification have
4
5

R. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 150-3.


J. Waldron presents some objections to the theory of historical title in Right to Private Property, ch.
6. D. Lyons, 'The New Indian Land Claims and Original Rights to Land", argues that the claim of
Indians to the land of their ancestors cannot be derived from an original title. Waldron,
"Superseding Historical Injustice", argues that the right of the dispossessed to land they or their
ancestors possessed is superseded in the course of time.
A.J. Simmons, who defends the theory of historical title, nevertheless argues that those making

Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

103

concentrated on the issues of whether historical titles exist or persist. However, the assumption that historical obligations amount to the rectification of property rights also
needs to be questioned.
Unjust acts, Bernard Boxill insists, do not merely violate rights to possession. They
are demonstrations of disrespect, and he thinks that reparation requires 'an acknowledgment on the part of the transgressor that what he is doing is required of him because
of his prior error', as well as the return, where possible, of whatever was unjustly taken. Those who think it appropriate to demand or give an apology for historical injustice subscribe to this view of reparation. The belief that an act of contrition is necessary
seems particularly appropriate when those wronged suffered not merely or mainly from
loss of a possession, but from evils of another kind - violations of political independence, destruction of cultural life or other injustices that involve what Boxill identifies as
a lack of respect. Such wrongs are beyond the scope of a theory of historical title.8
Moreover, acknowledgment of wrong done plays no role in rectification, as Nozick understands it. But those who agree with Boxill - those who demand or think that they
ought to give an apology for historical injustices - are faced with the problem of explaining why present people can apologize, or in some other way show contrition, for
acts done by others.
There is another respect in which a theory of reparation which predicates obligation
on the existence of a title is counter-intuitive. According to this theory, those now in
possession of property that belongs to someone else have an obligation of return. For
example, those who now have their homes or businesses on land illegitimately taken
from Indian tribes ought to give it back. The question is not merely whether the tribe
really has a better claim than guiltless people who have come to depend on the land for
the livelihood. Even if we do think that the land should be given back, it seems unfair
that those now in possession should be forced to shoulder the whole burden of reparation. But if we insist that the government should compensate those who have to give up
property to satisfy the claims of indigenous people then we are tacitly accepting the idea
that present citizens are collectively responsible for reparation - and this requires justification of another kind.
These considerations suggest that a theory of reparation cannot concentrate merely
on the question of whether a historical title exists. Responsibility for acts of reparation,
it seems, is a collective responsibility shared by all citizens or citizens of a certain category. The problem is explaining how this responsibility can exist.
2.

Theories of Collective Responsibility

Nations, tribes, and similar political entities endure through time and down the generations. They can pursue long term policies and make promises that are supposed to be
binding on future citizens, and for this reason are often treated as if they were individuclaims may be entitled only to part of what their ancestors lost. See "Historical Rights and Fair
Shares".
B. Boxill, 'The Morality of Reparation", 118.
When Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of post war Germany, offered to pay reparation to Israel
for the persecution, slaughter and dispossession of Jews, neither he nor anyone else supposed that
any payment could compensate for the harm done. The crimes were beyond rectification. Nevertheless, he believed that an act showing that Germans acknowledged the seriousness of past wrongs
was morally (as well as politically) required. For an account see E. Barkan, The Guilt of Nations,
ch. 1.

104 Janna Thompson

als. So long as we think of them in this way it seems no more difficult to explain why
citizens have historical obligations and entitlements than it is to explain why ordinary
individuals have duties in respect to their past actions or can be owed debts by others.
Indeed, most people accept that they have a responsibility for keeping treaties made by
past governments of their nation. If this burden is a legitimate one, then why should
they not also accept the burden of reparation for past misdeeds of their nation? The
problem is that nations are not really individuals, and it is a fundamental issue of justice
how the benefits and burdens that result from their actions and policies should be distributed among their members. Those who deny that they have historical obligations for
reparation believe that it is unfair to burden them with reparative responsibilities. Even
treaties raise the issue of responsibility. What gives a government the right to bind citizens of the future to an agreement that they have had no say in making? Why should the
democratic will of a people be limited by agreements of their predecessors? A theory of
historical obligation has to answer these question as well as answering the objections of
those who refuse to accept the burden of making reparation for their nation's historical
wrongs.
An acceptance of historical obligations does not seem to follow simply from the recognition that nations are intergenerational. But if we turn to what philosophers have said
about collective responsibility the case seems no better. Standard accounts of why
members bear moral responsibility for activities of their group reinforce the idea that
there is no obligation without participation. These theories have the objective of determining whether and to what extent individuals are responsible for the deeds of their
leaders or other members of their group - whether, for example, ordinary citizens bear
some responsibility for the involvement of their country in an unjust war. Almost all of
them agree that it would be unjust to hold individuals liable for actions which they had
no possibility of influencing. Joel Feinberg, for example, lists 'opportunity for control'
as one of the necessary conditions for liability for an action or practice of a group.9 'Individuals are responsible for and creditable with only those negativities and positivities
that they themselves engender through their own suitably deliberate actions,' says
Nicholas Rescher.10 His conception of responsibility might be criticized for being too
narrow. Let us agree with the widely accepted view that citizens of a democracy - even
ones who don't vote or pay attention to politics - bear some responsibility for the
wrongs done by officials of their state. They could have been more informed and politically active; they could have spoken out against injustice. But even this wider conception of responsibility does not provide a justification for historical obligations. Present
people had no way of influencing the acts of past generations - no way of objecting to
agreements they made or injustices that they did.
If moral responsibility depends on liability, and liability on control or participation,
then historical obligations do not exist. However, defenders of historical obligation often have in mind a different idea of how members of nations acquire responsibilities.
The wealth of nations, in many cases, has been built on past injustices. Non-indigenous
Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Canadians are now benefiting from injustices done to indigenous communities - from the consequences of broken treaties, from land that was seized and settled.
9
10

J. Feinberg, "Collective Responsibility", 687. He briefly discusses, but seems to dismiss, a way in
which individuals might have responsibility without control (687f)N. Rescher, "Collective Responsibility", 52. Rescher does not allow for omissions - cases where
individuals are culpable because of their failure to act. But cases of negligence could be
incorporated into the definition without interfering with its essential point.

Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

105

If the Aborigines had not lost their land, and had maintained their traditional relationship
with the land on which their well-being depended, then white Australian society could not
have developed in the way it has, whites would not enjoy the high levels of well-being
they enjoy, Aborigines would not have suffered significant losses in self-esteem, and nor
would they have been so culturally devastated. '
The beneficiaries of this injustice, the authors go on to say, have a duty to repair the
injuries suffered by the victims.
There are two ways of understanding this argument.12 According to the first, those
who have gained through social interactions of the past should share their benefits with
those who have suffered loss. The fact that the losses suffered by indigenous people are
the result of injustice plays no essential role in the argument so understood. Beneficiaries would have just as strong a reason for sharing if their gains, and the losses of others,
had been the result of economic contingencies for which no one could have been blamed. What this interpretation of the argument calls for, in other words, is compensation
for disadvantage - not reparation. Compensation of this kind is required by many theories of equity - and so the common belief that beneficiaries of past injustices owe something to people who have been harmed is probably best accounted for in this way.
The second interpretation insists that the beneficiaries of historical injustices are the
receivers of stolen goods. They have been unjustly enriched. Justice demands the return
of these goods to their rightful owners, or at least appropriate compensation. However,
this interpretation is predicated on the existence of historical titles and raises all of the
questions and difficulties associated with this notion. And it does not give us what we
need - an idea of collective responsibility that makes the existence of collective historical obligations plausible.
Standard philosophical ideas about collective responsibility are individualistic - they
concentrate on the contributions of individuals and often dole out responsibilities in
proportion to contribution. This approach seems to ignore an important psychological
fact. People sometimes do feel guilt or shame for injustices committed by members of
their group, or are made uncomfortable by the knowledge that they are benefiting from
past injustice. Many citizens are sorry about the wrongdoing of their predecessors and
are prepared for this reason to shoulder the burden of reparation. An account of collective responsibility that takes these responses seriously and tries to explain them seems a
more promising direction to take in the search for a justification of historical obligations.
Alasdair Maclntyre thinks that the explanation for such responses comes from the
fact that we are bearers of a particular social identity.
I am someone's son or daughter, someone else's cousin or uncle ... I belong to this clan,
that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits
these roles. As such I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a
variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the
given of my life, my moral starting point.
The self, he says, has a history that stretches back before her birth. And he contrasts
this 'narrative view of the self with the viewpoint of modem individualism which detaches the self from all social relationships and denies that a person can be held respon-

11
12

J. Bigelow, R. Pargetter, and R. Young, "Land, Well-Being and Compensation", 335.


Most discussions, it seems to me, run together the two interpretations. Bigelow, Pargetter, and
Young do so in "Land, Well-being and Compensation".

106 Janna Thompson

sible for 'what his father did or from what his country does or has done'.1 The modern
individualist is likely to deny historical obligations, but those with a narrative view of
themselves cannot.
Maclntyre makes a person's special obligations depend on the nature of his or her
self. But not all selves are narrative selves, and those that are will tell many different
stories. Maclntyre himself thinks that individualist selves are becoming more common
in the modern (or post-modern) world, but these are the people most likely to deny that
they have communal or historical obligations. Even those who do regard themselves as
attached in an essential way to others are likely to have different ideas about the relations that form their identity. Some people regard their family as central to their lives
but have little interest in their nation. The immigrant may continue to derive his selfidentity from the land of his ancestors and have no sense of responsibility for the inheritance of his new nation. Nor does acceptance of responsibility necessarily follow
from identification. A person can locate herself within a history and identify with a
group without thinking that she is obliged to do anything about the commitments or injustices of past people. And there is no necessary connection between feeling shame or
regret for the sins of predecessors and taking responsibility for reparation. Maclntyre's
narrative view of the self can account for why some people are prepared to take responsibility for the past of their community, but it is not able to establish that all members of
nations or states have historical obligations for the deeds of their predecessors.
The possibility remains that we acquire commitments and obligations, including obligations in respect to the past, through participation in communal activities. Margaret
Gilbert thinks that a joint commitment comes into existence when people participate in
joint activities or signal their readiness to participate. Having shown through their actions that they have entered a commitment, they constitute with others a plural subject
and acquire responsibilities for fulfilling its intentions.14 Most of Gilbert's examples of
joint commitment focus on personal relations. By using conventional gestures or words
to signal that I accept an invitation to dance I thereby commit myself to forming a couple for that purpose. But she thinks that we also acquire joint commitments as members
of more enduring plural subjects like nations or states. We signal our readiness by participating in public events, voting in elections, or even by our use of language - by the
use of 'we', as in 'We are engaged in a war against terror'.
Once individuals have committed themselves to being part of such a plural subject
they acquire responsibility for its deeds. Having this responsibility does not depend on
participation, and lack of culpability is no reason for denying obligation. Since a nation
or state is an ongoing, inter-generational plural subject, joint commitment means sharing responsibility for its past. Gilbert wants to explain why people sometimes feel guilty
for what their nation has done even when they bear no responsibility as individuals. But
her position also implies that people who don't feel guilt may nevertheless have obligations, including historical obligations, as citizens.
AJ. Simmons objects that there is a large gap between personal relations that give
rise to legitimate expectations and the relations of individuals in a large, impersonal society.15 By signaling a willingness to dance you clearly commit yourself to becoming
part of a dance floor couple. It is not so plausible to suppose that members of a political
society through their actions or by their acceptance of certain ways of speaking incur
13
14
15

A. Maclntyre, After Virtue, 220.


M. Gilbert, "On Feeling Guilt for What One's Group Has Done". See also her "Group Wrongs and
Guilt Feelings".
A.J. Simmons, "Associative Political Obligations", 258.

Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

107

obligations as participants in a plural subject. His objection seems right. In face to face
relationships people can make it clear to each other what commitments they have made
and what each is entitled to expect, especially if they are following well understood
conventions. The mere fact that people participate in public events or use 'we' when
speaking of their nation is not enough to establish that they are participants in a joint
commitment. Even if these activities did indicate commitment they would not tell us
what responsibilities people have accepted or exactly whom they are committed to.
They may be signaling a commitment to the people of their nation, but not a readiness
to fulfill the intentions of leaders, still less to take responsibility for what leaders or officials did in the past. As far as commitment is concern, the use of 'we' is ambiguous and
its implications are unclear.
Are there actions that do signal this commitment? Expressing pride in the past deeds
of the nation may be one. 'Can one accept the benediction and reject the curse? Can one
accept the legacy and avoid the duty of paying its debts?'16 But this point, though it may
be correct, does not get us very far. We have returned to the problems associated with
Maclntyre's conception of the narrative self. Having responsibility is made to depend
on a response that many people belonging to a nation - recent immigrants, for example
- may not share. And worse, it is not a response that requires any particular action.
Those who experience it may think that the very act of feeling sorrow, guilt or remorse
is sufficient, and that reparation is not required.
This discussion of views about collective responsibility does not exhaust the field.
Nor am I likely to have proved to everyone's satisfaction that Maclntyre, Gilbert, and
others are wrong. Nevertheless, the difficulties encountered by both individualist and
'collectivist' ideas of collective responsibility indicate that there is good reason for
looking for another approach.
3. Posterity-binding Commitments
I will begin my presentation of this alternative account by explaining why presently existing citizens or members of nations are obliged to keep the treaties of their predecessors. Understanding why this historical obligation exists will put us in a better position
to understand why citizens have an obligation to make reparations for historical violations of agreements and other wrongs committed against nations.
All arguments begin with assumptions. I will take it for granted that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties rightly regards a treaty as having the legal and moral
force of a promise or contact.17 A promise is supposed to entitle those to whom it is
made to trust that it will be kept. Violation of a treaty, like the violation of a promise, is
the breaking of a trust - which counts as an injustice even if the recipient of the promise
does not suffer loss. The obligation to keep a promise is a duty all things being equal,
and a complete account of promise or treaty making would have to define the circumstances which can make commitments void or inapplicable (as the Vienna Convention
does in its codification of international conventions concerning treaties). But in the absence of these circumstances it is assumed that states and nations ought to honor their
agreements.18
16
17
18

J. Jedlicki, "Heritage and Collective Responsibility", 55.


Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
Treaty violations are common occurrences in the affairs of nations. But this does not detract from
their moral force. Indeed the very existence of a treaty system depends upon the prevalence, at least

108 Janna Thompson

I will also assume that citizens of democratic nations, or nations that provide their
members with means of controlling the behavior of leaders or governments, are collectively responsible for the policies and political actions of their representatives and officials. This includes a collective responsibility for keeping agreements that their representatives make. The issue is how these citizens can have an obligation to honor agreements that were made not by their representatives but by leaders and officials of the
past. I do not assume any particular account of why citizens have collective responsibilities. Collectivist accounts of collective responsibility, as we have seen, do not relieve
us of the task of justifying historical obligations. But the standard, weaker account will
suffice.
By their nature treaties are 'posterity-binding': they are meant to impose obligations
on our political successors as well as ourselves. To be perpetually valid, or even valid
for a reasonable period of time, a treaty has to bind citizens of the future. Those with
whom it is made are being given an entitlement to trust that this will be so. This means
that if we endorse such an agreement then we must suppose that our successors have an
obligation to keep it - at least so long as it can be regarded as applicable and fair. The
problem is not merely that our control over what future people will do is limited. The
primary issue is moral. What gives us the moral entitlement to perform an act that imposes obligations on future people? And why should these future people regard themselves as bound by our agreements?
Suppose that through our elected representatives we are making a posterity-binding
treaty with another community. Let us assume that everyone concerned is sincere and
morally responsible. We intend to keep the agreement and have the capacity to do so.
But our sincerity and situation are not sufficient to give us the right to make an undertaking on behalf of our successors. Having a moral entitlement to make such a posteritybinding commitment, I suggest, depends on this act taking place within the framework
of a moral practice that requires us to take responsibility for fulfilling posterity-binding
commitments of our political predecessors.
That this is so follows from a basic assumption about morality - that 'like cases
ought to be treated alike': that making an authoritative moral judgment about what another should do means accepting a moral practice that requires (among other things) that
you accept that the same judgment would apply to anyone who is in a relevantly similar
situation - including to yourself.19 Moral prescriptions associated with treaty making are
different in one respect from more familiar judgments about what we ought to do. The
people on whom we are imposing duties are our successors, and not just our contemporaries. This means that 'treating like cases alike' commits us to accepting similar obligations in cases where we are the successors.
Why not say that the possibility of making a posterity-binding commitment requires
only that we take steps to ensure that our successors will carry it out? We could make a
law designed to force them to do this, or even enshrine the treaty in the constitution of
our political society. (Making treaties into law is in fact a standard practice in many
countries.) We could indoctrinate our children to honor our commitments. The problem
with these suggestions is not merely that they might fail. The issue is not the effectiveness of the means we might use to induce our successors to do what we want. What

19

as a guiding idea, of what the Convention calls 'good faith'. 'Every treaty in force is binding upon
the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith' (Article 26 of the Vienna Convention
on the Law of Treaties).
R.M. Hare, in Freedom and Reason argues for the centrality of this rule to moral reasoning and
discusses its application.

Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

109

needs to be explained is how we can presume an entitlement to impose a moral obligation on our successors. What gives us the authority to say that they ought to honor our
agreements. The answer is that our moral authority is predicated on our accepting the
duty to honor agreements of our predecessors. Having this commitment, it should be
noted, is not dependent on our actually making posterity-binding agreements. It follows
simply from a belief that if we were to make such an agreement then our successors
ought to keep it.
This explanation of why we have a historical obligation to honor treaties made by
our predecessors may seem like an unnecessarily complicated way of defending what
almost everyone concedes: that nations ought to keep their promises. The complexity is
justified by special problems raised by historical obligations and the fact that other ways
of dealing with these problems do not seem adequate. My account does not presuppose
an identification of citizens with the history of their nation. But nevertheless it obliges
them to see themselves as participants in inter-generational relations in which each generation inherits obligations from its predecessors and passes on obligations to its successors.
I have been assuming, however, that we are morally responsible citizens, that we intend to keep the agreements our representatives have made and think that our successors
ought to keep them. But suppose that we intend to deceive. We have no intention of
keeping our agreement and no desire to bind our successors. Does this mean that
through duplicity we avoid incurring an obligation to honor the commitments of our
predecessors? The issue raised by this question is particularly relevant to our actual
situation. For we have good reason to believe that in many cases our predecessors did
not intend to honor their treaties - particularly those made with indigenous nations. In
other cases the motivations of our predecessors are unknown and now probably unknowable.
People do not escape incurring obligations by promising insincerely. There is no
question that our predecessors committed injustices if they made promises they did not
intend to keep. The more difficult issue is whether we have an obligation to fulfill their
insincere promises. The answer depends on how we interpret the 'treat like cases alike'
requirement: whether it requires us to fulfill the intentions of our predecessors or to
keep their promises. How we interpret this rule depends in turn on what we, as morally
responsible citizens, think that our successors should do. The answer seems clear. We
think they ought to honor our agreements not because this is what we intend them to do
- not out of regard for our desires or other psychological states - but because we think
our agreements should be honored. In other words, we are assigning them an obligation
to honor our commitments, not a duty to fulfill our intentions. And so the appropriate
and relevant description of our obligation in respect to the agreements of our predecessors is to fulfill their promises. Their intentions, good or bad, are not relevant - at least
not to the determination of what it means to treat like cases alike. What is morally important is not the state of mind of those who made a commitment, but the fact that it was
made.
This way of reasoning about our historical obligations has the obvious advantage of
relieving us of problems associated with the intentions of past people. It does not require us to respect or fulfill their intentions. It does not require that we know what their
intentions were. Moreover, it puts us in a good position to deal with another problem
concerning intentions. A question that often arises when dealing with agreements from
the past is how we should interpret their terms or determine their validity. Should we
interpret and apply them according to the intentions of those who made them (so far as

110 Janna Thompson

we know what they were)? But to do so may require us to act in a way we think to be
unjust - either because the terms of the treaty were meant to favor the interests of the
powerful, because circumstances have changed, or because our predecessors' conception of justice was different from ours. Or should we interpret and apply the agreement,
so far as we can, according to contemporary ideas of justice?
My account of why we have an obligation to keep the agreements of our predecessors favors the second idea of how agreements should be interpreted and applied. We
think our successors ought to keep our commitments not simply because these commitments were made but because we regard the terms as fair and honorable. But we know
that circumstances change and that our ideas about what is fair are not above criticism.
The duty we assign to our predecessors is to be fair - to interpret and apply our agreement in a just way according to the circumstances. We have the same obligation in respect to the agreements of our predecessors - whether we believe that they were trying
to be fair or not.
By accepting the moral practice of making posterity-binding commitments citizens
are also accepting the obligation of making reparation for violations of commitments. If
people fail to honor an agreement without a legitimate excuse then they owe to those
whose trust has been violated some form of recompense (if only an apology). If you
were to make a commitment but deny that you have any reparative obligations for failing to fulfill what you promised, you would not merely be acting in bad faith. You
would be undermining your entitlement to make the commitment. Deceitful people acknowledge their responsibilities but fail to fulfill them. They are acting in bad faith. But
refusing to recognize that a reparative obligation exists does not merely make agents
immoral. It removes them from the practice of commitment making altogether. When
commitments are posterity-binding, the practice associated with them requires that all
the duties they entail be accepted by the successors of people who made them.
Intergenerational commitments create intergenerational obligations. The practice of
making these commitments thus requires our successors to make recompense for violations - including our violations - of our posterity-binding commitments should they occur. And we have a corresponding obligation to make reparation for the violations of
our predecessors. This reasoning does not explain what this duty involves, but it explains why it exists.

4. Respect for Nations


What if citizens choose not to engage in, or approve of, the practice of making
intergenerational commitments? Radical democrats or extreme individualists might consistently refuse. They might argue that no one should be burdened with the responsibility for the acts of past people - neither themselves nor their successors. A defense of
historical obligations is not complete without an explanation of why there should be
such commitments in the first place. Answering this question is not only a necessary
step in an argument for the existence of historical obligations. It is also vital in some of
the debates concerning injustices done to indigenous nations. British and Australian
governments systematically refused to make treaties with Aboriginal communities in
Australia. Appealing to the fiction of 'terra nullius' - the idea that the country was empty of people and available for settlement - governments appropriated the land and opened it to pastoralists, farmers and prospectors. Aborigines were pushed out of territory
that their people had occupied for thousands of years, and when they resisted they were

Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

111

punished. None of these actions violated a treaty, but they clearly count as injustices and
a theory that accounts for the existence of historical obligations has to encompass them.
A theory of historical obligations must also encompass injustices to communities that
are not directly associated with treaty making - for example, destruction of culture and
subversion of political independence. However, the first step in providing such an account is to explain why commitment making is sometimes obligatory.
The practice of treaty making presupposes that the parties regard each other as worthy of respect: if they respect each other then they will also accept that their relations
ought to be governed by commitments that all can agree are just. This is the conclusion
of an Eighteenth Century British royal commission that issued the following proclamation on the legal position of the Indian nations of the New World.
The Indians, though living among the king's subjects in these countries, are a separate
and distinct people from them, they are treated as such, they have a policy of their own,
they make peace and war with any nation of Indians, when they think fit, without control
from the English ...
So that from thence I draw this consequence, that a matter of property in lands in dispute
between the Indians as a distinct people and the English subjects, cannot be determined
by the law of our land, but by a law equal to both parties, which is the law of nature and
nations; and upon this foundation, as 1 take it, these commissions have most properly issued.20
The Commission concluded that relations between settlers and Indians had to be
governed by 'a law equal to both parties'. Since the British in the New World could not
help but interact with Indian nations, to encroach on their lands, 'the law of nature and
nations' required them to reach such understandings and to abide by the agreements
they made. Waldron in reaches a similar conclusion, starting from a consideration of the
obligations imposed on communities by proximity.21
The Commissioners picked out as conditions for respect the characteristics that make
it possible for an inter-generational political societies - what I call nations - to make
and keep their contracts, to determine and pursue an objective, and to be trustworthy
nations in a world of nations. Most contemporary theorists think that there is a further
condition that nations must fulfill in order to be worthy of respect. Michael Walzer in
explaining why aggression is the crime of international society insists that the moral
standing of a state rests on the consent of its members. '"Contract" is a metaphor for the
process of association and mutuality, the ongoing character of which the state claims to
protect against external encroachment.'22 What counts as consent of the governed is a
matter for debate, but Walzer thinks that the condition is likely to be satisfied by most
states. In fact, it was also likely to have been satisfied by the Indian nations referred to
by the Royal Commission.
Let us assume the following. A nation has a moral standing and is thus worthy of respect if and only if it is capable of acting as an agent (which even 'dependent nations'
are able to do within limited spheres) and its authority rests in some sense on the consent of the governed. The moral standing of nations explains why it is wrong of one nation to invade another, undermine its institutions, and why relationships between them
ought to be based on mutually acceptable understandings - whether these take the form
of treaties or less formal or tacit agreements. It explains why members of nations cannot
20
21
22

R. Costo and J. Henry, Indian Treaties, 6.


J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", sects. 1-3.
M. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 54.

112 Janna Thompson

eschew the practice of agreement making so long as their nation has relations with other
nations. Since nations are intergenerational communities these agreements, or at least
the commitment to maintaining a particular relationship with another nation which enables fair agreements to be made is also intergenerational. Morally responsible members
of nations will demand that their successors maintain this relationship. As in the case of
formal promises, this posterity-directed demand brings with it an intergenerational obligation to make recompense for past failures to establish or maintain a relationship of
respect.
Why can't we simply insist that our predecessors will have a general duty of respect
- the same as we do - but not one that requires either them or us to make reparation for
the injustices of predecessors? The position I am taking supposes that relations that result from a particular history of interactions give us (and therefore our national successors) special obligations to particular others. In many cases this history results in understandings or even formal agreements that require us to treat a particular agent in a way
that we are not required to treat others. But even where our obligations demand no more
from us than would be required anyway by a duty of respect, the fact that they arise
from a particular understanding gives them a special force. These are the obligations
that we pass on to our successors and which in turn require us to accept an obligation to
maintain relations of respect or to make reparation for the failure of ourselves or our
predecessors to maintain them.
The obligation of respect involves more than making treaties when this is required by
circumstances or mutual concerns. It requires us to respect the political and communal
integrity and independence of those nations we interact with (unless they fail to satisfy
the prerequisites of respect). Just as we have an obligation to make reparation to a nation for the failure of our predecessors to keep their commitments to it, so too we have
an obligation to make reparation for other forms of disrespectful behavior. This obligation is the consequence of a belief - which all morally responsible citizens should
hold - that our successors have an obligation to maintain respectful relations with those
communities they interact with and repair any acts of disrespect that they, or we, have
committed.
5. Advantages of the Theory
The argument I have presented for the existence of historical obligation and entitlement
moves from forward to backward looking considerations. It insists that we have an obligation to keep commitments of the past and to make reparation for past injustices, but it
derives the motivation for this practice from our desire as morally responsible citizens
to establish and maintain, now and into the future, respectful relations with the nations
we interact with. My account has some obvious advantages. It does not rest content with
the insistence that citizens have historical obligations simply because they are citizens.
It reveals the moral mechanisms behind treaty keeping and related 'duties of state' and
thus provides an explanation for why responsible citizens should accept the sacrifices
that these duties entail. My account does not require us to think that we have a duty to
the dead or a duty to fulfill the intentions of our predecessors. It thus avoids the problems associated with the intentions of past people and the difficulty of believing that we
can harm or benefit the dead. It does not require that people feel guilt or shame for what
their political predecessors did - though it does not claim that such feelings are irrational. It does not make responsibility depend on ancestry. To have a historical obliga-

Collective Responsibility for Historical Injustices

113

tion it is not necessary that you be a descendant of someone who made or violated an
agreement. Bloodlines are as irrelevant to historical obligations of citizens as they are to
other duties of citizenship. You assume the responsibility when you become a citizen however that occurs. Recent immigrants may not be inclined to feel guilt or shame for
such misdeeds - people are probably more likely to feel shame or guilt for the deeds of
those they count as their ancestors. But this has nothing to do with their responsibilities
as citizens. My theory thus makes it possible to understand how repairing historical injustice can be the collective responsibility of members of a nation.
The account I have given makes a less obvious, but equally important, contribution
to discussions about justice in a political society. It brings to prominence something that
is ignored or marginalised in most theories of justice: the moral relationship between the
generations. Maintaining a political society capable of acting justly in a world of nations
depends on a moral practice that requires each generation of citizens to take responsibility for keeping the commitments of its predecessors and repairing their injustices.
Most citizens acknowledge the obligation to keep the agreements of their predecessors
(unless these agreements have been made void by changing circumstances or were the
result of force or fraud). My account not only explains why this obligation exists. It
shows that the reasons for their accepting this duty are also reasons for accepting the
obligation to make reparation for their nation's historical wrongs.
A justification of historical obligations which emphasizes ongoing relations between
communities also provides an alternative to theories of reparation which focus solely on
title. Whether present citizens have a historical obligation depends on the history of a
relationship between their nation and another community - what commitments were
made, what wrongs were done, and what past people have done to right these wrongs and not simply on whether a historical title exists. Wrongs requiring reparation include
all actions that can be regarded as acts of disrespect - and not merely unjust dispossession. The theory thus explains why it seems appropriate to offer an apology or some
other kind of acknowledgment of past wrongs. And it explains why all citizens, or citizens of a certain category, can be required to make sacrifices for the sake of righting a
wrong.
My account of historical obligations does not exclude the acceptance of a theory of
historical title. We could continue to insist, as Boxill does, that return of possessions is a
requirement of reparation. Nevertheless, a theory that emphasizes the establishment or
maintenance of respectful relations between nations encourages a different approach to
reparative justice - one that can be called 'reconciliatory'. Rather than supposing that
the point of reparative justice is to return victims to the situation they were in before the
injustice was done, those who take a reconciliatory approach to reparation aim at re-establishing just and respectful relations with those they have wronged by coming to
terms with the past - by performing actions that their victims can regard as an appropriate response to the wrong done. A reconciliatory approach can make sense of acts that
many people think are central to reparation: acknowledgment or apology for past
wrongs, and also for acts of reparation in cases where there is no question of being able
to undo the injustice. It can take into account not merely the original injustice - but the
whole history of a relationship, including more recent and contemporary injustices. And
it can also avoid the difficulties associated with historical titles. Reparation as reconciliation can explain why it might be appropriate, say, to make reparation to an indigenous community by giving it some of the land it once possessed without having to suppose that the community ever had a indisputable title or that their title has persisted

114 Janna Thompson

through time and change.23 Such an act might be justified as be the most appropriate
way of compensating for a history of injustice and making it possible for communities
to establish relations that all can regard as just. A reconciliatory approach can also allow
that the return of possessions is not necessarily the best way of making it possible for
nations to establish just and respectful relations in circumstances as they now exist.
A theory which concentrates on the entitlements and responsibilities of nations as
politically organized communities has another advantage. It implies that no group can
demand reparation for injustices done by a nation that no longer exists or make a claim
on behalf of a non-existent political community. No one can be expected to pay reparation for the crimes of the Roman Empire. Nor can a group of people claim reparation
just because they have a cultural, religious or linguistic connection to a nation that was
once unjustly treated but has vanished from the face of the earth. This result supports
the intuitively plausible belief that claims based on ancient injustices are not likely to be
valid. More controversially, my theory gives no support to Serbia's claim to Kosovo
and could not have been used to support the Zionist claim to Palestinian territory. The
Palestinians had no obligation of reparation and the Zionists had no basis for a reparative claim.
On the other hand, my account seems to give no support to reparative demands that
many people do find plausible. For example, it does not support the demands of black
Americans for reparation for the slavery of their ancestors. African Americans do not
constitute a nation, as I have used that term. Unlike many indigenous people, they are
not members of a semi-independent, politically organized intergenerational community,
and thus a theory which demands respect for nations and reparation for wrongs done to
nations does not apply to them. The fact that they belong to a group that has been historically oppressed is not sufficient to support a reparative claim (as Sher argues in his
ch.).24 This result might be regarded as a vindication of the position of those who think
that we should concentrate on repairing present injustices to individuals. However, the
theory I have been presenting motivates another way of regarding the issue. A nation is
an intergenerational society in which members have responsibilities in respect to future
and past generations. The former is acknowledged in theories of justice which insist that
members of a society ought to be concerned about the well being of their descendants.25
If we think that we can make demands on our successors for the sake of future members
of our family lines then perhaps it can be argued that we have a duty to make reparation
for injustices committed against family lines in the history of our society - in particular,
those injustices which continue to have an impact on the present. Slavery, an institution
perpetuated by enslaving the offspring of slaves, seems to be an obvious example of an
injustice against family lines. The suggestion is that a theory of historical obligation
which takes a wider view of intergenerational obligations may be able to justify some
reparative claims made by descendants of victims of injustice. Whether this suggestion
is reasonable would require much more discussion. But it is worth pointing out that a
theory which focuses on moral relations between generations rather than relations

23

24
25

The fact is that most actual titles are the result of conquest and other illicit acts. Nozick recognises
this and suggests that for the time being we should forget about historical title and distribute resources according to the requirements of equity (Anarchy, State and Utopia, 231).
G. Sher, "Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights", esp. sects. 4f.
For example, in A Theory of Justice, J. Rawls argues for obligations to future generations by assuming that those in the original position are representatives of family lines - i.e. people who can
be expected to care about the well being of their children and grandchildren.

Collective Responsibility

for Historical

Injustices

115

between people and property could have important implications for many debates about
reparation and historical injustice.26

Bibliography
Barkan, E., The Guilt of Nations. Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices,
W.W. Norton, 2000.
Bigelow, J., R. Pargetter, and R. Young, "Land, Well-Being and Compensation", Australian Journal of Philosophy 68 (1990).
Boxill, B., 'The Morality of Reparation", Social Theory and Practice 2 (1972).
Costo, R., and J. Henry, Indian Treaties. Two Centuries of Dishonor, The Indian Historical Press, 1977.
Feinberg, J., "Collective Responsibility", Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968).
Gilbert, M., "On Feeling Guilt for What One's Group Has Done", Living Together. Rationality, Sociality, and Obligation, Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
Gilbert, M., "Group Wrongs and Guilt Feelings", Journal of Ethics 1 (1997).
Hare, R.M., Freedom and Reason, Oxford University Press, 1963.
Jedlicki, J., "Heritage and Collective Responsibility", The Political Responsibility of
Intellectuals, ed. I. Maclean, A. Montefiore, P. Winch, Cambridge University Press,
1990.
Lyons, D., 'The New Indian Land Claims and Original Rights to Land", Social Theory
and Practice 4 (1911).
Maclntyre, A., After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Edition, Duckworth, 1981.
Nozick, R., Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974.
Paglia, C , "Who is Really to Blame for the Historical Scar of Black Slavery?", When
Sorry Isn't Enough, ed. R.L. Brooks, New York University Press, 1999.
Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971.
Rescher, N., "Collective Responsibility", Journal of Social Philosophy 29 (1998).
Sher, G., "Ancient Wrongs and Modem Rights", this volume.
Simmons, A.J., "Historical Rights and Fair Shares", Law and Philosophy 14 (1995).
Simmons, A.J., "Associative Political Obligations", Ethics 106 (1996).
Thompson, J., "Historical Obligations", Australian Journal of Philosophy 78 (2000).
Thompson, J., "Historical Injustice and Reparation. Justifying the Claims of Descendants", Ethics 112 (2001).
Thompson, J., Taking Responsibility for the Past. Reparation and Historical Injustice,
Polity, 2002.
Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Basic Documents in International Law, ed.
I. Brownlie, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Waldron, J., Right to Private Property, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Waldron, J., "Superseding Historical Injustice", Ethics 103 (1992).
Walzer, M., Just and Unjust Wars. A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations,
Penguin, 1977.

26

I argue for this position in "Historical Injustice and Reparation", and also in part 2 of Taking
Responsibility for the Past.

117
Historical Wrongs. The Two Other Domains1

Thomas W. Pogge

Contents
1.

Introduction

117

2.

Can the Holistic Effects of Past Wrongs Affect Present Moral Reasons for
Action?

117

2.1 Can Past Wrongs Strengthen Present Moral Reasons to Refrain from, or to
Prevent, Like Wrongs?

118

2.2 Can Past Wrongs Weaken Present Moral Reasons to Refrain from, or to
Prevent, Like Wrongs?

119

3.

Can the Rule-Shaping Effects of Past Wrongs Affect Present Moral


Reasons for Action?

124

3.1 Procedural Injustice in the Creation of Present Legal Rules

124

3.2 Unjust Background Conditions in the Evolution of Present Institutional


Arrangements

128

4.

133

Conclusion

1. Introduction
Central to the topic of historical injustice, as I understand it, is the question whether and
how past injustice and, more generally, wrongs can affect present moral reasons for action.
We can distinguish three subquestions, which emerge from appreciating that the possible moral effects of past wrongs can be organized into three main - mutually exclusive
but perhaps not jointly exhaustive - domains:
(1) the distributive effects of past wrongs: One or more individual or collective
agents - "the perpetrators" - acted wrongly at to, effecting a continuing change in the
distribution of status or assets at ti. It may follow that some agents at ti have moral
reason to alter this distribution of status or assets at tj, presumably with an eye to
mitigating the distributive effects that the wrongdoing at to will have had from ti on.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Einstein Forum, Potsdam, and to the Jurisprudence Discussion Group, Oxford. I thank both audiences, and especially David Heyd, Lukas Meyer,
and Samantha Besson, for their comments and criticisms, which inspired numerous clarifications
and modifications.

118 Thomas W. Pogge


(2) the holistic effects of past wrongs: One or more individual or collective agents
acted wrongly at to. It may follow that some agents at ti have more, or less, moral reason
to see to it that they and others will not commit similar wrongs from ti on.
(3) the rule-shaping effects of past wrongs: One or more individual or collective
agents acted wrongly at to, effecting a continuing change in the social rules (in the laws
and practices of a country, perhaps, or in the global economic order) prevailing at t|. It
may follow that some agents at ti have moral reason to revise these social rules prevailing at t|, presumably with an eye to mitigating the effects that the wrongdoing at to will
have had on what rules prevail from ti on.
Most attention within the burgeoning historical-justice literature has been devoted to
discussing the distributive effects of past wrongs. I therefore leave this topic largely to
one side, concentrating on the other two instead.
2.

Can the Holistic Effects of Past Wrongs Affect Present Moral Reasons for Action ?

This second subquestion goes in two opposite directions, as historical wrongs may
strengthen or weaken present moral reasons to refrain from, or to prevent, like wrongs
now and in the future.
2.1

Can Past Wrongs Strengthen Present Moral Reasons to Refrain from, or to


Prevent, Like Wrongs?

A strengthening of moral reasons may be indicated when people say, emphatically, that
some specific wrong must never be repeated. This has been said, for instance, about the
German holocaust and also about military dictatorships in Latin America ("nunca ms").
Such statements would be relevant to our second topic, if they expressed the thought
that we have more moral reason to prevent another holocaust now or in the future than
similarly placed people had to prevent the German holocaust.
But this thought is quite implausible for at least two reasons. It is implausible
because it suggests that the moral importance of preventing some particular wrong can
be affected by the mere fact that it comes before, rather than after, another wrong, that a
second holocaust somehow has a greater impact on the overall moral quality of human
history than the first. (This need not include the even more implausible thought that it is
somehow less urgent to protect those in danger of becoming early victims of some kind
of wrongdoing than those in danger of becoming victims of such wrongs later on.) It is
implausible also because we cannot read off from a particular wrongdoing token which
description of it fixes the type of wrong we now have more reason to refrain from or to
prevent: Is it the mass killing of Jews, genocide, any mass killing, the persecution of
Jews, the persecuting of any ethnic group, or what?
A second, somewhat more plausible interpretation of the nunca-ms sentiment holds
that we have more moral reason to refrain from, and to prevent, a wrong when its victims would be persons who had been victimized by like wrongdoing in the past. This
view might be supported by considerations of overall fairness: Other things being equal,
it is worse for one person to be victimized twice over than for two persons to be victimized once each.
While this rationale seems to have some force, it may assign excessive significance
to the quality of prior harms suffered. Yes, other things equal we may have more moral

Historical Wrongs

119

reason to prevent an assault on a person who has been assaulted before; but do we then
not also, other things equal, have more moral reason to prevent an assault on a person
who had experienced a painful kidney operation, a car accident, or the death of a
spouse? And likewise for the converse: Other things equal, perhaps we have, with
respect to persons who were assaulted in the past, more moral reason to prevent their
being assaulted again; but do we then not also, other things equal, have more moral
reason to protect such former assaultees from other harms (such as a painful operation,
an accident, or the death of a spouse)? If this is so, then the nunca-ms sentiment, on
this interpretation, dissolves into a much more general thought: We have more moral
reason to ward off harms from persons who are already worse off through no fault of
their own. This bland thought - though it is not what the "nunca ms" slogan seeks to
articulate - captures one way in which past wrongs could arguably affect present reasons
for action.
There is yet a third interpretation of the nunca-ms sentiment, which I find the most
plausible by far. On this interpretation, "nunca ms" means that, in working against injustice and wrongdoing, we should make good use of available historical knowledge and
understanding. With the experience of the holocaust in our past, we are better able to
focus our vigilance and to prepare for effective resistance against evil than were moral
persons 70 years ago.
On this interpretation, historical wrongs do affect our present moral reasons for action: As compared with people who lived earlier, we have more moral reason to be alert
and prepared in certain specific ways. Yet, historical wrongs do not affect our ultimate
moral reasons; they only affect what our ultimate moral reasons are reasons to do concretely.
2.2

Can Past Wrongs Weaken Present Moral Reasons to Refrain from, or to Prevent,
Like Wrongs?

Let us now consider the inverse case: historical wrongs potentially weakening moral reasons to refrain from, and to prevent, like wrongs now and in the future. A paradigm example of this is customary international law, as conventionally understood. States are
thought to have a moral (and, controversially, a legal) obligation to comply with
customary international law. But whether some particular rule is part of customary
international law or not depends on the historical incidence of compliance with this rule:
The more frequently and severely this rule has been violated in the past, the less moral
reason states now have to comply with it, or so it is thought.
The rationale behind this principle is not that actual state conduct is the best available
indicator of right and wrong - an idea that is too ridiculous to be put forward even by
states. The rationale is better captured, I think, by the label "sucker exemption," which I
have used elsewhere: Agents have less moral reason to honor valid moral constraints
when doing so would or could lead to their being "made a sucker" by non-compliers.2
And so states, in particular, have less moral reason to comply with valid moral constraints when other, competing states have not complied.
I have found that most people endorse this idea, and that their endorsement is motivated by a commitment to fairness - a notion that is central to Anglophone moral
E.g., World Poverty and Human Rights, 127.

120

Thomas W. Pogge

thought and, as we see here, also somewhat corrosive of it. The notion of fairness centrally involves the thought that agents, especially when they are competing over outcomes or resources, should have equal opportunities on a level playing field. This
thought is taken to imply that it would be unfair for some to be hampered by moral constraints while others are not. Such unfairness supports the idea that one cannot be morally required to be a sucker, that is, someone who loses out on account of self-imposed
moral constraints that others cheerfully ignore.
We can analyze the appeal of the sucker exemption into an essential backward-looking and an essentially forward-looking component. Let me illustrate these, once more
with the example of state conduct. According to the essentially backward-looking version, states have less moral reason to deny themselves a wrongful gain when other, perhaps competing states have enjoyed or are still now enjoying the fruits of analogous
wrongful gains. This version appears in the argument the Athenians put to the Melians.3
And it also comes up in present debates between developing and developed countries,
with the former asking: "Why should we have to hamper our economic development
through environmental and labor standards, given that you had allowed yourselves to
grow more rapidly without them?"4 And: "Why should we have to fight the international
trade in addictive drugs now when such trade is bad for the developed Western states,
given that these same Western states had fought quite brutally for free trade in addictive
drugs when such trade was good for them?"5
According to the essentially forward-looking version, states have less moral reason to
deny themselves a wrongful gain when they have grounds for believing that competing
states are disposed to help themselves to analogous wrongful gains. This version of the
argument is frequently adduced by realists and might be used to justify breaches of international law and treaties by reference to the well-grounded expectation that other states
are disposed to violate such legal constraints when doing so promises significant gains.
It is morally regrettable that other states are so disposed, but, in a world of such states,
we do not have strong moral reason to honor ideal moral rules when doing so would
expose us to being taken advantage of by others.
It is obviously important to keep the backward-looking and forward-looking versions
distinct, because the latter is, while the former is not, vulnerable to the retort that a powerful state has a significant opportunity to moralize the international order with the result
of changing the prevalent disposition of states so as to reduce or even eradicate the fear
that compliance with international rules would be taken advantage of by other states.

According to Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 5, the Athenian negotiators
said to the Melians: "you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question
between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
There may well be an admixture of the forward-looking appeal in the Athenian position as
Thucydides recounts it.
The moral force of this question is obviously much better accommodated if the rich countries
shoulder or at least share the cost of the poor countries' fulfilling these standards than if the poor
countries likewise fail to fulfill them. One reason for this will be explored below: By disregarding
environmental and labor standards now, the developing countries would be harming innocent third
parties rather than prior non-compliers.
This is an allusion to the so-called opium wars prosecuted by Great Britain and other Western
powers against China in the middle of the 19th century. The first invasion was initiated in 1839
when Chinese authorities in Canton (Guangzhou) confiscated and burned opium brought in by
foreign traders (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/heroin/opiwarl .htm).

Historical Wrongs

121

Focusing here on historical injustice, let us put this latter, forward-looking version of
the sucker exemption aside. We can then, within the backward-looking version, make
two distinctions that seem relevant to deciding to what extent and in what contexts appeals to this sucker exemption are plausible.
Typically, the rationale for moral constraints involves protecting basic interests of
persons from adverse conduct by other agents. Thus, violations of moral constraints by
agents, P (for perpetrators), normally tend to harm the interests of certain persons, V (for
victims). Appeal to the sucker exemption seeks to justify such violations by invoking
the fact that other agents, W, have violated those moral constraints as well.
My first distinction is drawn by asking whether V is or is not a subset of W. If the
former, we can ask further whether the harm V is now suffering exceeds the benefit V
derived from, and/or the harm V inflicted through, V's earlier violations. These
questions yield five possibilities (1-5).
Just as the present victims V may or may not be previous perpetrators, so the present
perpetrators P may or may not be previous victims. This is the second distinction, which
can be further refined by asking about the former possibility whether the benefit P
stands to derive from P's present violation merely recoups (in full or in part), or rather
exceeds, the losses from P's own earlier victimization. The second distinction is then a
three-fold one (a-c). Putting both distinctions together, we arrive at the following 15
possibilities.

(la) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds
neither the harm V's prior
violations inflicted nor the
benefit V derived from V's
prior violations. The benefits
P derives from P's violation
do not exceed the harms P
suffered from previous
violations.

(lb) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds
neither the harm V's prior
violations inflicted nor the
benefit V derived from V's
prior violations. The benefits
P derives from P's violation
exceed the harms P suffered
from previous violations.

(lc) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds
neither the harm V's prior
violations inflicted nor the
benefit V derived from V's
prior violations. P never
suffered any harms from
previous violations.

(2a) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds the
harm V's prior violations inflicted but not the benefit V
derived from V's prior
violations. The benefits P
derives from P's violation do
not exceed the harms P
suffered from previous
violations.

(2b) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted but not the benefit
V derived from V's prior
violations. The benefits P
derives from P's violation
exceed the harms P suffered
from previous violations.

(2c) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted but not the benefit
V derived from V's prior
violations. P never suffered
any harms from previous
violations.

122

Thomas W. Pogge

Historical Wrongs

(3a) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds the
benefit V derived from V's
prior violations but not the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted. The benefits P derives from P's violation do
not exceed the harms P suffered from previous violations.

(3b) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds the
benefit V derived from V's
prior violations but not the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted. The benefits P derives from P's violation exceed the harms P suffered
from previous violations.

(3c) P's violation harms only


past violators, and the harm
it inflicts on V exceeds the
benefit V derived from V's
prior violations but not the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted. P never suffered
any harms from previous
violations.

(4a) P's violation harms only


past violators, but the harm it
inflicts on V exceeds both
the benefit V derived from
V's prior violations and the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted. The benefits P
derives from P's violation do
not exceed the harms P
suffered from previous
violations.

(4b) P's violation harms only


past violators, but the harm it
inflicts on V exceeds both
the benefit V derived from
V's prior violations and the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted. The benefits P
derives from P's violation
exceed the harms P suffered
from previous violations.

(4c) P's violation harms only


past violators, but the harm it
inflicts on V exceeds both
the benefit V derived from
V's prior violations and the
harm V's prior violations
inflicted. P never suffered
any harms from previous
violations.

(5a) P's violation harms innocents. The benefits P derives from P's violation do
not exceed the harms P suffered from previous violations.

(5b) P's violation harms innocents. The benefits P derives from P's violation exceed the harms P suffered
from previous violations.

(5c) P's violation harms innocents. P never suffered any


harms from previous violations.

Further subtleties could be added, of course. Thus one might well think that the three
comparisons - V's present losses with V's earlier gains, V's present losses with the
losses V previously inflicted, and P's present gains with P's earlier losses - should not
be binary (does the former exceed the latter or not?) but scalar (e.g., what is the ratio of
the former over the latter?). Further, one may also think that, when P was a past victim
and V a past violator, the appeal to the sucker exemption gains further plausibility if and
to the extent that P was a victim of V's past violations. Finally, the degree of similarity
among the harms may also be deemed to enhance the plausibility of appeals to the
sucker exemption: The fact that V is a thief, and has perhaps even stolen from P in the
past, may weaken the moral reason P has not to steal from V more than it weakens the
moral reason P has not to damage V's car, say. I am not here concerned to decide all
these issues, only to indicate what I think the relevant factors are that determine the
plausibility of particular appeals to the sucker exemption.

123

Leaving these further complexities aside, let us concentrate on the simpler scheme of
15 possibilities as outlined. Clearly, appeal to the sucker exemption is at its most plausible in box (la), and especially plausible, perhaps, when P was among the victims of
V's prior violations. Thus imagine that P has the opportunity to cheat V out of $400.
Ordinarily, P has moral reason not to do this. But V had once, in a similar way, cheated
P out of $500. And this fact does indeed seem to weaken or even erase the moral reason
P would ordinarily have not to cheat V.
Appeals to the sucker exemption become less plausible as we move toward the right.
Thus consider an illustration in the (lc) box: Once again P has the opportunity to cheat
V out of $400, and once again V had antecedently, in a similar way, cheated someone
out of $500. However, P has never been cheated (or otherwise harmed) by V or by anyone else. The whole benefit of cheating V would therefore be a net gain for P. We may
want to insist that P has moral reason not to cheat V. But do we not also judge that P has
more moral reason to refrain from cheating others who have never cheated anyone? If
we make this latter judgment we implicitly acknowledge that P's ordinary moral reason
against cheating V is weakened by V's prior cheating record.
Appeals to the sucker exemption also become less plausible as we move downward.
Thus consider an illustration in the (5a) box: Some time ago, W had cheated P out of
$500. Now P has an opportunity to recoup some of this loss by cheating some innocent
third party, V, in a similar way out of $400. We may want to say that P has moral reason
not to cheat V. But do we not also morally regret the fact that P was harmed by W
through no fault of P's own? And do we not think it would be morally good if P's loss
were diminished or compensated? But if such compensation counts as a moral good,
does it not weaken, somewhat at least, the moral reason P would otherwise have not to
cheat V (at least if there is no morally more acceptable way for P to recoup the loss W
had inflicted on P)?
The exemption, already quite dubious in boxes (lc) and especially (5a), becomes
thoroughly implausible, not to say outrageous, in the (5c) box: P has an opportunity to
cheat some innocent party V out of $400. The whole benefit of cheating V would be a
net gain for P, who has never been cheated or harmed by anyone. In this case, the fact
that some W had cheated people out of money in the past does not seem to weaken in
the slightest the moral reason P would ordinarily have not to cheat V.
My discussion of the holistic effects of past wrongs has yielded these tentative
conclusions: Past wrongs do not strengthen the moral reasons to refrain from and to
prevent like conduct now and in the future (except in the bland sense emerging from the
second interpretation of "nunca ms"). But past wrongs may weaken such moral
reasons, most clearly in cases where P can, through conduct that harms only those who
have wrongfully harmed P in the past, recoup some of P's loss from their previous
wrongdoing. I have not discussed whether it makes sense here to add the proviso that
the harms P inflicts upon W must be of the same kind as the harms W had inflicted upon
P earlier.

I am here concerned solely with the backward-looking version of the sucker exemption. Thus I leave
open the possibility that P's well-grounded expectation that others are generally disposed to cheat
may weaken P's moral reason not to cheat even those P knows thus far to have been innocent of
cheating.

124 Thomas W. Pogge


3.

Can the Rule-Shaping Effects of Past Wrongs Affect Present Moral Reasons for
Action?

Let me turn to our third and final subquestion: To what extent can the effects of historical wrongs on present social rules provide moral reasons to revise these rules?
One may think that this whole subquestion is moot because present social rules, no
matter how they may have come about, ought to be revised if and insofar as, and only if
and insofar as, they are now unjust. There is surely some truth in this thought, but this
truth does not suffice to render the question moot. The reason is twofold. First, there is
not, for each particular context, only one single just set of social rules, determinate down
to the most minute detail. Rather, many features of a social order are morally open or
discretionary, and with respect to these features historical pedigree may well matter.
Second, there is bound to be controversy over whether present social rules are just or
unjust, and those who deem some such rules unjust may reasonably hold themselves to
have less moral reason to comply with, and more moral reason to oppose, these rules if
they were also instituted in an unjust manner. You may acquiesce in a law that you consider mildly unjust if it has been democratically adopted over your opposition; and yet
you may refuse to acquiesce in this same law if its passage was facilitated by votebuying in the legislature. I conclude that the issue is not moot, that the manner in which
present social rules have once been instituted can affect present moral reasons for action
in regard to these rules. Let us consider then how this manner of institutionalization can
matter.
3.1 Procedural Injustice in the Creation of Present Legal Rules
Let us begin by focusing on the narrower issue of procedural injustice, that is, on the
question: What difference can the fact that present social rules have been instituted in an
unjust manner make to how we now have moral reason to conduct ourselves with regard
to these rules? Consider an example. A long time ago, a country was founded. Its founders gave it a constitution, formulating the central features of its political system and the
more important individual rights. And they entrenched this constitution by including a
clause to the effect that changes of the constitution require a two-thirds majority in a nationwide referendum.
Since the country was somewhat overpopulated even then, a clause was included in
the constitution prescribing that, upon the death of any landowner, his or her land shall
generally pass to the eldest son or, should there be no son, to the eldest daughter. The
unobjectionable intent of this clause was to prevent divisions and subdivisions of land,
which could easily lead to unviable plots, economic inefficiency, and hence poverty and
starvation.
This need to forestall division of plots is still widely accepted today. But a sizable
fraction of the female population, the so-called feminists, object to the sex asymmetry in
the inheritance rules. They advocate the substitution of an alternative clause under
which the oldest child would inherit, irrespective of his or her sex. This rule change,
however, is opposed by many who, conceding that favoring male over female children is
morally arbitrary, are also convinced that favoring those born earlier over those born
later (or lottery winners over lottery losers, for that matter) is no less arbitrary from a

Historical Wrongs

125

moral point of view. A referendum is held, and the feminist proposal receives 60 percent
- a solid majority, but less votes than needed for a revision of the constitution.
Now the feminists present a new argument. At the time of the founding and for more
than a century thereafter, they say, women were completely excluded from the political
process. To be sure, the injustice of their erstwhile exclusion has since been widely acknowledged, and a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal female political
participation was passed by a wide margin (with men alone voting) some 80 years ago.
But laws passed before this enfranchisement of women remain in place. That they do is
perhaps no injustice in the case of ordinary laws, which the legislature could change at
any time by a simple majority. But it is problematic with regard to the constitution
because of its supermajoritarian entrenchment. It is quite possible that, if women had
had an equal say when the constitution was first adopted, the existing sex-asymmetrical
provision would have lost out to a sex-symmetrical one - perhaps to the very provision
now proposed by the feminists.
The feminists conclude from these considerations that the 40-percent minority have
moral reason not to use their legal power to block the constitutional revision. The minority ought to support a re-run of the referendum and ought then to vote in favor of the
revision proposed by the feminists - not on the substantive ground that the revised
clause is morally superior (for this the minority does not grant), but on the procedural
ground that a simple majority deserves to win because the sex-asymmetrical provision
they are seeking to dislodge was entrenched in an unjust manner.
The feminists' new argument has quite radical implications. After all, the default rule
about inheritance is not the only constitutional provision marred by historical injustice.
The argument casts a shadow over all constitutional provisions adopted more than 80
years ago (when women were enfranchised). It suggests that all these "ancient" provisions should be subjected to a referendum, that any provisions opposed by a present majority should be voted on a second time, and that proponents of such unpopular ancient
provisions should then, in any such second referendum, vote with the majority (that is,
against the ancient provision). It might make sense that the first ancient provision to be
subjected to this test should be the entrenchment provision: Back then, at the founding,
men decided that revisions of their constitution should require a two-thirds majority; and
this requirement can be acceptable to women today only if it is reaffirmed by a
collective decision in which they are included. Only when the entire constitution has
been reexamined and (with possible modifications) reaffirmed, is any undue political
power of the ancient male political elite erased.
Or is it? One might use the feminists' argument to challenge the constitution not
merely on account of what was included in it, but also on account of what was excluded
from it, before universal suffrage. Suppose that one candidate provision that never managed to gain enough votes for adoption would have protected citizens against discrimination on the basis of their sex. And suppose that another constitutional provision banning discrimination on the basis of race was adopted before women received the right to
vote. One might then argue that, had women already been part of the political process at
the time the ban on race discrimination was considered, they could and might well have
pressed for the inclusion of sex by making clear that they would withhold support from
any provision banning discrimination on account of race alone. Many of those eager to
establish a constitutional protection against race discrimination, realizing that they need
women's support to pass it, might well have been willing, in exchange, to support the
protection against sex discrimination demanded by women. As it is, however, the sup-

126

Thomas W. Pogge

porters of a constitutional provision against race discrimination already have what they
want and can therefore afford to vote against an equal rights amendment for women.7
Acceptance of the feminists' new argument would have quite dramatic implications
for the hypothetical country I have imagined, and dramatic implications also for some
existing states with "ancient" constitutions, such as the United States, whose actual history bears some obvious resemblance to the story just told. In the US, most women and
many men have, in recent decades, supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
which, had it won, would have afforded women the same protection against discrimination that the 15th Amendment affords people of color. Supporters of the ERA could
challenge their defeat on the ground that people in 1870 (when the 15th Amendment
was ratified) might well not have singled out race and color to the exclusion of sex if
women had then been part of the political process. If women had been part of the
political process then, they could have made their support of the 15th Amendment
conditional on the inclusion of sex as a protected characteristic. It is just not right that
men should have had the opportunity, from 1787 until 1920, to pack into the Constitution everything they care about (including the second-amendment right to bear
arms) without giving women the slightest say, and that a male minority should now still
enjoy the power to veto provisions that all women and many men seek to add. The
whole constitution is marred by historical injustice. The decision to have a constitution
at all, the decision to entrench it against the majority of legislators, and all decisions
about what exactly to include - all these decisions were made without the slightest
participation of women. The only way to end this continuing injustice is to start from
scratch, now on a level playing field that gives all adult citizens an equal opportunity to
influence the decisions: about whether to have a constitution at all, about whether and
how to entrench it, and about what to include.
Let me add three clarifications about the kind of argument here developed. First, the
most common response to arguments from historical injustice is the challenge "how do
you know what would have happened if ...?". In the present case, this response is
entirely beside the point. The feminist argument, as I have conceived it, does employ the
thought that, had women had the vote from the beginning, the constitution might well
now have a different content than it does have. But the argument makes no claim about
what this different content would be, and it certainly does not demand that we should
now switch over to any such alternative content. Rather, the argument claims that the
creation of the constitutional provisions was marred by a significant injustice, the
exclusion of women from the political process, which was not clearly causally irrelevant
to the result. And the thrust of the argument is entirely negative, demanding that the
existing constitutional provisions should not enjoy the benefit of an undeserved
entrenchment.

Historical Wrongs

Can we really draw even this weak conclusion from showing that some historical injustice merely might well have - rather than: has - made a difference? After all, such a
showing of might-well-have is compatible with the claim that the historical injustice
also might well have made no difference. One response to this objection is that it is
quite unlikely that, had women been fully enfranchised from the beginning, the exact
same constitution would have been formulated and identically entrenched by the
political process. But this response risks getting us embroiled in the kind of historical
speculation that so often bogs down arguments invoking the distributive effects of past
wrongs. Better then to rely on another, independent response: Suppose there is indeed a
possible parallel history in which women were fully enfranchised from the beginning
and still the exact same constitution is formulated and identically entrenched by the
political process. In that fictional parallel world, this constitution, though indistinguishable from ours, would have much greater moral legitimacy than it has in our world.
In that parallel world, there would be much less moral reason, if any, to start over.8
Second, the argument need not challenge the existing legal system and its cumbersome procedures for constitutional change. It can be presented as a merely moral appeal
among fellow citizens: If a majority favors constitutional change, a minority should not
use the veto power it may have, thanks to historically unjust entrenchment, to block the
majority's will. Were this appeal honored, the entrenchment would be formally
respected (with new constitutional provisions fully sanctified by the prescribed
procedure), but it would be practically set aside for moral reasons as opponents of the
revisions would let the proponents win when they realize that the latter have even
merely a simple majority.
Third, while the feminists' position has dramatic implications, it is also less radical
than it might be. A more radical argument developed by Michael Otsuka9 would reject
any exercise of political power by past people over the living. Even a procedurally flawless referendum just 19 years ago should not be allowed to thwart the majority will today. And the rectifying procedure proposed by the feminists should thus be extended to
all constitutional provisions, irrespective of whether they were adopted before or after
the enfranchisement of women.
We see here that the position suggested by the feminists' new argument - by challenging some entrenched constitutions - is intermediate between a radical position that
challenges all entrenched constitutions and a conservative position that challenges none
(unless they are legally flawed, as when the constitutionally prescribed mode of constitutional amendment was not correctly followed). In another respect, however, the radical
and conservative positions agree against the intermediate one. They agree that the moral
quality of the historical process through which presently entrenched constitutions once
8

In numbers: Suppose men and women each constitute 50% of the electorate. 80% of men and 80%
of women support banning race discrimination. Half of these people, namely 10% of men and 70%
of women strongly support banning sex discrimination and would be willing to block a weaker
amendment targeting race discrimination alone. If only men vote, this weaker anti-discrimination
amendment will pass with 70% of the vote, against its opponents (20%) and against the votes of the
male feminists (10%). Even if universal suffrage is introduced later, only 40% will support adding a
ban on sex discrimination. On the other hand, if women are eligible to vote from the start, the 40%
strongly supportive of banning sex discrimination are able to block a provision targeting race
discrimination alone and can thereby bargain for the support of those who more strongly favor
banning race discrimination than they oppose banning sex discrimination.

127

Imagine a group of people playing poker. At the end of the evening, they find that the deck of cards
was one short. A debate ensues: Should the games be annulled by returning all players to their initial
cash holdings or should the present distribution of cash be allowed to stand? The proponents of
annulment claim that the defect in the deck might well have made a difference to the outcome. If this
claim were false, if it were certain that the same gains and losses would have come about even if the
deck had been complete, then the opponents of annulment may have a case. (Perhaps the players
switch decks periodically, and the opponents of annulment can show that the defective deck was
never used.) But it is plainly not enough for such opponents to claim that the same gains and losses
could - or even: might well - have come about even if the deck had been complete. That some
particular result might well have emerged from a fair historical process does not help justify this
result if it in fact emerged from an unfair historical process.
In his Libertarianism witlwut Inequality, ch. 7, 'The Problem of Intergenerational Sovereignty".

128

were adopted has little or no bearing on present moral reasons for action. In this dispute,
I side with the intermediate position. Against the radicals I hold that long-term entrenchment can have some moral standing, which is at stake when the fairness of the manner
of entrenchment is under challenge. And against the conservatives I hold that it matters
now, morally, whether and how significantly the entrenchment of some provision was
aided by injustice or other wrongs. These views could and should be defended at greater
length. But let me instead develop the intermediate position a little further, beyond the
topic of procedural injustice as illustrated by the entrenchment of constitutional provisions.
3.2 Unjust Background Conditions in the Evolution of Present Institutional
Arrangements
It is well known that the rules of an institutional order have distributive effects. An obvious example is a society's tax code, whose specific design affects not only the long-term
growth and vibrancy of the national economy, but also the incidence of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and much else.
Less widely understood is the inverse influence: how the distribution of income and
wealth prevailing in a society is reflected in the rules of its political and economic order.
We know very well, of course, especially if we have lived in the United States, that
money can buy political influence and that wealthy individuals and powerful firms often
spend large sums on so-called "campaign contributions", Political Action Committees
(PACs), lobbying efforts, and the like - transactions that differ little from legalized bribery. But we do not think much about how the abstract distribution of income and wealth
itself affects the design of the institutional order which then, in turn, acts back upon this
economic distribution.
Still, it is clear upon reflection that the amount of time and money the rich, or the
poor, spend on efforts to shape the tax code in their own favor depends in good part on
how much time and money they have. And this, in turn, depends on what the structure
of the tax system is now. There is the possibility, then, of what economists call multiple
equilibria, each of which would be self-sustaining in the same society: A low-inequality
equilibrium with highly progressive tax rates would maintain itself because supporters
of a less progressive tax scheme do not, under the scheme as it is, have sufficient
incentives, money, and political influence to defeat the more numerous and likewise
reasonably well educated and prosperous defenders of the status quo. And a highinequality equilibrium with much less progressive effective marginal tax rates would
also maintain itself because defenders of the status quo enjoy great advantages in
wealth, influence, and education which motivate and enable them to defeat the
majority's interest in achieving greater economic equality. Whether some particular
society is in a low-inequality equilibrium (like Norway and Sweden) or in an also
feasible high-inequality equilibrium (like Brazil) or in some feasible intermediate
equilibrium (like the United Kingdom and the United States) depends then on historical
contingencies. Which specific feasible equilibrium a society is in is path-dependent.10
10

Historical Wrongs

Thomas W. Pogge

The word "feasible" is meant to allude to the fact that, for any society or other social system, there
are outer bounds to the space of durable economic equilibria (distinguishable, roughly, by their degree of economic inequality). When inequality exceeds certain limits, it tends to be disadvantageous
even to the rich. Thus extreme inequality is associated with a risk of rebellion that worsens the

129

This thought could be developed to encompass further complexities. Involved in the


causal feedback loop are not only the rules of the tax code, but also the laws governing
the financing of political campaigns and the electoral method as well as non-legal practices and conventions which are shaped by, and in tum help reproduce, the prevailing
distributional pattern. All these factors, and others as well, bear to the existing economic
distribution a relation of reciprocal influence which will tend to be one of mutual reinforcement. While the causal picture is more complex, the central point remains: Within
certain outer bounds, a given degree of economic inequality is often self-reinforcing or
entrenched.
This fact provides the basis for an argument that, though less punchy and clear-cut, is
analogous to the one on procedural injustice sketched in the preceding subsection: Insofar as a society's present economic equilibrium is path-dependent, its moral legitimacy
depends in part on the moral legitimacy of the path on which it evolved. And the moral
legitimacy of an existing high-inequality equilibrium may then possibly be challenged
by tracing it back to antecedent conditions that were marred by injustice - antecedent
conditions like the highly unequal distribution of wealth in the United Kingdom at the
end of the feudal period, for instance, or that in the United States when slavery was
abolished.
The poor in the UK today could then launch their own "new argument", somewhat
akin to the one constructed for the feminists in the preceding section: We all agree now
that the feudal order was deeply unjust. But when this order was dismantled, the heavily
skewed economic distribution that had evolved over centuries of injustice was left
intact. Democratization thus took hold against the background of large economic
inequalities, which afforded the rich grossly disproportionate influence in shaping the
political and economic ground rules of the democratizing country to be inegalitarian.
The high-inequality equilibrium existing in the UK today may well then be a continuing
legacy of the economic inequalities accumulated under the unjust feudal order."
This new argument casts doubt on the legitimacy of the existing extent of economic
inequality. But what sort of change, if any, can it justify? Does it not provide as much
support to anti-egalitarian critics of the present tax code (who charge this code with being overly progressive, thereby generating too equal an economic distribution) as it pro-

11

prospects of the rich relative to what these prospects would be with less inequality and no rebellion
(as one might learn from the experience of the French aristocracy in 1789). The rich themselves
therefore have a vested interest in keeping inequality well below the rebellion threshold. Since this
interest is widely shared across society, it is likely to prevail, so long as there is common knowledge
about where, roughly, the rebellion threshold lies.
A more restrictive outer bound, unique to the last two centuries, is imposed by popular sovereignty.
So long as the exercise of political power depends on regular elections that involve nearly all adult
citizens and give roughly equal weight to the vote of each, there is a limit to how far inequality can
be increased without creating a popular majority prepared to field and to vote for candidates and
political parties promising reversal.
Income inequality in the United Kingdom, as manifested in a Gini coefficient of 36.8, is greater than
in any other major European country. Inequality is still greater in the United States, whose Gini is
40.8, and very much greater in South Africa, with a Gini of 59.3, as well as in Brazil, with a Gini of
60.7, and in most other Latin American countries. The Scandinavian countries and Japan have Ginis
in the mid-20s. The corresponding income ratio of the top 10% to the bottom 10% of the population
of these countries are (with the year of the last survey in parentheses): Japan 4.5 (1993), Norway 5.3
(1995), Germany 7.1 (1994), France 9.1 (1995), UK 12.3 (1995), US 16.6 (1997), South Africa
42.5 (1993-4), Brazil 65.8 (1998), Paraguay 91.1 (1998). All these data are taken from Human
Development Report 2002, 194-6.

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Thomas W. Pogge

vides to egalitarian critics of the present tax code (who charge this code with being insufficiently progressive, thereby generating too unequal an economic distribution)?
This apparent symmetry is broken by the value of democratic equality. Economic institutions are widely thought to depend for their legitimacy upon the free and informed
endorsement of a majority of citizens, with each citizen's view counting for as much as
any other's. When a society's distribution of income and wealth is highly uneven, it is
quite difficult to obtain such free and informed majority consent and more difficult still
for citizens to be sure that there is such consent. The reason is that, in such a society, the
rich enjoy great advantages over the poor in such respects as education, access to the
mass media, free time they can devote to political activities, funds they can contribute to
political parties and causes, and so forth. When a society's distribution of income and
wealth is reasonably even, then it is, by contrast, much easier to ensure that economic
institutions designed through the democratic political process enjoy the free and
informed endorsement of a majority of citizens. In such a society, a democratically
adopted institutional change toward greater inequality can have legitimacy as reflecting
the majority's belief that this change will be beneficial to the society and to most of its
members by entailing greater affluence and faster economic growth without
undermining the fairness of the democratic political process. In this way, the widely
accepted value of democratic equality breaks the apparent symmetry and saves this new
argument against entrenched economic inequality from being inconclusive.
To understand this new argument correctly, it may help expressly to distinguish it
from more common arguments invoking the distributive effects of past wrongs. Such
conventional arguments claim about specific persons or groups that they would be better
off now than they actually are if some past injustice or wrongdoing had not occurred.
The claim might be, for instance, that blacks in the United States would today be less
disadvantaged relative to other groups if their ancestors had not been enslaved or if their
ancestors, once freed from bondage, had been given a fairer start. This claim naturally
leads to demands for compensation or rectification designed to bring the claimants - individuated rigidly as individual persons or generically as members of some natural
group - up to where they would now be if the historical injustice had never occurred.
The standard response to such arguments is to demand proof of the relevant subjunctives: to demand proof that the selected persons or groups would really be better off than
they are had the injustice not occurred. Would blacks be better off today if Africa had
not been raided by colonialists and slave traders? Would African-Americans be better
off today if Sherman's promise of forty acres and a mule had been kept?12 It is quite
12

For a brief account, see http://www.isomedia.com/homes/bhd2/40_acres_and_mule.htm: On January


12, 1865, in the midst of his "March to the Sea" during the Civil War, General William T. Sherman
and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton met with 20 Black community leaders of Savannah,
Georgia. Based in part to their input, General Sherman issued Special Field Order #15 on January
16, 1865, setting aside the Sea Islands and a 30 mile inland tract of land along the southern coast of
Charleston for the exclusive settlement of Blacks. Each family would receive 40 acres of land and
an army mule to work the land, thus "forty acres and a mule". General Rufus Saxton was assigned
by Sherman to implement the Order. On a national level, this and other land, confiscated and
abandoned, became the jurisdiction of the Freedman's Bureau, which was headed by General Oliver
Otis Howard (Howard University). In his words he wanted to "... give the freedmen protection, land
and schools as far and as fast as he can". However, during the summer and fall of 1865, President
Andrew Johnson issued special pardons, returning the property to the ex-Confederates. Howard
issued Circular 13, giving 40 acres as quickly as possible. Learning about this, Johnson ordered
Howard to issue Circular 15, returning the land to the ex-Confederates.

Historical Wrongs

131

hard to decide such subjunctives; and if they involve particular rigidly individuated
persons, there is the additional difficulty of showing that these persons would even have
come into being without the injustice.13
The new argument is entirely different. It poses a direct challenge not to the present
distribution (of wealth, income, status, powers, or whatever) over specific persons or
groups, but rather to this present distribution abstractly considered: to the present extent
of inequality. Involving the three elements we found exemplified by the new feminist argument, it claims that existing economic institutions (such as the tax code) evolved
against a background of unjust inequality; that their content may well have been influenced by these unjust background conditions; and that these economic institutions and
any inequalities and deprivations persisting under them are therefore morally tainted. To
remove this stain, those economic institutions must be reformed in an egalitarian direction to the point where it is clearly true that the affirmation of economic institutions by
the democratic political process is tantamount to their free and informed endorsement by
a majority of citizens.
To be sure, an attack on the present extent of inequality also challenges, indirectly,
the present concrete distribution. But this challenge is different from a challenge
invoking the distributive effects of past wrongs. It does not suggest that some persons or
groups are richer, and others poorer, than they would now be if certain historical wrongs
had not occurred. Its suggestion is, rather, that some persons or groups are richer, and
others poorer, than anyone would now be if certain historical wrongs had not occurred.
It is not suggested that past wrongs live on in the advantages of status, wealth, and
education that, once unjustly accumulated, are passed on within specific family lines or
within ethnic or kinship groups. The suggestion is rather that economic inequalities,
once unjustly accumulated, live on in the economic institutions (paradigmatically the tax
code) that in turn strongly influence the extent of future inequality: If there had not been
the historical injustice of feudalism, then there might well now exist a more egalitarian
economic equilibrium: a more progressive tax code reinforcing and reinforced by a less
unequal economic distribution. An argument invoking the distributive effects of past
wrongs could be defeated by showing that the 19lh-century ancestors of the super-rich in
the UK today belong mostly to the working class and, in any case, not to the nobility.
But the "new argument" in favor of a more progressive tax code for the UK would be
wholly undisturbed by such a finding.14
Once again, we can situate the new argument between two extremes, one radical and
the other conservative. The radical view holds that in order to conclude that a present
institutional order ought to be reformed in an egalitarian direction we only need a forward-looking argument that shows this order to be inferior in its distributional effects to
some feasible alternative. If we find that the existing economic rules have a feasible
alternative (involving more progressive tax rates, for instance) that would reduce both
poverty and inequality (would better satisfy Rawls's difference principle, say), then we
have all the reason we could need for demanding reforms. The conservative view holds
13
14

See D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, ch. 16.


There is yet another argument in the vicinity that mine should be distinguished from. This third
argument would claim that historical injustice has (or might well have) influenced the ordinal
distribution of persons over socio-economic positions. This argument, too, could be adduced to
support change in an egalitarian direction. But I will not examine this argument here. Still, it should
be clear that, even if the claim of the third argument were known to be false, this would not damage
the "new argument" explored in the text.

132

that one should respect the historically grown institutional arrangements of one's society
except in extreme cases (e.g., late feudalism, perhaps, or early-Stalin communism)
where these arrangements cause widespread, severe and avoidable suffering. Both views
agree that the causal influence of past wrongs on the evolution of the existing
institutional order is irrelevant to its moral legitimacy.
I dissent from this agreement. As I see it, the radicals are right that forward-looking
considerations (evaluating the comparative effects of present institutional arrangements)
have substantial and often decisive moral weight, and the conservatives are right that the
institutional status quo can have some countervailing moral standing. But, rather than
simply split the difference between the two views, I hold that the moral legitimacy of
this institutional status quo crucially depends on how it has actually evolved. An
institutional order whose evolution was heavily influenced by grievous injustice and
wrongdoing may have no moral standing at all. The history of an institutional order may
therefore tip the scales with respect to the question whether the continued imposition of
this order is morally acceptable or not.
And this history may also make a difference to how unacceptable it is to impose such
an institutional order. An economic order may produce so much avoidable poverty and
inequality that it can be condemned on forward-looking grounds alone, which suffice to
show that this order would be unjust even if it had come about in the most benign way
one might imagine. However, suppose that the evolution of this economic order was in
fact marred by grievous injustices or other wrongs. In this case, it and its imposition
would be even more unjust.
The present global economic order is a case in point. I have argued in a recent book15
that this order is gravely unjust on account of the enormous inequality and severe poverty it reproduces: The "high-income" countries with 15.6 percent of the world's population have 81 percent of the global product. All those below the World Bank's "$2/day"
poverty line - defined in terms of daily per capita income with the purchasing power
that $2.15 had in the US in 1993 - constitute 47 percent of the world's population with
VA percent of global income. The annual death toll from poverty-related causes is about
18 million or one third of all human deaths.
Today's world economy illustrates dramatically the mutual reinforcement of unequal
distribution and inegalitarian institutions. The rules of the world economy are negotiated
among governments or established simply through their conduct and practice. If these
governments, because of vast international economic inequality, differ dramatically in
bargaining power, those rules will reflect a highly skewed bargaining equilibrium that
favors the interests of those already much advantaged. Under such rules, the lion's share
of global economic growth will go to the rich, entrenching and perhaps even expanding
their economic advantage.
Given the vast human death toll and suffering they avoidably produce, existing global
institutional arrangements would surely be severely unjust even if the economic inequality sustaining them had come about in a most innocent way. We could imagine, for instance, that before the populations of different continents took notice of one another, the
Europeans had worked much harder than others and built up a great stock of economic
and human capital while people elsewhere were living hand-to-mouth. When significant
intercontinental interaction then arose, the Europeans already had a significant economic
head-start that allowed them to dominate the shaping of global institutional arrange15

Historical Wrongs

Thomas W. Pogge

See n. 2 above.

133

ments. Even with this benign history, we would have sufficient forward-looking moral
reasons to reform the global institutional order so as to preclude, at least, life-threatening
poverty.
Yet, these reasons become even stronger when, substituting the actual history, we recall that existing global economic inequality accumulated over the course of an
historical process that has, through colonialism, genocides, and enslavement, devastated
the societies and cultures of four continents. At the end of this extremely violent
occupation, when Africa was hastily decolonized around 1960, the countries of the
"First World" enjoyed an enormous 30:1 advantage in per capita income over the new
African states. This unjustly accumulated advantage enabled these countries to shape the
rules of the global economic order in their favor and thereby still today taints these
inegalitarian rules as well as the unequal economic distribution they help reproduce.
(It is often said that colonialism cannot possibly have any significance for explaining
today's suffering on the African continent, that even Apartheid is too long ago now to
matter. To see the falsehood of this view, just consider what a 30:1 advantage means:
Even if all of Africa, starting in 1960, consistently achieved each and every year one
percent higher growth in per capita income than the First-World countries, it would take
until early in the 24th century for Africa to catch up.16)
My suggestion is then that in thinking about how much economic inequality is
morally acceptable and about how morally (unAcceptable some given degree of
economic inequality is, we should be sensitive also to how this inequality and the rules
sustaining it came about.
I conclude that appeals to the rule-shaping effects of past wrongs are far more promising than appeals to the distributive effects of past wrongs as made within the standard
arguments thus far put forward under the 'historical injustice' label. The former appeals
cannot, however, justify compensation to specific persons or natural groups. Instead,
they challenge the existing extent of inequality as heavily influenced by historical
wrongs. Such a challenge naturally leads to demands for a "new deal" that would
increase equality and thereby reduce the influence of historical wrongs on the shaping of
social institutions and the extent of economic inequality. We do not need to know what
these influences are, exactly, to conclude that they should not give rise to the severe
inequalities our world displays today.
4. Conclusion
My objective in this paper was to mitigate the concentration, among those working on
historical injustice, on one subquestion: regarding the distributive effects of past
wrongs. This concentration would make sense, if the other two subquestions were less
interesting or of lesser practical relevance. As I have tried to show, it is more likely that
the opposite is true. The holistic effects of past wrongs (and especially the backwardlooking version of the sucker exemption) and the rule-shaping effects of past wrongs
seem well worth sustained study, and the latter are likely of greater present distributional
significance than the distributive effects of past wrongs. I am well aware that I could
16

It is not easy to achieve such higher rates of growth under rules hammered out in intergovernmental
negotiations with counter-parties who have vastly greater bargaining power. At any rate, actual
growth in per capita income was slower in most African countries than in the First World, and so
that the ratio has expanded to 40:1.

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Thomas W. Pogge

here merely raise these issues, not treat them with anything like the thoroughness they
deserve.

135

Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights

George Sher
Bibliography
Otsuka, M., Libertarianism without Inequality, Oxford University Press, 2003.
Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, 1984.
Pogge, Th., World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press, 2002.
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2002, Oxford
University Press, 2002.

It is widely acknowledged that persons may deserve compensation for the effects of
wrong acts performed before they were born. It is such acts that are in question when
we say that blacks deserve compensation because their forebears were originally
brought to this country as slaves, or that American Indians deserve compensation for the
unjust appropriation of their ancestors' land. But although some principle of compensation for the lasting effects of past wrongs seems appropriate, the proper temporal scope
of that principle is not clear. We may award compensation for the effects of wrongs
done as many as ten or twenty generations ago; but what of wrongs done a hundred
generations ago? Or five hundred or a thousand? Are there any temporal limits at all to
the wrong acts whose enduring effects may call for compensation? In the first section of
this essay, I shall discuss several reasons for addressing these neglected questions. In
subsequent sections, I shall discuss some possible ways of resolving them.
1.
A natural initial reaction to questions about compensation for the effects of ancient
wrongs is that these questions are, in the main, hopelessly unrealistic. In the case of
blacks, Indians, and a few analogous groups, we may indeed have enough information
to suggest that most current group members are worse off than they would be in the
absence of some initial wrong. But if the wrong act was performed even longer ago or if
the persons currently suffering its effects do not belong to a coherent and easily
identified group, then such information will not be available to us. There are surely
some persons alive today who would be better off if the Spanish Inquisition had not
taken place or if the Jews had never been originally expelled from the land of Canaan.
However, to discover who those persons are and how much better off they would be, we
would have to draw on far more genealogical, causal, and counterfactual knowledge
than anyone can reasonably expect to possess. Because this information is not and never
will be completely available, the question of who, if anyone, deserves compensation for
the current effects of these wrongs will never be answered. But if so, why bother asking
it?
This relaxed approach to compensation has the virtue of realism. The suggestion that
we might arrive at a complete understanding of the effects of ancient wrongs is a
philosopher's fantasy and nothing more. Nevertheless, despite its appeal, I think we
cannot rest content with a totally pragmatic dismissal of the issue of compensating for
ancient wrongs. For one thing, even if compensatory justice is a partially unrealizable
ideal, its theoretical limits will retain an intrinsic interest. For another, even if we cannot
now ascertain which persons deserve compensation for the effects of ancient wrongs,
the insight that such persons exist might itself suggest new obligations to us. In
particular, if the victims of even the most ancient of wrongs can qualify for compensaFirst published in Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981), 3-17. Reprinted by permission of
Princeton University Press.

134

Thomas W. Pogge

here merely raise these issues, not treat them with anything like the thoroughness they
deserve.

135

Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights

George Sher
Bibliography
Otsuka, M., Libertarianism without Inequality, Oxford University Press, 2003.
Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, 1984.
Pogge, Th., World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press, 2002.
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2002, Oxford
University Press, 2002.

It is widely acknowledged that persons may deserve compensation for the effects of
wrong acts performed before they were born. It is such acts that are in question when
we say that blacks deserve compensation because their forebears were originally
brought to this country as slaves, or that American Indians deserve compensation for the
unjust appropriation of their ancestors' land. But although some principle of compensation for the lasting effects of past wrongs seems appropriate, the proper temporal scope
of that principle is not clear. We may award compensation for the effects of wrongs
done as many as ten or twenty generations ago; but what of wrongs done a hundred
generations ago? Or five hundred or a thousand? Are there any temporal limits at all to
the wrong acts whose enduring effects may call for compensation? In the first section of
this essay, I shall discuss several reasons for addressing these neglected questions. In
subsequent sections, I shall discuss some possible ways of resolving them.
1.
A natural initial reaction to questions about compensation for the effects of ancient
wrongs is that these questions are, in the main, hopelessly unrealistic. In the case of
blacks, Indians, and a few analogous groups, we may indeed have enough information
to suggest that most current group members are worse off than they would be in the
absence of some initial wrong. But if the wrong act was performed even longer ago or if
the persons currently suffering its effects do not belong to a coherent and easily
identified group, then such information will not be available to us. There are surely
some persons alive today who would be better off if the Spanish Inquisition had not
taken place or if the Jews had never been originally expelled from the land of Canaan.
However, to discover who those persons are and how much better off they would be, we
would have to draw on far more genealogical, causal, and counterfactual knowledge
than anyone can reasonably expect to possess. Because this information is not and never
will be completely available, the question of who, if anyone, deserves compensation for
the current effects of these wrongs will never be answered. But if so, why bother asking
it?
This relaxed approach to compensation has the virtue of realism. The suggestion that
we might arrive at a complete understanding of the effects of ancient wrongs is a
philosopher's fantasy and nothing more. Nevertheless, despite its appeal, I think we
cannot rest content with a totally pragmatic dismissal of the issue of compensating for
ancient wrongs. For one thing, even if compensatory justice is a partially unrealizable
ideal, its theoretical limits will retain an intrinsic interest. For another, even if we cannot
now ascertain which persons deserve compensation for the effects of ancient wrongs,
the insight that such persons exist might itself suggest new obligations to us. In
particular, if the victims of even the most ancient of wrongs can qualify for compensaFirst published in Philosophy and Public Affairs 10 (1981), 3-17. Reprinted by permission of
Princeton University Press.

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George Sher

tion and if our current compensatory efforts are therefore aimed at only a small subset
of those who deserve it, then we will at least be obligated to enlarge the subset by
extending our knowledge of the effects of ancient wrongs as far as possible. Alternatively, the discovery that desert of compensation is not invariant with respect to temporal distance might force us to reduce our compensatory efforts in certain areas.
These considerations suggest that clarifying the theoretical status of ancient wrongs
may dictate certain (rather marginal) changes in our actual compensatory policies. But
there is also another, far more significant implication that such clarification might have.
Given the vastness of historical injustice and given the ramification of every event over
time, it seems reasonable to assume that most or all current individuals have both
benefited from and been harmed by numerous ancient wrongs. For (just about) every
current person P, there are likely to be some ancient wrongs that have benefited P but
harmed others, and other ancient wrongs that have benefited others but harmed P. In
light of this, neither the distribution of goods that actually prevails nor that which would
prevail in the absence of all recent wrongs is likely to resemble the distribution that
would prevail in the absence of all historical wrongs. But if so, and if the effects of
ancient wrongs do call as strongly for compensation as the effects of recent ones, then it
seems that neither compensating nor not compensating for the known effects of recent
wrongs will be just. On the one hand, since the point of compensating for the effects of
wrong acts is to restore a just distribution of goods among the affected parties, the
injustice of the distribution that would prevail in the absence of recent wrongs will
undermine our rationale for restoring it. However, on the other hand, even if that
distribution is unjust, the distribution that actually prevails is no better; and so a failure
to compensate for recent wrongs will be every bit as unpalatable. The only strategy that
is just is that of restoring the distribution that would have prevailed in the absence of all
historical wrongs. But this, as we have seen, we will never have sufficient information
to do.
How to respond to this combination of pervasive injustice and indefeasible ignorance
is a complicated and difficult question. One possible strategy is to argue that even if
compensating for recent wrongs would not restore full justice, it would at least bring us
substantially closer to a totally just distribution than we are now. A second alternative is
to revise our account of the aim of compensating for recent wrongs - to say that the
point of doing this is not to restore a fully just distribution among the affected parties,
but rather only to nullify the effects of one particular set of injustices. A third is to
accept Nozick's suggestion that we "view some patterned principles of distributive
justice [e.g., egalitarianism or Rawls' difference principle] as rough rules of thumb
meant to approximate the general results of applying the principle of rectification of
injustice."1 A fourth is to abandon hope of achieving justice by either compensating or
not compensating and simply start afresh by redistributing goods along egalitarian or
Rawlsian lines. If their positions can be grounded in either of the latter ways, egalitarians and Rawlsians may hope to rebut the charge that they ignore such historical
considerations as entitlement and desert.2 But as interesting as these issues are, it would
be premature for us to consider them further here. The choice among the suggested
options arises only if ancient wrongs do call for compensation as strongly as recent
ones; and so that claim must be investigated first. The discussion so far has been merely

1
2

R. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 231.


For development of this charge as it pertains to entitlement, see ibid., eh. 7. For discussion involving desert, see G. Sher, "Effort, Ability, and Personal Desert".

Ancient Wrongs and Modern Riglits

137

to establish the claim's importance. Having done that, we may now tum to the question
of its truth.

Intuitively, the effects of ancient wrongs do not seem to call as strongly for
compensation as the effects of recent ones. Indeed, the claim that persons deserve
compensation even for the effects of wrongs done in biblical times appears to be a
reductio of the ideal of compensatory justice. But we shall be wary of intuitions of this
sort. It is perfectly possible that they reflect only an awareness of the epistemological
difficulty of establishing desert of compensation for ancient wrongs; and if they do, then
all the problems limned above will remain untouched. To clarify the force of our
intuitions, we must ask whether they can be traced to any deeper source in the notion of
compensation itself. Is there anything about compensation that reduces the likelihood
that ancient wrongs may call for it? More precisely, are there any necessary conditions
for desert of compensation that become progressively harder to satisfy over time?
Prima facie, the answer to this question is clearly yes. On its standard interpretation,
compensation is the restoration of a good or level of well-being that someone would
have enjoyed if he had not been adversely affected by another's wrong act. To enjoy
(almost) any good, a person must exist. Hence, it seems to be a necessary condition for
X's deserving compensation for the effect of F s doing A that X would have existed in
A's absence. Where A is an act performed during X's lifetime, this requirement presents
few problems. However, as A recedes into the past, it becomes progressively more
likely that the effects of the non-performance of A will include X's non-existence. If X's
currently low level of well-being is due to the defrauding of his great-grandfather in
Europe, the very same fraudulent act that reduced X's great-grandfather to poverty may
be what caused him to emigrate to America and so to meet X's great-grandmother.
Because the prevalence of such stories increases as the relevant wrong act recedes into
the past, the probability that the effects of the wrong act will call for compensation must
decrease accordingly. And where the wrong act is an ancient one, that probability may
approach zero.
This way of explaining our intuitions about ancient wrongs may at first seem quite
compelling. But once we scrutinize it more closely, I think doubts must arise. If X
cannot deserve compensation for the effects of A unless X would have existed in the
absence of A, then not only ancient wrongs, but also the slave trade, the theft of the
Indians' land, and many other acts whose effects are often deemed worthy of compensation will turn out to be largely non-compensable. As Lawrence Davis notes, "were we
to project 200 years of our country's history in a rectified movie, the cast of characters
would surely differ significantly from the existing cast."3 Moreover, even if we were to
accept this conclusion, as Michael Levin has urged that we do,4 further problems would
remain. Even in the case of some wrong acts performed very shortly before their victims' existence (for example, acts of environmental pollution causing massive genetic
damage), it seems reasonable to suppose that it is not the victim, but rather some other
person, who would exist in the absence of the wrong act. And there are also cases in
which wrong acts do not produce but rather preserve the lives of their victims, as when
a kidnapping accidentally prevents a child from perishing in the fire that subsequently
L. Davis, "Comments on Nozick's Entitlement Theory", 842.
M. Levin, "Reverse Discrimination, Shackled Runners, and Personal Identity".

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George Sher

destroys his home. Since compensation may clearly be deserved in all such cases, it
seems that the proposed necessary condition for deserving it will have to be rejected.
If we do wish to reject that necessary condition, there are at least two alternatives
available to us. One is to alter our interpretation of the counterfactual presupposed by
the standard account of compensation - i.e., to read that counterfactual as requiring not
simply that X be better off in the closest possible world in which A is absent, but rather
that X be better off in the closest possible world in which A is absent and X exists. A
more drastic alternative, for which I have argued elsewhere, is to modify the standard
view of compensation itself - i.e., to say that compensating X is not necessarily
restoring X to the level of well-being that he would have occupied in the absence of A,
but rather that it is restoring X to the level of well-being that some related person or
group of persons would have occupied in the absence of A.5 Although both suggestions
obviously require further work,6 it is clear that neither yields the unacceptable consequences of the simpler account. However, it is also true that neither implies that the
probability of desert will decrease over time. Hence, the shift to either of them will call
for a different explanation of our intuitions about compensation for ancient wrongs.
3.

A more promising way of explaining these intuitions can be extracted from a recent
article by David Lyons. In an important discussion of the American Indian claims to
land,7 Lyons argues that property rights are unlikely to be so stable as to persist intact
through all sorts of social changes. Even on Nozick's extremely strong conception of
property rights, the "Lockean Proviso" implies that such rights must give way when
changing conditions bring it about that some individuals are made worse off by
(originally legitimate) past acts of acquisition. In particular, this may happen when new
arrivals are disadvantaged by their lack of access to established holdings. Because
property rights do thus change over time, Lyons argues that today's Indians would
probably not have a right to their ancestors' land even if it had not been illegitimately
taken. Hence, restoring the land or its equivalent to them is unlikely to be warranted as
compensation. But if this is true of America's Indians, then it must be true to an even
greater degree of the victims of ancient wrongs. If property rights are so unstable, then
rights held thousands of years ago would surely not have survived the world's drastic
population growth, the industrial revolution, or other massive social changes. Hence,
their violation in the distant past may appear to call for no compensation now.
Because wrongful harm and deprivation of property are so closely connected, this
approach initially seems to offer a comprehensive solution to our problem. However,
here again, a closer examination reveals difficulties. First, even if we grant Lyons' point
that changing conditions can alter people's entitlements and that new arrivals may be
entitled to fair shares of goods already held, it remains controversial to suppose that
these fair shares must be equal ones. If the shares need not be equal, then the instability
5
6

G. Sher, "Compensation and Transworld Personal Identity".


Although I have presented them as alternatives, the two suggestions need not be viewed as mutually
exclusive. Indeed, the most promising approach appears to be to combine them. The first suggestion
appears the more natural in those cases where there are many close alternative worlds that lack the
initial wrong act but contain the victim himself, while the second appears indispensable in those
instances where the initial wrong is so intimately associated with the victim's existence that there is
no such world.
D. Lyons, 'The New Indian Claims and the Original Rights to Land".

Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights

139

of property rights may well permit the preservation of substantial legitimate inequalities
through both time and inheritance. Moreover, second, even if property rights do fade
completely over time, there will still be many current persons whom ancient wrongs
have in one way or another prevented from acquiring new property rights. Because these
new rights would ex hypothesi not have been continuations of any earlier rights, they
would not have been affected by the instability of those earlier rights. Hence, the
persons who would have held them will apparently still deserve to be compensated.
Finally, despite the close connection between property and well-being, there are surely
many ways of being harmed that do not involve violations of property rights at all. As
many writers on preferential treatment have suggested, a person can also be harmed by
being deprived of self-respect, by being rendered less able to compete for opportunities
when they arise, and in other related ways. Although these claims must be scrutinized
with considerable care, at least some appear clearly true. Moreover, there is no reason to
believe that the psychological effects of a wrong act are any less long-lived, or any less
likely to be transmitted from generation to generation, than their economic counterparts.
It is true that the psychological effects of wrong acts are often themselves the result of
property violations; but the case for compensating for them does not appear to rest on
this. Because it does not, that case seems compatible with any view of the stability of
property rights.
4.
Given these difficulties, Lyons' insight about property does not itself resolve our
problem. However, it suggests a further line of inquiry that may. We have seen that
because property rights are not necessarily stable, we cannot assume that anyone who
retains his property in a world without the initial wrong is entitled to all (or even any) of
it in that world. A world in which that particular wrong is rectified may still be morally
deficient in other respects. Because of this, the real question is not how much property
the victim does have in the rectified world, but rather how much he should have in it.
Moreover, to avoid arbitrariness, we must say something similar about persons whose
losses do not involve property as well. If this is not generally recognized, it is probably
because deleting the initial wrong act, which is properly only necessary for establishing
what the victim should have had, is easily taken to be sufficient for it. But whatever the
source of the oversight, the fact that the operative judgments about rectified worlds are
themselves normative is a major complication in the theory of compensation, for
normative judgments do not always transfer smoothly to the actual world. By spelling
out the conditions under which they do not, we may hope finally to clarify the status of
ancient wrongs.
Let us begin by considering a normative judgment that plainly does not carry over
from a rectified world to our own. Suppose that X, a very promising student, has been
discriminatorily barred from entering law school; and suppose further that although X
knows he will be able to gain entry in another year, he becomes discouraged and so
does not reapply. In a rectified world Wr which lacks the initial discrimination, X
studies diligently and eventually becomes a prominent lawyer who enjoys great prestige
and a high salary. In that world, we may suppose, X is fully entitled to these goods.
However, in the actual world, Wa, the compensation to which X is entitled appears to
fall far short of them or their equivalent. Hence, our normative judgment does not fully
carry over from Wr to Wa.

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George Sher

Why does our normative judgment about Wr not fully carry over? In part, the answer
to this question seems to lie in X's own contribution to the actual course of events.
Given more perseverance, X could have avoided most of the effects of the initial wrong
act; and this certainly seems relevant to what he should now have. However, quite apart
from what X does or does not do in Wa, there is another factor to consider here. Insofar
as X's entitlements in Wr stem from what X does in law school and thereafter, they arise
through a sequence of actions that X does not perform in Wr until well after the original
wrong and that he does not perform in Wa at all. These entitlements are not merely
inherited by X in Wr, but rather are created anew by his actions in that world. But if X's
actions in Wr are themselves the source of some of his entitlements in that world, then it
will make little sense to suppose that those entitlements can exist in an alternative world
(that is, the actual one) which lacks the generating actions. To say this would be to hold
that what a person should have may be determined by certain actions that neither he nor
anyone else has actually performed.8 We are plainly unwilling to say things like this in
other contexts (nobody would say that a person deserves to be punished simply because
he would have committed a crime if given the opportunity),9 and they seem to be no
more supportable here.
In view of these considerations, it seems that the transferability of a person's entitlements from a rectified world to the actual one is limited by two distinct factors. It is
limited, first, by the degree to which one's actual entitlements have been diminished by
one's own omissions in this world and, second, by the degree to which one's entitlements in a rectified world are generated anew by one's own actions there. In the case of
X, this means that what transfers is not all of his entitlements in Wr, but at best his
entitlement to the basic opportunity to acquire these entitlements - in this instance, the
entitlement to (the value of) the lost opportunity to attend law school. Of course, the
value of this opportunity is itself determined by the value of the further goods whose
acquisition it makes possible. But the opportunity is clearly not worth as much as the
goods themselves.
This reasoning, if sound, sheds considerable light on the general concept of compensation. But because the reasoning applies equally to compensation for ancient and
recent wrongs, its connection with our special problem about ancient wrongs is not yet
clear. To bring out this connection, we must explore its implications over time. So let us
now suppose that not just X, but also X's son Z, has benefited from X's admission to law
school in Wr. As a result of X's wealth and status, Z enjoys certain advantages in Wr
that he does not enjoy in Wa. Assuming that X is fully entitled to his advantages in Wr,
and assuming also that X only confers advantages upon Z in morally legitimate ways
(whatever these are), it follows that Z too is fully entitled to his advantages in Wr. Under
these circumstances, Z may well deserve some compensation in Wa. However, because
Z's entitlement to his advantages in Wr stems directly from X's exercise of his own
entitlements in that world, it would be anomalous to suppose that the former entitlements could transfer in greater proportion than the latter. Moreover, and crucially, given
the principles already adduced, it seems that Z's entitlements in Wr will have to transfer
to Wa in even smaller proportion than X's.
The reason for this diminution in transferability is easy to see. Just as the transferability of X's entitlements is limited by certain facts about X's omissions in Wa and X's
actions in Wr, so too is the transferability of Z's entitlements limited by similar facts
8
9

This point is discussed in a more limited context in G. Sher, "Justifying Reverse Discrimination in
Employment", 166ff.
For discussion, see T. Nagel, "Moral Luck".

Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights

141

about Z's omissions in Wa and Z's actions in Wr. More specifically, the transferability
of Z's entitlements is also limited by Z's own failure to make the most of his opportunities in Wa, and by the degree to which Z's entitlements in Wr have arisen through his
use of his own special opportunities there. Of course, the opportunities available to Z in
Wr and Wa may be very different from the opportunity to attend law school; but this
difference is hardly a relevant one. Whether Z's advantages in Wr and Wa take the form
of wealth, political power, special skills or abilities, or simply self-confidence, the fact
remains that they are, inter alia, potential opportunities for him to acquire further
entitlements. Because of this, the way they contribute to his total entitlements in these
worlds must continue to affect the degree to which his entitlements in Wr can transfer to
Wa.
Once all of this is made clear, the outline of a general solution to our problem about
ancient wrongs should begin to emerge. Because the transferability of Z's entitlements
is diminished twice over by the contribution of actions performed in Wr and omitted in
Wa, while that of X's entitlements is diminished only once by this contribution, it
follows that Z is likely to deserve proportionately less compensation for the effects of
the original wrong than X; and Z's offspring, if any, will deserve proportionately less
compensation still. Moreover, since few original entitlements are preserved intact over
succeeding generations (quite apart from any instability of property rights, the
consumption of goods and the natural non-inheritability of many entitlements must each
take a large toll), the progressive diminution in the transferability of entitlements from
Wr to Wa must be absolute, not just proportional. But if the transferability of entitlements from rectified worlds does decrease with every generation, then over the course
of very many generations, any such transferability can be expected to become vanishingly small. Where the initial wrong was done many hundreds of years ago, almost all
of the difference between the victim's entitlements in the actual world and his entitlements in the rectified world can be expected to stem from the actions of various
intervening agents in the two alternative worlds. Little or none of it will be the
automatic effect of the initial wrong act itself. Since compensation is warranted only for
disparities in entitlements that are the automatic effect of the initial wrong act, this
means that there will be little or nothing left to compensate for.

5.
This approach to the problem posed by ancient wrongs is not dissimilar to the one
extracted from Lyons' discussion. Like Lyons, I have argued that a proper appreciation
of the entitlements upon which claims to compensation are based suggests that these
claims must fade with time. However, whereas Lyons argued that the entitlement to
property itself fades with time, I have held instead that it is the transferability of that and
other entitlements from rectified worlds to the actual one that becomes progressively
weaker. By thus relocating the basic instability, we avoid the objections that the analysis
of property rights is controversial, that some claims to compensation do not view the
right to the lost property as continually held in a rectified world, and that other claims to
compensation do not involve property at all. But although our account is not open to
these objections, it may seem to invite others just as serious. More specifically, it may
seem that our presupposition that entitlements are historically transmitted is itself
controversial, that our distinction between newly generated and continuing entitlements
is problematical, and that we have failed to account satisfactorily for the status of

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George Sher

wrongs that are neither recent nor ancient. In this final section, I shall consider each of
these objections in its turn.
The first objection, that the historical transmission of entitlements is as controversial
as any analysis of property, is easily answered. Put briefly, the answer is that this
presupposition is controversial, but that unlike any special view of property rights, it is
internal to the very notion of compensation that generates our problem. If entitlements
were never historically transmitted - if a person's entitlements at a given time were
never derived from the prior entitlements of others - then someone like Z would not be
entitled to any special advantages in Wr and so would not deserve any compensation in
Wa. Moreover, although it is less obvious, the same point holds even if Z is only
minimally well off in Wr, but is extremely disadvantaged in Wa. It may seem, in that
case, that Z's entitlements in Wr are independent of X's - that Z, like everyone else in
Wr, is entitled to a certain decent minimum no matter what X was entitled to or did in
the past. But even if this is so, it cannot form the basis for compensating Z for the
effects of the initial wrong act; for if Z is absolutely entitled to such a minimum in Wr,
then he will also be absolutely entitled to it in Wa, and so the original wrong act will
drop out as irrelevant.
Given these considerations, some form of historical transmission of entitlements is
plainly presupposed by any view permitting compensation for a variety of prenatal (and
so a fortiori ancient) wrongs.10 But just because of this, there may seem to be a problem
with our central distinction between continuing and newly produced entitlements. This
distinction appeared plausible enough when we first considered X's entitlements in Wr.
However, once we take seriously the fact that people can transmit, confer, and waive
their entitlements, the distinction seems to blur. When a parent confers advantages upon
his children by educating or bequeathing wealth to them, the entitlements acquired are
both related to earlier ones and the product of new generating actions. Moreover,
something similar may be said to hold even when someone merely retains his own
entitlement to property; for he too is acting at least in the sense that he is refraining from
transferring or waiving that entitlement. Because human actions and omissions are thus
crucial in perpetuating so many entitlements, our premise that this role cancels
transferability from rectified worlds may well appear too strong. Given this premise, it
seems to follow that not only ancient wrongs, but also recent ones, such as systematic
racial discrimination, and perhaps even fresh property crimes, are largely non-compensable.
These worries are serious ones and would require careful consideration in any full
account of compensation. Here, however, I shall only outline what I take to be the
correct response to them. Put briefly, my response is that the transferability of entitlements from rectified worlds should be viewed as disrupted not by all intervening acts or
omissions in those worlds, but rather only by those acts or omissions that alter previously established structures of entitlements. When an entitlement is already established in a
rectified world and is naturally stable over a period of time, its retention during that
period is totally explainable in terms of its initial acquisition. In this case, the entitlement need not be attributed to any further doings of the agent; and so those doings seem
irrelevant to the entitlement's transferability to the actual world. Moreover, assuming
the legitimacy of inheritance, something similar may well hold for advantages that are
transmitted to one's offspring; for here again, the resulting entitlements can be viewed
10

Thus, compensation is in one sense a strongly conservative notion. One can consistently advocate
redistributive measures on compensatory grounds or on non-historical consequentialist grounds, but
not, I think, on both grounds together.

Ancient Wrongs and Modern Rights

143

as natural continuations of initial ancestral acts of acquisition. Of course, the principle


of the conservation of entitlements that underlies these remarks would require considerable elaboration to be fully convincing. But something like it does seem initially
plausible, and anything along these lines will nicely preserve the conclusion that desert
of compensation is not entirely momentary and evanescent.
A final difficulty remains. Our argument has been that desert of compensation fades
gradually over time and that ancient wrongs therefore call for no significant amounts of
compensation. But even if this is correct, it does not dispose of the vast intermediate
class of wrongs that are not ancient, but were still done one or more generations ago.
Since the process we have described is gradual, our account suggests that such wrongs
do call for some compensation, although not as much as comparable recent ones. But if
this is so, then our account may seem at once too strong and too weak. The account may
seem too strong because it will classify as intermediate even the wrongs done to blacks
and Indians - wrongs that appear to be among our paradigms of full compensability.
However, the account may also seem too weak, since it implies that very many partially
compensable wrongs remain undiscovered and that our problem of how to act justly in
the face of incurable ignorance is therefore unresolved. Because any response to one
aspect of this objection will only aggravate the other, the difficulty seems intractable.
But this dilemma is surely overdrawn. On the side of the claims of blacks and Indians, it may first be said that even if the initial wrongs to these persons do go back
several centuries, the real source of their claims to compensation may lie elsewhere. As
Lyons notes, the truly compensable wrong done to the Indians may be not the initial
appropriation of their land, but rather the more recent acts of discrimination and neglect
that grew out of this; and the same may hold, mutatis mutandis, for the truly compensable wrongs done to blacks." Moreover, even if the compensable wrongs to blacks and
Indians do go back a number of generations, they may be highly atypical of other
wrongs of that period. We have seen that one reason that compensability fades over
time is that victims neglect reasonable opportunities to acquire equivalent entitlements;
and so if slavery or the appropriation of Indian lands have made it specially difficult for
their victims to recoup their lost entitlements, then these wrongs may call for far more
compensation than others of similar vintage. Here our earlier results provide a natural
framework for further inquiry. Finally, even if these suggestions do not establish full
compensability for blacks and Indians, they do at least promise very substantial compensation for them; and this is perhaps all that is needed to satisfy our intuitions on the
matter.
The other horn of our dilemma - that this account leaves untouched our incurable
ignorance about past compensable wrongs - is also overstated. The account does leave
us unable to diagnose more than a small fraction of the past wrongs requiring compensation; but by itself, this only implies that we cannot right all of history's wrongs. The
deeper worry, that in rectifying one injustice we may only be reverting to another, is at
least mitigated by the fact that the most significant period of history from the standpoint
of compensation is also the best known. Given this fact, the likelihood that our
compensatory efforts will make things better rather than worse is greatly increased. If
this solution is less precise than we might wish, it is perhaps the best that we have a
right to expect.

D. Lyons, 'The New Indian Claims", see esp. 268-271. See also B. Bittker, The Case for Black
Reparations, ch. 2.

144 George Sher


Bibliography
Bittker, B., The Case for Black Reparations, Random House, 1973.
Davis, L., "Comments on Nozick's Entitlement Theory", Journal of Philosophy 73
(1976).
Levin, M., "Reverse Discrimination, Shackled Runners, and Personal Identity",
Philosophical Studies 37 (1980).
Lyons, D., "The New Indian Claims and the Original Rights to Land", Social Theory
and Practice 4 (1977).
Nagel, T., "Moral Luck", Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Nozick, R., Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974.
Sher, G., "Justifying Reverse Discrimination in Employment", Philosophy and Public
Affairs 4 (1915).
Sher, G., "Compensation and Transworld Personal Identity", Monist 62 (1979).
Sher, G., "Effort, Ability, and Personal Desert", Philosophy and Public Affairs 8 (1979).

145

The Legacy of Injustice. Wronging the Future, Responsibility for the Past

Rahul Kumar and David Silver1

Contents
1.

Introduction

145

1.1 The Central Claim

145

1.2 The Forwards Doubt and the Backwards Doubt

147

2.

How Wrongs Can Go Forward

148

2.1 The Existential Worry

148

2.2 Contractualist Wrongs

149

2.3 Slavery as Contemptuous Devaluing of Others

151

3.

152

How Responsibility Can Go Backwards

3.1 Problems with Responsibility for Historical Wrongs

152

3.2 The Corporate Responsibility of the State

153

3.3 Responsibility of the American People: Citizenship and Ethnicity

154

3.4 Implications for Present-Day American Individuals

156

4.

157

Concluding Remarks

1. Introduction
1.1

The Central Claim

Do present-day African-Americans have a valid claim to rectification in virtue of the


history of American slavery? Part of the difficulty in answering this question is that it is
just not clear what the demand is, what its basis is, who the wronged party or parties is
or are, and of whom the demand is being made.
There are different answers available to all these questions, and we do not propose to
even begin to try and adequately map the complicated field of ways to make sense of
claims made in the name of the rectification of historical injustices. Rather, our purpose
is to explore one particular way of explicating, at least in principle, the basis for modern
For helpful discussion and criticism of previous drafts of this paper, we would particularly like to
thank those who attended presentations of this material at Queen's University, (he University of
Delaware, the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum, and the Eastern Division of the
American Philosophical Association. For particularly helpful written comments and discussion, we
thank Samuel Freeman and Michael McKenna.

146 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

African-Americans having a claim to rectification. The claim, roughly, goes like this:
those who comprise the modern African-American community - which consists of
those individuals who at the very least are identified as members of the community,
whether or not they self-identify with it - have a claim against the present-day American state to some form of rectification due to the state's role in enabling and legitimating various specific injustices that were visited upon African-Americans during the period in which the institution of chattel slavery was not explicitly and officially recognized by the state, both officially and through its activities, as wrong. Let us call this the
central claim.
Two points should be noted at the outset concerning the subject matter of our discussion. First, what we are concerned with is claims against a culpable party for rectification in virtue of its past conduct and in virtue of which the wronged party can be said to
have been wronged. What we are not concerned with here are issues concerning reparations and the liabilities of the culpable party. It is an open question to what extent our
arguments may have implications for questions concerning reparations.
The way we are using these terms, reparations aim to address the consequences of
one's wrongful treatment of another (or others). Rectification, on the other hand, aims to
address the fact that one has related to another wrongfully. It is a matter of addressing
what one's having wronged the other person says about one's understanding of how it is
appropriate to relate to the person one has wronged. This certainly calls for more than
just the acknowledgment of oneself as the culpable party. It is also requires acknowledgment of the seriousness of the wrongdoing as a moral failure about which one is repentant. It may also call for an acceptance of guilt, punishment, criticism, and the need
to make reparations. These concepts have a natural home in maintaining relations of
mutual respect between individuals in their daily interactions with one another; how
they translate into the more complicated case of the wronging of African-Americans by
the state is a complicated matter, about which we will say something in the latter part of
the paper.
Second, one might think that it can only be true in an attenuated sense to claim that
anyone today owes anyone today anything by way of rectification for the wrongs of
slavery. Those who were in fact culpable for the wrongs of slavery, and those who were
in fact wronged by the institution of slavery, are dead. If the present-day state, for example, owes rectification to the present-day African-American community, it only does
so in virtue of its being the inheritor of the rectificatory obligations incurred by the past
wrongdoing done in the name of the state, by the state at that time. To the extent that the
present-day African-American community is entitled to press these claims against the
state, it is not in virtue of themselves having been wronged by the past wrongdoing.
Rather, it is in virtue of having inherited the claims from others to whom they are related and in whose name they are entitled to press those claims against the present-day
state.
Our claim is stronger. What we seek to defend is the claim that the present state is
the proper place to direct a claim for the rectification of a wrong and not merely a place
to direct a claim for the payment of a liability. In other words, our view is that it is at
least in principle possible to claim that conduct associated with the institution of chattel
slavery has resulted in the wronging of modern African-Americans. The claim, therefore, has a distinct backward-looking element, insofar as rectification is sought for
events in the past that have resulted in the wronging of present-day African-Americans;
any acceptable form of rectification, therefore, must be understood to be one that is addressed to the rectification of the past wrongdoing. In this respect, the kind of claim we

The Legacy of Injustice

147

are concerned with is not a claim concerning distributive justice, in which claims can be
made concerning the needs of a badly-off group. The normative basis of such claims are
usually based on how well or badly off individuals are now; facts concerning past
generations may be illuminating for questions concerning how present-day individuals
came to be as badly, or as well, off as they are at the present time, but they are not
significant for the understanding the normative basis of the relevant kind of claim. For
this reason, distributive justice claims are to be classified as ahistorical.2 Our analysis of
the central claim is decidedly historical.
We do not plan to take a stand on whether or not the central claim is legitimate.
What we plan to do is remove some conceptual doubts about its coherence that philosophers have offered, and that one hears now and again in the debate over whether anything is owed to present-day African-Americans. Our defense of the possibility of there
being such a legitimate claim also has clear implications for what it makes sense to
claim is owed, insofar as anything can be defended as being owed. It also has surprising
implications for the question of whether there is just one legitimate claim, or different
claims that are difficult to see because of the close conceptual and practical connections
between the distinctive wrongs and the relevant wrongdoers. We will briefly touch upon
these matters at certain points in the discussion, though they are not the central focus of
the paper.
1.2

The Forwards Doubt and the Backwards Doubt

The doubt that we are concerned with interprets the central claim as saying that the present-day members of the African-American community have a claim against the state
because of the enslavement of their ancestors. The specific puzzle with which we are
concerned has two principal strands. First, the general question can be posed: how can
that which was done to individuals generations ago be appealed to as the basis of a
claim to rectification for having been wronged, given that those who are pressing the
claim (a) were not even alive at the time, and (b) would not exist today had it not been
for the very history in virtue of which they claim to have been wronged? Let us call (a)
the question of 'how wrongs can go forward", and call (b), which is of particular importance, 'the existential worry'.
The second strand of the doubt we shall call the question of 'how responsibility can
go backward'. Let us suppose that sense can be made of the thought that present-day
African-Americans have a legitimate claim to have been wronged by slavery. Isn't it the
case that the wrongdoers, or the culpable parties, no longer exist? Are they not, in fact,
our ancestors? Perhaps something is owed in the name of settling the debts of our ancestors. But this does not amount to, and ought not to be taken to be, an acknowledgment of culpability for those particular wrongs. After all, settling old debts does not
amount to an acknowledgment of responsibility as the wronging party. Aside from
vague fantasies about Methuselah-like figures, how could it be that the existence of
modern-day culpable parties is even a possibility? At least one reason for thinking that
there is no such possibility is that it is a deep feature of common-sense morality that one
We do not mean to suggest, however, that no facts about a person's past are relevant for understanding what an individual may be owed in the name of distributive justice. Justice claims are now
generally understood to be sensitive to considerations of an individual's responsibility for her
present state. This kind of sensitivity to facts about a person's past does not, in our view, justify
speaking of distributive entitlements as historically grounded.

148 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

cannot be held responsible for that over which one had no control. Events that took
place several hundred years ago certainly fall outside the relevant sphere of control, if
anything does.
Taking the path of least resistance we shall examine each strand individually and, in
the final section of the paper, return to the question of the extent to which we have
shown the central claim to be conceptually coherent. There we will consider what we
take to be the limits of our analysis.
Finally, our analysis explicitly takes advantage of the resources of a contractualist
(non-consequentialist) framework for understanding claims of having been wronged.
We do not intend to defend this framework against other ways of understanding the basis of claims to have been wronged, nor do we intend to defend our interpretation of
Scanlonian contractualism. We believe that the extent to which our defense of the central claim relies on the resources of contractualism should itself count as a powerful
vindication of its plausibility as a characterization of at least a central aspect of ordinary
moral reasoning.
2. How Wrongs Can Go Forward
2.1

V is wronged by W via act A only if V, in the absence of A,


(1) Exists
(2) Is not injured or wronged by W
The existential worry is that the claim of the contemporary African-Americans to
have been wronged cannot be made sense of, as it will not pass the counterfactual test.
The identity of the present-day African-American community is what it is because of its
past and in particular because of the wrongful ways in which the ancestors of its members were treated during the period of American slavery. Were those facts to be significantly different, its identity would be quite different. For present-day African-Americans to claim to have been wronged in virtue of what was done in the past, they would
have to claim that the fact of slavery is not plausibly thought of as an identity-fixing
fact; that is, it would have to be the case that if slavery had never occurred, their identity
would still be as it is now.

149

We agree with Morris that it is not intuitively plausible to deny that slavery is an
identity-fixing fact. Now, thus far we have left the notion of 'identity' unanalyzed. Morris and others, particularly Derek Parfit, have taken the appeal to identity here as a
metaphysical claim, and have suggested that, as a matter of metaphysics, those who
constitute the modern African-American community would have been different people
had its history been radically different.5 How the metaphysics of identity needs to be understood here, to best make sense of this intuition, is a matter that we will not pursue
here.6 What matters, for our purposes, is that it is intuitively plausible that identity
would not be preserved in the proposed counterfactual world.
Why is it that accepting this intuition is supposed to a priori undermine the central
claim? The line of reasoning goes as follows: to be wronged by another requires that the
way one has been treated counts as a way that one is morally entitled not to be treated,
and that, as a result of being treated in this way, one is adversely affected. By 'adversely
affected', the thought is that one has been made worse off than one would have otherwise been had one not been treated in the objectionable way. To claim to have been
wronged by another, then, involves an implicit appeal to a counterfactual. What the considerations concerning identity undermine is the availability of this counterfactual element.

The Existential Worry

The existential worry is easily seen by considering the following principle concerning
wrongs, advanced by Christopher Morris in his 'Existential Limits to the Rectification
of Past Wrongs'.4 According to Morris, the following is a plausible counterfactual test
for the conceptual coherence of a claim to have been wronged in the kind of case with
which we are here concerned:

The Legacy of Injustice

It is important that the relevant claims are claims to have been wronged. This suggests that an adequate analysis of the wrong in question must have a backward-looking element that is at odds with
standard consequentialist analyses of wrongdoing, which explicate claims concerning moral wrongness almost exclusively in forward-looking considerations. This suggests that rectificatory claims
are best analyzed in distinctively non-consequentialist terms. See T. Nagel, "War and Massacre",
sect. V, for relevant discussion. On contractualism, see T.M. Scanlon, "Contractualism and Utilitarianism" and T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other.
C. Morris, "Existential Limits to the Rectification of Past Wrongs".

2.2

Contractualist Wrongs

The conception of wrongdoing as involving the harming of another, or the imposition of


an unjustifiable burden upon another, is not implausible. Quite the contrary - most are
inclined to find it very plausible. No doubt that is due to its associations with an understanding of culpable wrongdoing at the heart of the liberal tradition, namely the harm
principle.
We believe, though, that this approach to understanding wrongdoing does not do
justice to our subject matter. What is required is a broader conception of wrongdoing broader, insofar as it allows for the possibility of a person's being wronged, where the
basis of the person's claim need not appeal to his having been made worse off than he
otherwise would have been. Scanlonian contractualism provides, we believe, a plausible
account of the relevant sense of moral wrongness.7 It is not our claim, however, that in
order to accept our claims as plausible, one must also accept contractualism as a
plausible characterization of moral reasoning. There is no reason to think that the plausibility of our defense of the central claim requires accepting anything more than those
aspects of the contractualist characterization of moral reasoning that are integral to our
analysis.
Two features of the contractualist account of moral wrongness are of particular interest for the purposes of our analysis. First, on the contractualist account, a wrongdoing
consists in the violation of legitimate expectations concerning interpersonal consideration and conduct. Individuals are entitled to these expectations in virtue of a system of
5
6

D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 351 -379.


Note, though, that it is not necessary to interpret the appeal to identity here as one of metaphysical
identity. One might have in mind a more social or explicitly normative understanding of identity,
concerning shared memories, customs, habits etc. For present purposes, we believe we can remain
agnostic on the question of how the appeal to identity here is best understood.
The 'relevant sense' here being wrongs that have a particular agent-relative character, insofar as the
wrong is the wronging of another, or others, not just a wrong "from the point of view of the uni-

150 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

principles whose purpose is to regulate how individuals ought to relate to one another if
they are to do so on a basis of mutual respect as beings capable of rational selfgovernance in the pursuit of a meaningful life.
A proper full explication of this claim will take us into issues that are interesting, but
not relevant for purposes of this discussion.8 What is important to note is that, on the
picture that emerges here, the moral system that is constituted by these principles establishes legitimate expectations for mutually respectful conduct and consideration between individuals understood, at least in some cases, to instantiate a certain type (as opposed to being a certain token). The 'type' appealed to here is that of one capable of rational self-government in the pursuit of a meaningful life. This is a normative characterization of the person that, on the contractualist account, is central for understanding
the basis and contours of specific duties that persons owe one another as a matter of
mutual respect.
The idea here may be helpfully clarified if one imagines oneself thinking about what
one might morally legitimately expect of another if one found oneself standing in a certain relation to another under particular circumstances. In so imagining, one is taking for
granted that there are pre-existing legitimate expectations for how individuals ought to
relate to one another which are fixed by the moral system. The principles which constitute this moral system are also important for the arbitration and clarification of these
expectations in cases of conflict and uncertainty.
To have wronged another, then, is to have violated certain legitimate expectations
that the moral system demands that one respect in how one conducts oneself. The
wrongdoing thus takes place at the point at which the wrongdoer violates certain legitimate expectations concerning conduct and consideration of others imposed on her by
the moral system, with which it is reasonable to have expected the wrongdoer to have
complied.9 The wronged party is at this point wronged insofar as a valid claim is created
by the violation of those expectations. Notice, though, that we may only be able to characterize the wronged party or parties as those who instantiate a particular type; that is,
the wrongdoer's conduct creates a legitimate claim to which any token of the relevant
type is entitled to appeal as the basis of her claim to having been wronged by another.
Having wronged another, then, does not, on the contractualist account, require the
claim that one has made the wronged party worse off. All that is required is that there
have been, at the time of the wrongdoing, certain legitimate expectations concerning
interpersonal consideration and conduct with which it was reasonable to have expected
the wrongdoer to comply. Insofar as she failed to do so, her conduct results in the creation of a legitimate claim to have been wronged. In the standard cases, we identify the
wronged party as a particular person, and not indirectly as someone who instantiates a
particular type; however, in those cases where we can identify the wronged parties as
those who instantiate a particular type, we get some results that are interestingly different from the standard cases. For example, there may be a large temporal gap between
For further discussion, see "Who can be Wronged?".
The point of this last clause is that one ought not to be held culpable for just any violation of the
legitimate expectations of others that occur as the result of her activity. In order to be held culpable,
it need only be the case that it is reasonable to have expected the person to have understood herself
as standing in certain kinds of relations with others, in virtue of which certain things may be legitimately expected of her concerning conduct and consideration with respect to those individuals. She
need not, however, be in a position to know the particular identity(ies) of these others)) concerning
the particular identity(ies) of these others, nor need there be a fact of the matter at the time, in order
for her to be legitimately bound by certain legitimate expectations. For a more comprehensive discussion of this general issue, see "Who Can Be Wronged".

The Legacy of Injustice

151

the moment of wrongdoing and there being any particular person who is entitled to
claim to have been wronged insofar as she is a token of the relevant type. The only thing
that is necessarily the case at the moment of the wrongdoing is that the wrongdoer
violate a principle which could serve as the basis of a claim to have been wronged by
someone who instantiated the relevant type.
With this analysis of wrongdoing in hand, we believe that we have successfully dispatched the existential worry as a threat to the central claim}0 There is another aspect of
the contractualist characterization of moral reasoning, however, that is important for
present purposes. Principles in the contractualist account serve as the basis for deliberation and criticism. To have a grasp of a specific valid principle in the kind of situation
one finds oneself in is to see certain kinds of considerations as relevant, and others to be
irrelevant, for determining how one ought to be relating to others in both thought and
action. Some of these considerations - and here we come to the important aspect of
contractualism essential for our analysis - may have nothing to do with the avoidance of
harm, or with considerations having to do with well-being. Rather, their importance is to
be explained in their relevance for persons' being able to relate to one another on terms
that are mutually respectful of one another as capable of rational self-government in the
pursuit of meaningful lives.
The general point we are concerned to draw attention to is that the wronging of another need not be limited to actions that diminish the well-being of those who are
wronged. Rather, according to the contractualist account of wronging, a person can also
be wronged just in virtue of the failure to recognize their value as one who is capable of
rational self-governance. Examples of a failure to recognize one's value as one capable
of rational self-govemance include: stigmatization, intentional humiliation, discrimination, certain kinds of paternalism, insults and intentional sleights, and 'looking through
another'. Note that while these ways of relating to others can have implications for the
well-being of the wronged parties, their wrongness consists, at least in part, simply in
the failure of the wrongdoer to appropriately recognize in her understanding of how to
relate to others the status of the wronged parties as persons.
With this in mind we can now turn to a contractualist analysis of at least one of the
ways in which conduct associated with the institution of chattel slavery resulted in the
wronging of African-Americans.
2.3

Slavery as Contemptuous Devaluing of Others

There is no such thing as the wrong of slavery; however, a particular kind of wrong that
is relevant for understanding the central claim is that of failing to appropriately take into
account, in one's thinking and conduct, the value of the other as a rational self-governor. What this draws attention to, and is otherwise easy to overlook, is the way in which
Negroes - i.e., those belonging to the actual or perceived racial category - were
wronged by the institution of slavery. The institution of slavery wronged them insofar as
10

This discussion of contractualism is incomplete in at least one crucial respect: it does not explain
why it is that contractualism is to be understood as an analysis of not just wrongdoing, but of the
basis of claims to have been wronged. One could imagine certain forms of utilitarian theory that are
vulnerable to Parfuian non-identity considerations making use of the idea of a framework of legitimate expectations and the token/type apparatus to circumvent the non-identity concerns. But such
an analysis would still not be an analysis of wrongness in the sense with which we are here concerned, and is crucial to the distinctiveness of our analysis. For further discussion of this general
matter, see R. Kumar, "Who Can Be Wronged?".

152 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

it presupposed a humiliating, patronizing and contemptuous understanding of their


value as persons. The attitude towards them was not just that they were unlucky in the
way that a conquered people who lose a war might end up being enslaved by the victors.
Rather, the attitude towards them was that their status as slaves was in some sense deserved, or fitting, given their status as inferior beings, especially in regards to a capacity
for rational self-governance. In this respect, the institution of slavery resembles the
colonization of a people, where the attitude towards the colonized is one of a contemptuous superiority and a patronizing noblesse oblige, expressed by the purported aim of
the institutions being one of 'civilizing' certain groups within the society, or if that is
not possible, of finding a place in society for people of their lesser natural capacities.
Indeed, when we speak of the African-American identity what we mean to appeal to
is the historically specific identity which was imposed upon Negroes - despite their
quite different ethnicities - who were forcibly brought, or were descended from those
who were forcibly brought, to be enslaved in the territories which now comprise the
United States of America. There are numerous ways that individuals in this group were
wronged because they were seen to have this identity. What we wish to focus on is how
they were wronged simply in virtue of taking them to be deserving of an inferior social,
political and legal status.
We can see, then, two important ways in which African-Americans can claim to have
been wronged by slavery. In the first instance they can claim to be wronged insofar as
they instantiate the type 'Negro'. The institution of slavery presupposed an understanding of those who instantiate this type as not entitled to respect as persons capable of rational self-governance. In this way African-Americans have an equal claim to be
wronged as other non-Americans who instantiate, or are perceived to instantiate, the
type 'Negro'. It is on this basis that we hold that many present-day Africans are also
wronged by past American slavery.
A second way that African-Americans can claim to be wronged by slavery is insofar
as they instantiate the type 'African-American'. The wrong in question has to do with
slavery's denial of protections and benefits of American citizenship to Negroes that they
would have been entitled to were they of the relevant race.
To the extent that these understandings of what it is to be a Negro what it is to be an
African-American have not been fully repudiated in the appropriate way, slavery can
continue to wrong anyone who instantiates these types. In this way, it is possible for
slavery to continue to wrong African-Americans today, despite the fact that the institution of slavery no longer exists. Understanding the importance of this last point takes us
to the second strand of our analysis.
3. How Responsibility Can Go Backwards
3.1

Problems with Responsibility for Historical Wrongs

In the last section we utilized aspects of contractual ist moral thinking to show how it is
intelligible to say that today's African-Americans have been wronged by slavery, even
though they would not have existed in its absence.
This still leaves open the question of where - if anywhere - it is appropriate to direct
a claim for rectification in virtue of these past wrongs. According to the central claim,
present-day African-Americans have a claim to rectification against the American state
as it is constituted today.

The Legacy of Injustice

153

There are difficulties, however, in sustaining such a claim. Chief among these is that
no American alive today was personally involved (either through commission or omission) in the wrongful acts of slavery. This appears to be a problem because of the following two principles:
The Rectification Principle: it is appropriate to make a claim upon X for rectification of Y
only if X is responsible for Y (where Y could stand for any judgment-sensitive attitude)."
One might object to the Rectification Principle on the grounds that it leaves no room for
cases of strict liability; however, we need to distinguish between a rectification of a
wrong and a compensation for a harm. It may indeed be the case that someone could be
liable to compensate someone for a harm even if he were not responsible for the wrongful act in question (or indeed even if there were no wrongful act at all); however, this
sort of compensation should not be construed as an instance of a rectification of a
wrong. And since we are trying to make sense of the central claim as a response to a
particular wrong associated with slavery, and not with any attendant harms, the central
claim depends on the present-day existence of a culpable party. And it is here that we
run up against another principle:
The Responsibility Principle: X is responsible for Y only if X stands in some sort of relation of control with respect to Y.
Given these two principles it follows that no American alive today is the appropriate
person to make a claim upon for a rectification of the historical injustices of slavery.
We agree with these principles. Indeed, they explain why it is that present-day African-Americans lack any sort of claim on other present-day Americans as individuals.
Our position, however, is that there are claims upon the American state, and on the
American people, both of which once had the relevant sort of control over some of the
wrongful conduct associated with slavery. We pursue this line of thought further in the
following sections.
3.2

The Corporate Responsibility of the State

In this section we will defend the claim that the American state, as an institution (or
complex of institutions), bears corporate responsibility for its past wrongdoings. Of the
many wrongs of the American state vis--vis slavery, we shall focus on one that could
only be accomplished by the state through the exercise of authoritative, legitimate state
power.
The wrong in question can be generally characterized as one of adding the authoritative imprimatur of the state to a widespread understanding of African-Americans that
denies their status as persons capable of rational self-governance. It is in virtue of
authoritatively legitimating the denial of the legitimate entitlement of African-Americans to respectful treatment that the state wronged them. Specifically, the state made it
legitimate to engage in discriminatory practices on the grounds that African-Americans
are of inferior status.
Of central importance here is that the democratic state was in a unique position to
confer an authoritative imprimatur on a certain pernicious understanding of the status of
African-Americans. The idea of an authoritative imprimatur can be clarified by appeal
See T.M. Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other, ch. 12, for the relevant discussion of judgmentsensitive attitudes that we here presuppose.

154 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

to a simple analogy. Imagine being picked on, and called names by, other children in the
playground at the mid-morning school recess break. It is one thing to be picked on by
the other children, but it is another thing altogether to be picked on, and have the teacher
stand by observing what is being done to you, not intervening because it is you who is
the object of the bullying, rather than someone who 'counts'. The presence of the
authority figure, and his or her inaction and indifference, clearly legitimates what is being done to oneself in the eyes of others, and no doubt to oneself (at least to some extent).
This general kind of wronging of African-Americans by the state has at least two aspects. To the extent that slavery was a private enterprise conducted by private individuals, the state had an obligation to protect the interests of the enslaved. Insofar as the
state failed to do so, either through a failure to enact policy or through a failure to fairly
enforce existing policy, it failed to take the appropriate measures needed to authoritatively repudiate the understanding of African-Americans that denied their full status as
persons. This constituted a serious failure of the state to comply with the minimal set of
duties it owed to them.
Of at least equal significance is the way in which the state's wrongdoing was accomplished through its activities, rather than its failures to act. These activities can, once
more, be grouped into two general types. First, state officials, acting both in their official capacity as representatives of the state, actively propagated attitudes towards African-Americans that were clear failures to recognize their true status as persons. Examples of authoritative expressions of contempt towards African-Americans are to be
found throughout the historical record of the activities of state legislatures, the Congress, state and federal courts (especially including the Supreme Court), local, state and
federal police, and other agents of the state, such as Presidents and Governors.
Second, chattel slavery was not an unregulated practice, hidden from the gaze of
public authority, like the underground economy. Rather, it was a legally authorized institution. In holding slaves, slave owners were exercising the legal powers granted to
them by the legitimate laws and regulations governing property. In other words, the
state actively enabled the practice of holding slaves, by recognizing slaves as a legitimate form of property, whose use, ownership, and disposal was governed by an elaborate set of legal regulations. ' 2
It is worth noting that the denial of the status of American-Americans as persons of
equal value continued to play an important role in the public deliberations of the state
well after the period of legal slavery ended. One need only consider the kinds of justifications offered by authoritative institutions for the Jim Crow laws to see that.
To the extent, then, that (i) the present state can be understood as minimally continuous with its past, and (ii) it is reasonable to claim that the state engaged in wrongful
conduct via its conferral of legitimacy upon the denial of the reality of African-Americans as having value as persons and (iii) these ways of seeing and treating AfricanAmericans have yet to be adequately repudiated by the state, it follows that (iv) it makes
sense to hold the present state culpable for the wrongs of slavery.
It is on this basis that we claim that the American state bears corporate responsibility
for at least the wrongs of having contributed to the authoritative legitimation of an
understanding of African-Americans in virtue of which their status as persons and as
being entitled to the benefits and protections of American citizenship was historically

The Legacy of Injustice

denied, and continues to be denied. In virtue of this corporate responsibility we take it


that the state is obligated to repudiate these pernicious understandings of the status of
African-Americans. Indeed, the state's repudiation of this understanding is necessary
for its proper repudiation, as we understand it, for only the state has the power to revoke
the authoritative imprimatur that it earlier conferred upon that understanding. Insofar as
this has not been done to an adequate degree, contemporary African-Americans have a
continuing, unmet claim upon the American state for the rectification of a wrongdoing
perpetrated against them due to its activities that began during the period of chattel slavery.
3.3

We are grateful to Samuel Freeman for discussion on this point. See D. Lyons, "Unfinished Business. Racial Junctures in US History and Their Legacy".

Responsibility of the American People. Citizenship and Ethnicity

In this section we argue that the American people bears both collective liability and
collective responsibility for the American state's wrongful conduct associated with slavery. In order to defend this claim we first need to distinguish two different conceptions
of what it is to be an American. To be an American in one sense is to be a full-fledged
citizen of the American state and thus a holder of a particular legal status. Let us refer to
this as being American by citizenship. The second conception of what it is to be an
American views it as being someone with a particular (for lack of a better term) etfinicity - as being defined, in part, as someone who is part of a people which, through much
of its history, acted via the actions of the American state. We take it, however, that the
American people acted prior to the existence of the American state, and that it was in
fact the American people qua ethnicity that established the American state.
The conditions for being an American by citizenship are not identical to those for
being an American by ethnicity. For example, one could renounce one's American citizenship without thereby ceasing to be an American by ethnicity. Indeed, becoming an
American by ethnicity involves a prolonged process of socialization and once the appropriate socialization has occurred one cannot simply decide to stop being an ethnic
American. On the other hand, one could become an American citizen without going
through this socialization process and thereby fail to identify with the American people
qua ethnicity.
Insofar as one is an American by citizenship, one is, as it were, a shareholder of the
American state which bears corporate responsibility for its wrongful actions associated
with slavery. Citizenship carries with it both benefits and burdens, and one of those burdens is the liability that one bears for the corporate wrongdoing committed by the state.
Note that a citizen need not be the beneficiary of slavery in any direct or indirect way in
order to appropriately bear this liability. It is simply one of the burdens that are part of
full citizenship, a status one may have just in virtue of birth, or may acquire through a
legitimate legal process. Moreover, these past wrongs of the American state need not
reflect on how an American by citizenship sees oneself. That is, one's obligations as a
citizen need not have any subjective implications for one's self-conception, i.e. one
need not think of oneself as a 'wrongdoer', nor is some sense of collective guilt necessarily appropriate. The wrongdoing of the state in question reflects not on the character
of the person but, rather, on the past quality of the ongoing state of which one is now a
citizen.13
13

12

155

On Hannah Arendt's account of collective responsibility, one also gains liability for the wrongs of
the state in which one finds oneself. On her account, however, there is no requirement that one be a
citizen of the state one finds oneself in in order to gain liability for its past actions. See Arendt,

156

Things are different, however, when we consider Americans by ethnicity. A crucial


part of the socialization process of becoming an American by ethnicity involves coming
to see the actions of the American people as, in a sense, one's own. One sees the actions
of the American people as 'our actions'. To the extent, then, that the American people
has acted wrongly, this means that an American by ethnicity should think, 'We acted
wrongly'.
One might worry that it makes no sense to say that the American people (or any
other people for that matter) acted. The right response to this line of thought, we believe, is that whenever persons and institutions that are recognized as being rightfully
empowered to act in the name of a given people act within the ambit of their recognized
authority, the people obtain what we call national responsibility for that action.14 Thus,
if we can find instances where persons or institutions that are recognized as being rightfully empowered to act in the name of the American people contributed (within the ambit of their recognized authority) to the wrongs of slavery, then we should attribute national responsibility to the American people for those actions.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to find instances of such acts. We might start by
looking to the adopters of the Constitution who spoke in the name of "We the People"
and are (now) generally recognized to have done so authoritatively. By affirming the
legitimacy of the institution of slavery these individuals implicated not only themselves,
but also the American people, insofar as they are recognized as the legitimate agents of
the American people acting within the ambit of their authority.
Given the control that the American people exercised over slavery, the Responsibility
Principle provides no barrier to thinking that the American people qua ethnicity is responsible for these wrongs. And, given this fact, the Rectification Principle provides no
barrier to thinking that the American people - understood as an ethnicity - is an appropriate body upon which to make a claim for the rectification of these wrongs. This, of
course, just is to address the demand for rectification to the state, as the state is now the
sole legitimate and authoritative agent through which the will of the American people is
enacted.
We may summarize our view as follows: first, African-Americans have a direct
claim to rectification from the American state insofar as it bears corporate responsibility
for wrongful conduct associated with slavery, and the American people qua citizenry
can rightfully be called upon to bear the liability associated with that corporate responsibility. Second, we are suggesting that African-Americans have an indirect claim
against the American state insofar as it is the legitimate agent of the American people
(understood as an ethnicity) which bears collective responsibility for the wrongful conduct of the American state vis--vis slavery.

14

The Legacy of Injustice 157

Rahul Kumar and David Silver

"Collective Responsibility", 43-50.


The persons and institutions that are recognized as being rightfully empowered to act in the name of
a people - often state officials and institutions - have the power to utilize the power of the state to
act in ways that are not within the ambit of their recognized authority. In such cases we recognize
the existence of a kind of state responsibility for those actions that does not immediately translate
into national responsibility for them. However, in the case of American slavery, the state's responsibility for the wrongs of slavery does immediately translate into the American nation's responsibility, since in many cases the official persons and institutions were acting fully within the ambit of
their recognized authority.

3.4

Implications for Present-Day American Individuals

In this section we will address the implications of what we have said above for presentday American individuals. At the very least all Americans should be supportive of efforts to get the state to adequately address its own corporate wrongs. In addition, insofar
as one takes oneself to be an American by ethnicity, one should be supportive of efforts
of the state to adequately address the nationai wrongs of the American people.
Moreover, we are open to the idea that an American by ethnicity should feel a kind
of guilt (or, in any event, something closely related to guilt) in virtue of the American
people's past wrongful conduct associated with slavery.15 This guilt, of course, would
be quite different (in terms of its ethical implications if not in terms of its phenomenology) from the guilt one might feel in relation to one's own individual wrongdoing. It
would be a guilt rooted in the recognition of what 'we did' rather than a recognition of
what 'I did'.
The connection between being an American by ethnicity and appropriately feeling
guilt for the actions of the American people is not a simple matter, and we will not attempt to do it full justice here. Something does need to be said, though as to why it is
(usually) inappropriate for African-Americans to feel guilty in virtue of the fact that the
American people qua ethnicity wronged both their ancestors and themselves.
Our suggestion is that it does not make sense for (most) African-Americans to feel
guilt for the wrongful conduct of the American people vis--vis slavery because they
sensibly do not identify with the American people {qua ethnicity) according to the selfunderstanding of what it is to be an American that informed that wrongful conduct. Indeed, that self-understanding of what it is to be an American explicitly excluded the
possibility of African-Americans' being full-fledged citizens.
This is by no means to say that African-Americans are Americans only insofar as
they are Americans by citizenship. Rather, we take it to be significant that the self-understanding of what it is to be an American has broadened through time, and has broadened in particular to see African-Americans as full members of the American people.
We take it then that African-Americans can be Americans by ethnicity, but only in relation to a self-understanding of what it is to be an American that includes themselves as
full-fledged members.
4.

Concluding Remarks

We have argued here that it is intelligible to make what we have been calling the central
claim. According to this claim the African-American community of today has a claim to
rectification against the American state in virtue of the wrongs done by the state during
the period of American slavery. Although we think that this claim is intelligible, we
agree that whether or not the claim is valid is a matter that can sensibly be contested.
There are at least three ways in which this claim may be contested, all of which appeal to the historical record. First, one might question whether the present state, or the
American people as presently constituted, are sufficiently continuous with the past to
ground an attribution to them of responsibility for the wrongs of slavery. Second, one
might contest the claim that the American people and/or the American state engaged in
wrongful actions during the period of American slavery. Such claims strike us as deeply
15

Why a kind of guilt is appropriate (in addition to feelings of shame) is discussed in D. Silver, "Collective Responsibility and the Ownership of Actions".

158 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

implausible, but not unintelligible. Third, one might grant that these wrongful actions
occurred, but hold that they have already been adequately repudiated by the state. Here,
one might appeal to the efforts associated with the civil rights movement, or national
policies of affirmative action, as having provided the kind of appropriate rectification
that was required. But the significance of this history, and whether it is appropriate to
understand it to be entwined with rectificatory considerations, is a matter of serious ongoing debate, and can only be advanced through further research by historians, legal
scholars, and other social theorists.
Even if, however, we assume the central claim to he valid, it is a difficult matter to
determine what this entails by way of appropriate redress. At a minimum, we hold that
an official acknowledgment and apology carried out by the American state is required.
Though what is involved in making an apology is reasonably clear, what counts as an
acknowledgment might not be. Something further may be demanded by the idea of acknowledgment, such as a national museum documenting the extent and nature of the
wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans during the period of slavery.
We will not attempt here to more fully determine the requirements of rectificatory
justice in relation to American slavery. Rather, we will try to diagnose the difficulty in
coming to a view on this matter: we take it to be a main part of the difficulty of determining these requirements stems from the fact that what we owe to each other in terms
of rectificatory justice is largely a matter of cultural convention. To the extent that these
conventions differ between the wrongdoer and the victim, this diminishes the ability to
easily achieve an acknowledgement of the wrong that is effectively communicated and
received.
Moreover, for certain kinds of collective wrongdoings there may be no cultural conventions at all on either side dealing with the appropriate way to acknowledge the
wrong. Here genocide, slavery, expulsion of a people from their homeland, and other
forms of systematic dehumanization come to mind. Here we want to add that the fact
that no convention exists presently does not mean that we do nothing. After all, as difficult as they are to start, conventions must start somehow; and, whatever process this involves, we have an obligation to embark on it.

Bibliography
Arendt, H., "Collective Responsibility", Amor Mundi, ed. J.W. Bernauer, Dordrecht,
1987.
Kumar, R., "Who Can Be Wronged?", Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003).
Lyons, D., "Unfinished Business. Racial Junctures in US History and Their Legacy",
this volume.
Morris, C , "Existential Limits to the Rectification of Past Wrongs", American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984).
Nagel, T., "War and Massacre", Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press,1984.
Scanion, T.M., "Contractualism and Utilitarianism", Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. A.
Sen and B. Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Scanion, T.M., What We Owe to Each Other, Harvard University Press, 1998.
Silver, D., "Collective Responsibility and the Ownership of Actions", Public Affairs
Quarterly 16 (2002).

159

Colonization and Historical Injustice - The Australian Experience1

Paul Patton

Contents
1.

Decolonization and the Requirements of Justice

2.

Distributive, Reparative and Relational Justice

3.

Applicability and Limits of These Aspects of Justice

4.

Is Colonial Injustice Superseded?

5.

The Complexity of Colonial Injustice

159
160
162
167
170

1. Decolonization and the Requirements of Justice


The history of European colonization followed a depressingly similar pattern in many
parts of the world. In most cases, indigenous populations were dramatically reduced by
the combined effects of newly introduced diseases/encroachment upon traditional lands
and conflict with settlers. But whatever their number, indigenous peoples were soon
relegated to the status of social minorities and their cultures marginalized. The consequences of dispossession, displacement, systematic discrimination and policies designed
to force assimilation have been devastating. Colonized indigenous peoples continue to
suffer higher rates of disease, mortality, unemployment and criminalization, while remaining under-represented in all the institutions of public social life. The destruction of
indigenous societies in various parts of the new world is an enormous and shameful cost
of the spread of European civilization. Only recently has it become possible for the descendants of colonists to begin to appreciate what was almost entirely destroyed,
namely sophisticated societies with their own concepts of ecological, social and spiritual
order. Confronted with indigenous peoples whose conceptions of their social and natural
environment departed from European models, the colonizers tended to assume that difference automatically implied inferiority. Like those "noble races" from an earlier period who, as Nietzsche comments, 'left the concept of "barbarian" in their traces wherever they went',2 colonial governments applied different rules outside the borders of
their own "civilized" world. They only recognized the authority of aboriginal nations
when forced to do so, and then all too frequently set about undermining the treaties and
agreements which they had signed.
The collapse of the system of belief that sustained colonization, along with the reconstitution of indigenous cultures and political organization, may yet turn out to be one
of the great cultural achievements of the latter part of the twentieth century. These de1
2

I am grateful to Moira Gatens for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morality, First Essay, para. 11.

159

158 Rahul Kumar and David Silver

implausible, but not unintelligible. Third, one might grant that these wrongful actions
occurred, but hold that they have already been adequately repudiated by the state. Here,
one might appeal to the efforts associated with the civil rights movement, or national
policies of affirmative action, as having provided the kind of appropriate rectification
that was required. But the significance of this history, and whether it is appropriate to
understand it to be entwined with rectificatory considerations, is a matter of serious ongoing debate, and can only be advanced through further research by historians, legal
scholars, and other social theorists.
Even if, however, we assume the central claim to be valid, it is a difficult matter to
determine what this entails by way of appropriate redress. At a minimum, we hold that
an official acknowledgment and apology carried out by the American state is required.
Though what is involved in making an apology is reasonably clear, what counts as an
acknowledgment might not be. Something further may be demanded by the idea of acknowledgment, such as a national museum documenting the extent and nature of the
wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans during the period of slavery.
We will not attempt here to more fully determine the requirements of rectificatory
justice in relation to American slavery. Rather, we will try to diagnose the difficulty in
coming to a view on this matter: we take it to be a main part of the difficulty of determining these requirements stems from the fact that what we owe to each other in terms
of rectificatory justice is largely a matter of cultural convention. To the extent that these
conventions differ between the wrongdoer and the victim, this diminishes the ability to
easily achieve an acknowledgement of the wrong that is effectively communicated and
received.
Moreover, for certain kinds of collective wrongdoings there may be no cultural conventions at all on either side dealing with the appropriate way to acknowledge the
wrong. Here genocide, slavery, expulsion of a people from their homeland, and other
forms of systematic dehumanization come to mind. Here we want to add that the fact
that no convention exists presently does not mean that we do nothing. After all, as difficult as they are to start, conventions must start somehow; and, whatever process this involves, we have an obligation to embark on it.

Bibliography
Arendt, H., "Collective Responsibility", Amor Mundi, ed. J.W. Bernauer, Dordrecht,
1987.
Kumar, R., "Who Can Be Wronged?", Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003).
Lyons, D., "Unfinished Business. Racial Junctures in US History and Their Legacy",
this volume.
Morris, C , "Existential Limits to the Rectification of Past Wrongs", American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984).
Nagel, T., "War and Massacre", Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, 1984.
Scanion, T.M., "Contractualism and Utilitarianism", Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. A.
Sen and B. Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Scanion, T.M., What We Owe to Each Other, Harvard University Press, 1998.
Silver, D., "Collective Responsibility and the Ownership of Actions", Public Affairs
Quarterly 16 (2002).

Colonization and Historical Injustice - The Australian Experience1

Paul Patton

Contents
1.

Decolonization and the Requirements of Justice

159

2.

Distributive, Reparative and Relational Justice

160

3.

Applicability and Limits of These Aspects of Justice

162

4.

Is Colonial Injustice Superseded?

167

5.

The Complexity of Colonial Injustice

170

1. Decolonization and the Requirements of Justice


The history of European colonization followed a depressingly similar pattern in many
parts of the world. In most cases, indigenous populations were dramatically reduced by
the combined effects of newly introduced diseases/encroachment upon traditional lands
and conflict with settlers. But whatever their number, indigenous peoples were soon
relegated to the status of social minorities and their cultures marginalized. The consequences of dispossession, displacement, systematic discrimination and policies designed
to force assimilation have been devastating. Colonized indigenous peoples continue to
suffer higher rates of disease, mortality, unemployment and criminalization, while remaining under-represented in all the institutions of public social life. The destruction of
indigenous societies in various parts of the new world is an enormous and shameful cost
of the spread of European civilization. Only recently has it become possible for the descendants of colonists to begin to appreciate what was almost entirely destroyed,
namely sophisticated societies with their own concepts of ecological, social and spiritual
order. Confronted with indigenous peoples whose conceptions of their social and natural
environment departed from European models, the colonizers tended to assume that difference automatically implied inferiority. Like those "noble races" from an earlier period who, as Nietzsche comments, 'left the concept of "barbarian" in their traces wherever they went',2 colonial governments applied different rules outside the borders of
their own "civilized" world. They only recognized the authority of aboriginal nations
when forced to do so, and then all too frequently set about undermining the treaties and
agreements which they had signed.
The collapse of the system of belief that sustained colonization, along with the reconstitution of indigenous cultures and political organization, may yet tum out to be one
of the great cultural achievements of the latter part of the twentieth century. These de1
2

I am grateful to Moira Gatens for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morality, First Essay, para. 11.

160 Paul Patton

velopments have made possible an appreciation of the injustice involved in colonization


that extends beyond the indigenous communities most affected. They have enabled
many countries that were established through colonization to embrace the project of
establishing just relations between their indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. In
Australia, this project was formally adopted in 1991 with the passage of an Act of Parliament designed to achieve reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous
peoples by the end of the decade.3 Two of the judges in the 1992 Mabo judgment - a
landmark High Court decision which acknowledged the survival of common law Aboriginal title to land - expressed a similar aspiration for the recognition of past injustice
when they said that the "acts and events" by which legal dispossession was carried out
"constitute the darkest aspect of the history of this nation. The nation as a whole must
remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgment of, and retreat from,
those past injustices".4 In a speech given the following year, in the context of fierce national debate over the far-reaching revision to the legal terms of colonization proposed
in Mabo, Prime Minister Keating asserted that this judgment had created a unique opportunity for the country to reconstruct the fundamental relationship between the nation
and its indigenous people "on just foundations".5
Nevertheless, in Australia as elsewhere, this process of internal decolonization has
stalled, partly because of an inability to agree on the requirements of justice in this context. While there is widespread agreement that colonization involved injustice towards
indigenous peoples, there is less agreement over the respects in which colonization was
unjust and how we should respond to that injustice. Given that it is beyond our power to
change the past, and assuming that our primary responsibility is towards the present and
the future, what is required now to establish relations with indigenous citizens on just
foundations? Contemporary political philosophy offers at least three distinct paths toward an answer to this question: one oriented towards the present distribution of rights
and social goods on the basis of a presumption of equal entitlement for all; one oriented
towards reparation or restitution in respect of past wrongful acts; and one oriented towards the establishing of relations of mutual recognition and respect between the indigenous and settler communities within a given postcolonial state.
While the discussion that follows is geared to the circumstances of decolonization in
Australia, the overriding aim is to argue that all of these approaches are necessary to
address the complex and interdependent forms of historical injustice involved in colonization and that none by itself is sufficient. For this reason, they may be regarded not as
alternative approaches to the injustice of colonization but as complementary approaches
to distinct aspects or dimensions of injustice, each of which is relevant although in
varying degrees according to the details of a particular colonial history. The complexity
of the injustice involved also has consequences for criticisms directed at each of these
aspects of justice taken separately. Accordingly, the latter sections of this chapter will
examine the consequences of the interdependence of these three dimensions of injustice
for Jeremy Waldron's influential criticism of the applicability of reparatory justice to
the present circumstances of decolonization.6
3
4
5
6

Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 (Cth). For a brief discussion of this project and its
failure see P. Patton, Reconciliation, droits aborigines et paradoxe constitutionnel en Australie.
Deane and Gaudron, in The Mabo Decision, 82. Mabo v Queensland (1992) is reported at 175 CLR
l;66ALJR408;107ALRl.
Keating, The H. V. Evatt Lecture, 6.
J. Waldron, "Historic Injustice"; ders., "Superseding Historic Injustice"; ders., "Redressing Historic
Injustice".

Colonization and Historical Injustice

2.

161

Distributive, Reparative and Relational Justice

The first approach relies upon the principle of equality as the only acceptable basis for
the distribution of rights and access to social goods. According to this view, justice involves equal treatment for all, where this requires not only the formal equality that
comes with equal treatment before the law and the absence of discrimination, but also
substantive equality of access to public goods and services. The concept of substantive
equality implies that all individuals and communities should enjoy the same services
and benefits of citizenship, regardless of race or circumstance. The underlying idea is
that all individuals are of equal moral worth and that none should be disadvantaged,
relative to others, through no fault of their own. The equality approach provides a philosophical basis for the current Australian government's policy of "practical" reconciliation which aims to target government services and expenditure at key areas of indigenous disadvantage, especially health, employment and education. Here, as in many
other countries, the indigenous population is significantly disadvantaged relative to
other citizens in relation to health, education, employment, treatment by the criminal
justice system and a range of other indicators of socio-economic well being. Whether or
not these inequalities can be directly attributed to policies inflicted by colonial governments, they constitute a clear case of undeserved disadvantage. Liberal justice requires
that they be removed.
According to some theorists, the equality based approach to justice also provides
limited support for differential political rights. Thus, Will Kymlicka relies on the principle of equality with respect to access to basic goods in order to argue for minority cultural rights. He argues that, since liberal equality guarantees to each individual "an
equal share of resources and liberties in order to pursue the things they value",7 and
since cultural membership is a crucial resource which individuals require in order to
exercise their freedom to choose and revise their life plans, all should be entitled to the
good of cultural membership on an equal basis. Since the viability of minority cultures
may be threatened by the actions of the majority in multicultural states, there is justification for differential treatment in the form of special rights to protect minority cultures.
However, as Kymlicka acknowledges, there are limits to the degree and kinds of differential rights that may be supported by this argument.81 comment further below on the
limitations of this approach to colonial injustice.
The second approach relies on the idea that justice should involve reparation or recompense for past injustice or wrongful actions. It is a common response to historic injustice to invoke the inalterability of the past. However, the effects of past injustice may
continue to be felt in the present. The force of the appeal to reparative justice lies in the
fact that, although we cannot undo the past, we can change the present to make it as if
the past event had not occurred. The simplest case is restitution where this involves the
replacement of a stolen item.9 Restitution is an accepted principle in law as well as in
the practice of treaties or other agreements between indigenous peoples and colonial
states. This principle lies behind the commonsense view that, since colonization in7
8
9

W. Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, 182.


W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, 109f.
Waldron suggests that this amounts to "a sense in which we can affect the moral significance of
past action" (J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 7). However, it is not obvious that the
moral significance of past acts of dispossession or the violation of rights is affected by efforts to redress some of the consequences. Is it the moral significance of theft which is affected by restitution
or is it rather precisely because of the moral significance of theft that restitution is an appropriate
remedy?

Colonization and Historical Injustice

162 Paul Patton

volved unjust appropriation of Aboriginal lands, a just settlement must begin with recognition of their historical claim to the lands and other goods that were stolen from
them. David Lyons outlines this kind of argument as the "natural" way of reasoning
about Native American land claims: "Before the European invasion of America, the
land belonged to them. In the course of that invasion and its aftermath, the land was
illicitly taken from them. The rightful owners of the land were dispossessed ... Ideally,
the land should be restored to its rightful owners".10 There are, of course, severe difficulties with the suggestion that land should be restored in its entirety to the descendants
of the rightful owners. Lyons, Waldron and others have provided good reasons to dispute the claim of historical entitlement. These will be considered in more detail below
as I seek to question the force of these criticisms in their application to present colonial
circumstances.
However, even if the principle of reparation were fully accepted alongside the principle of equality and compensation for undeserved disadvantage, this would not exhaust
the present requirements of justice for colonized indigenous peoples. The third approach
focuses on the character of the relationship between elements of the political community
in question. What is missing from considerations of distributive or reparative justice is
respect for the other parties to the colonial relation. In particular, the concepts of distributive and reparative justice do not address the sense of injustice that flows from the
belief that colonization itself was a violation of fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. For this reason, James Tully privileges a third conception of justice which requires
a certain kind of recognition of others. He begins his Seeley lectures by suggesting that,
among the many questions of justice which may be raised in relation to the situation of
colonized indigenous peoples, "a certain priority is claimed for justice with respect to
cultural recognition in comparison with the many other questions of justice that a constitution must address".11 Tully argues that the question of justice for colonized indigenous peoples is a special case of justice with respect to cultural recognition. This question is posed in respect of constitutional arrangements and as such enjoys priority since
the answer given will determine the normative and institutional framework within
which other questions of justice (with regard to the distribution of social goods and the
rectification of historical justice ) will be addressed.
Tully further asks what principles of constitutional association could sustain a just
relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. His answer points to the
"common constitutionalism" that emerged in the course of interactions between Aboriginal and Common Law systems during the early modern period. This Aboriginal and
Common Law system rested upon the three principles of mutual recognition, consent
and continuity of entitlements as these were expressed in the Great Law of Peace of the
Iroquois Confederacy, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and in the US Supreme Court
judgments of CJ Marshall especially Worcester v State of Georgia 1832. These are
"norms that come into being and come to be accepted as authoritative in the course of
constitutional practice, including criticism and contestation of that practice".12 Tully
argues that this set of common constitutional principles provides a normative framework which embodies the principles of just association between European and Aboriginal nations.

10
11
12

D. Lyons, 'The New Indian Land Claims and Original Rights to Land", 358.
J. Tully, Strange Multiplicity, 6.
Ibid., 116.

163

3. Applicability and Limits of These Aspects of Justice


The first point to note about these three approaches to the injustice of colonization is
that each of them will be more or less relevant in a particular context, depending upon
the historical details of the process of colonization and the resultant legal and constitutional form of capture of indigenous land and resources. For example, in those parts of
North America or in countries such as Aotearoa/New Zealand where treaties purporting
to set the terms of cooperation between European and indigenous nations were signed,
demands for reparation or restitution with regard to failure to meet the terms of a given
treaty will often be appropriate. By contrast, in Australia where no treaties of any kind
were entered into and where the assertion of sovereignty and subsequent allocation of
property rights took place on the basis of the principle of terra nullius, the question of
recognition of Aboriginal peoples as peoples with their own laws, cultures and systems
of governance assumes particular importance. Here, colonial occupation took the extreme form of a refusal to acknowledge in any way the prior existence and authority of
indigenous law and custom. The sovereign authority of present Australian governments
derives from the British sovereignty which was imposed on indigenous peoples without
their consent and without regard for their laws and practices of government. As a result,
there is good reason to suppose that justice toward indigenous people in the present requires recognition of the past and continuing injustice that flows from the non-recognition of rights and duties associated with indigenous law and culture.13
A second conclusion to be drawn is that in itself each of these approaches is deficient
as a response to the injustice of colonization. For example, Tully's argument is open to
the following objection: it is all very well to spell out the principles of a just constitutional association. It is helpful to know that the three conventions of recognition, consent and continuity have been incorporated into some legal and political institutions at
some periods during the long history of European colonization. But in the end, these are
no more than the principles of an ideal form of association which does not obtain in
practice. It may be useful to envisage an historically counterfactual state of affairs in
which colonization as we know it did not occur but quite different modes of contact
between European and indigenous peoples did take place. These might have allowed
indigenous societies to adopt elements of European culture and technology on their own
terms and at their own pace. Novel and sustainable hybrid cultures may have evolved
instead of the demoralized cultures of poverty and welfare dependence that are often the
consequences of colonialism. In these terms, Tully's thought experiment provides us
with a normative ideal against which present constitutional and political relationships
between indigenous societies and settler states may be judged. But this does nothing to
alter the unequal power relations that do in fact obtain. It does little to undermine the
asymmetrical relations between European and indigenous law, culture and belief systems. These consequences of colonization and the system of colonial domination which
they sustain remain largely intact and unchanged, along with substantial disparities in
access to basic social goods.14

13

14

Aboriginal leader and former chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Patrick Dodson
refers to "the reconciliation of recognition" and clarifies what this means by saying that: 'The sovereign position that Aboriginal peoples assert has never been ceded. Recognition starts from the
premiss that terra nullius and its consequences were imposed upon the Aboriginal peoples ...", P.
Dodson, "Lingiari - Until the Chains are Broken", 266.
J. Tully responds to this kind of criticism in 'The Struggles of Indigenous Peoples for and of Freedom", 36-59.

164 Paul Patton

The equality based policy of practical reconciliation may also be argued to be of


limited value in that it only addresses the consequences of colonization, without regard
to the particular circumstances of dispossession, relocation and forced assimilation as
these were carried out under colonial administrations. To the extent that other requirements of justice such as reparation or recognition are not addressed, this approach alone
is an inadequate response to the injustice of colonization. Kymlicka's argument for minority cultural rights is equally open to criticism with regard to the limited manner in
which it addresses the consequences of colonization. While it may be applied to the
situation of indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia and elsewhere, it only addresses
their situation at a certain level of generality, namely in so far as these peoples are in a
position of disadvantage with respect to the survival of their culture as a consequence of
conditions beyond their control. It is apparent that Kymlicka's argument for minority
cultural rights will apply to any group that is a minority through no fault of its own, say
a population relocated in response to natural or economic disaster. Indeed, the argument
in Liberalism, Community, and Culture relies upon treating the disadvantage to which
indigenous minority cultures are subject as equivalent to natural rather than chosen disability. There are a number of ways in which this neglects specific features of colonization and the resultant cultural marginalization of indigenous peoples. The argument
owes nothing to the fact that these are indigenous peoples with their own cultural values
and forms of attachment to their lands. It does not address the sense of injustice at the
very fact of colonization and the associated failure to acknowledge Aboriginal law and
culture. Even less does it address the sense of injustice that flows from the particular
legal form assumed by colonization in Australia, namely, the imposition of British sovereignty and law on the grounds that this country was a legal terra nullius.
Finally, as Waldron has pointed out in the series of papers referred to earlier (see
note 6 above), there are a number of problems with the application of narrow principles
of rectification or reparatory justice in order to eliminate or ameliorate the consequences
of colonial injustice. This approach treats the injustice as an isolated act located in the
past and seeks to rectify the consequences of that act. The problems have to do with the
length of time that has elapsed since the initial injustice occurred and, as a consequence,
the difficulty of determining how the present might look if that original injustice had not
taken place. One set of problems arises in relation to the manner in which the counterfactual present involves assumptions about choices on the part of those affected. How
do we know what the original owners may have decided to do with land? How do we
know what anyone will decide until they actually make a decision? This problem becomes particularly intractable when the choices that could affect present outcomes extend over generations and where these are path-dependent so that certain choices will
affect the possibility of future choices or even the very existence of the subjects of possible choices.15 In "Superseding Historic Injustice", Waldron canvasses one possible
response, namely to rely on rational choice assumptions such that no choice would be
supposed to leave the chooser worse off. On this basis, we could at least determine a
minimal level of present outcomes of past choices and then compensate according to the
difference between this minimum and the actual condition of present descendants of
those dispossed. In this way, it would be possible to alter present circumstances in the
direction that they may have taken if past injustice had not occurred.16
At this point, however, further problems arise. Firstly, we need to consider the way
in which injustices perpetrated by a few will affect outcomes for all those who trade in
15
16

See J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 61f.


J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 11.

Colonization and Historical Injustice

165

the market in land. In this way, by virtue of the contagion of injustice through the market, it is not just the present holders of illegitimately obtained land who benefit from
injustice, but all present landholders.17 However, this only presents a problem for reparative justice if we rely on narrow Nozickean assumptions about the transmission of
injustice through property transfers and the resultant responsibility for the costs of reparation. Market contagion is only a problem because it expands the class of beneficiaries
of the initial injustice to include those with scrupulously just titles to their land, when it
was assumed that only the descendants of the perpetrators of injustice would benefit and
should therefore bear the cost of reparation. In response, it may be argued that the principle underlying this attribution of responsibility in the present is defective since there
may well be descendants of perpetrators who have in fact derived no benefit from the
illicit acts of their forebears. More importantly, the contagion argument may be irrelevant with regard to the justice of any acquisition under the particular conditions of colonization. In the Australian case, where it was assumed that there were no owners of the
land prior to the arrival of the British Crown, it may be argued that that all subsequent
allocations or transfers of title are infected by the injustice of this initial imposition of
sovereignty.
In fact, like the contagion of property acquisition on the basis of the terra nullius
principle, the contagion of injustice through the market might be used as an argument
for assigning responsibility for reparations to the entire present population of beneficiaries. An obvious procedure to distribute the costs of reparation in this manner would be
via the tax system. Bigelow, Pargetter and Young argue for this kind of response in
suggesting that present day non-indigenous Australians as a whole have a responsibility
to compensate the indigenous population. Their approach is structural rather than linked
to individual unjust acts. They suggest that the responsibility on the part of non-indigenous people derives from the fact that their level of well-being is causally linked to indigenous dispossession: "the essential part of the argument for compensation is that a
causal path can be traced from the low well-being of the Aborigines to the high wellbeing of the whites, and the high well-being of the whites is traceable to the low wellbeing of the blacks".18 In common with this wholistic approach, it might be argued that
the distribution of benefits through the market actually simplifies the problem of assigning responsibility for the present consequences of wrongful dispossession.
An analogous problem also arises in relation to the putative beneficiaries of reparation, namely the descendants of those dispossessed. They would be "privileged" relative
to other disadvantaged individuals in that they would be insulated from the consequences of poor judgment or external circumstances in a way that the others are not.
This seems unfair and likely to fuel resentment among elements of the non-indigenous
underprivileged. Resentment of precisely this kind did in fact emerge in Australia and
assume a political form around Pauline Hanson and the "One Nation" movement. However, in this case, too, the problem arises because of the assumption that it is only the
descendants of those who suffered wrongful dispossession who should be compensated
for undeserved disadvantage. As Waldron implicitly recognizes, some liberal theories of
equality such as Dworkin's resource equality would indeed recommend rectifying the
situation of all those disadvantaged through no fault of their own.1
17
18

19

J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 1 If.


J. Bigelow, R. Pargetter and R. Young, "Land, Weil-Being and Compensation". Justice Brennan
supports this approach in his Mabo judgment when he notes that the dispossession of Aboriginal
peoples "underwrote the development of the nation" (The Mabo Decision, 50).
In "Superseding Historic Injustice", 13, he writes: "Ultimately, what is raised here is the question of

166

Paul Patton

More generally, the objection here involves the moral arbitrariness of singling out the
injustice of colonial dispossession from amongst all the other injustices or undeserved
harms perpetrated on the ancestors of the present population. In reply, it may be argued
that the appearance of arbitrariness is an effect of confining the issue to that of reparation for the loss of property. If we take a broader view of the colonial experience, then it
is apparent that property loss forms only a part of the injustice suffered by indigenous
peoples: forced resettlement, violence and sexual assault, confinement under so called
"protection acts", subjection to policies of assimilation and removal of children are
some of the additional ways in which their culture, self-esteem and agency were systematically undermined. Against the background of a broader understanding of the nature and effects of colonial administration, reparation might be described not simply as
the attempt to rectify the consequences of particular past injustices but rather as part of
the attempt to constitute a moral and political community where before there was
none.20 Viewed in this light, the significance of reparation payments is as much a matter
of symbolism as it is an attempt to erase the material consequences of past injustice.
Like acts of apology, reparations signal the desire for a form of moral community based
upon mutual recognition and sympathy for past suffering. In these terms, the payment of
reparations concerns the form of relationship between the indigenous and non-indigenous communities and falls under the purview of relational rather than reparatory justice. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive and the point here is to suggest that
treating them as separate approaches to the issue of justice or injustice is in large part a
matter of theoretical artifice. The general conclusion to be drawn from these difficulties
in application to colonial circumstances is that, in this context, considerations of relational, distributive and reparative justice and injustice cannot easily be separated. The
injustice of colonization is a complex phenomena involving elements of all three approaches to justice and an adequate response must necessarily take this interdependence
into account.
To the extent that injustice in colonial contexts often involves communal property
and the rights of corporate entities such as a people, clan or kin group, the problem of
restitution might be supposed to be simplified since these are entities that persist over
time even though their members change. Restitution would seem to be simply a matter
of returning land or other resources to its owners. In fact, however, the circumstances of
colonial history often complicate the issue of the persistence even of such corporate
entities. Thus, in the Australian case, the Mabo judgment recognized that the relationship of a particular group to a parcel of land may have been obliterated by virtue of the
fact that the relevant coroporate entities had not survived, or that their relationship to the
land in accordance with traditional laws and customs had not been maintained. In at
least one major case involving Aboriginal people in the relatively settled south east of
the continent, the claimed entitlement has been found to have been swept away by the

20

whether it is possible to rectify particular injustices without undertaking a comprehensive redistribution that addresses all claims of justice that may be made ... ".
The point has often been made in the Australian debates over reconciliation, as it has elsewhere,
that symbolic reparations - including apologies - are important for the constitution of collective
identity as a moral community. Although his primary concern is with material reparation, Waldron
acknowledges the importance that recollection and acknowledgment of past injustice may have for
the constitution of individual and collective identity: "Quite apart from any attempt genuinely to
compensate victims or offset their losses, reparations may symbolize a society's undertaking not to
forget or deny that a particular injustice took place, and to respect and help sustain a dignified sense
of identity-in-memory for the people affected" ("Superseding Historic Injustice", 6).

Colonization and Historical Injustice

167

"tide of history".21 The issues here include whether or not the claimant group is sufficiently continuous with the one which was dispossessed and, in the terms of the test
established for the continuation of native title, whether or not the traditional relationship
with the land in question had been maintained. In addition, there remains the fundamental issue of whether or not that relationship is sufficient to sustain a form of ownership which includes the right to exclude or at least to limit the use and access of others,
and whether such a property right persists through the change of circumstance which
comes with colonization.
4.

Is Colonial Injustice Superseded?

The problems raised in relation to reparation for past unjust acts do not automatically
arise in cases where the unjust act itself is ongoing. The rectification of injustice in this
situation need not involve counterfactual reasoning since, at least in the first instance,
the appropriate response is to put an end to the ongoing injustice, leaving open the question of restitution or compensation for the previous loss of enjoyment. This is in effect
the procedure followed by the Australian High Court in Mabo. By dispelling the legal
misconception that ownership of land had passed to the Crown upon the assertion of
sovereignty, and by showing how the common law allowed that a form of Aboriginal
title to land could survive the change of sovereignty, the Court put an end to the injustice in respect of indigenous property right which had been perpetrated since 1788.
However, at the same time, a bare majority of the judges held that there were no legal
grounds for compensation for past unjust appropriation of land. This did not necessarily
mean that they thought there was no moral basis for compensation, but only that they
did not provide grounds for a legal remedy. Perhaps they took the view this was a matter more appropriately addressed by political means.
However, Waldron points out that a different set of problems does arise in connection with the idea that injustices initially committed in the past are ongoing. Most importantly, problems arise in connection with the underlying view of property entitlement
that supports reparative claims. The assumption here is that, once acquired, entitlements
continue until they are relinquished or transferred. Against this view, Lyons and Waldron both argue that entitlement and rights are sensitive to the passage of time and
changes of circumstances. It is not a novel idea in law that rights may fade as circumstances change. There are good pragmatic reasons for statutes of limitations and for the
doctrine of adverse possession. But there are also reasons of principle for thinking that
entitlements may change over time. These involve, firstly, the basis of rights themselves. Lyons and Waldron follow Nozick in rejecting Locke's labor theory of initial
entitlement to land as too strong, making it difficult to explain how subsequent transfer
of entitlement is possible. Waldron replaces the Lockean theory with an account that
relies upon the degree to which the land in question has become part of the individual's
life plans and projects, or her general "structure of action". Acquisition that disrupts the
plans of no one else may be supposed to take priority over acquisition that does disrupt
another's plans. However, Waldron points out, this asymmetry is sensitive to changes of

21

The Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v State of Victoria (1998) FCA 1606. This
case was upheld in the Federal Court (Yorta Yorta v Victoria (2001) 110 FCR 244) and then in the
High Court (Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria 2002 HCA 58. Similar
issues are raised in the case involving Maori fishing rights and Urban Maori Athorities discussed by
J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 64-6.

168 Paul Patton

circumstance which affect the plans of the parties involved. Thus, the entitlement of
original owners will weaken over time if they are separated from the land. This seems to
provide an incentive to hold onto stolen land. Waldron accepts this consequence of the
theory, but concludes that it shows the tension between an argument for property entitlements based on autonomy and the desire for such entitlements to be imprescriptible.22
Whatever the precise details of the basis of original entitlement, if entitlement is sensitive to background circumstances then it is vulnerable to prescription. This is the core
of Lyons' argument against the common sense view that Native American land claims
are founded on the violation of rights which were in operation at the time of invasion
and which remain in force today: "From the fact that they had morally defensible claims
two hundred or four hundred years ago it cannot be inferred that those claims persist".23
It is also the key argument for Waldron's conclusion that historic injustice may be superseded. He suggests that the principle of sensitivity to circumstances, which implies
that what is legitimate acquisition in one case is not necessarily so in another, is already
implicit in Locke's proviso that acquisition of land in a state of nature is legitimate only
as long as we leave "enough and as good" for others. If we further suppose, as the rejection of Locke's theory of original acquisition above suggests, that property entitlement is not once and for all but that its legitimacy may be open to challenge at any moment, then legitimate entitlement will depend on circumstances at the time. It is as
though the claim were renewed each time. As a consequence, legitimacy may fade over
time as circumstances change: the legitimate ownership of a waterhole in times of plenty may not entail the right to exclude others in times of scarcity. Lyons and Waldron
both argue that it is ownership rights themselves which are variable rather than saying
that rights of ownership might be overridden by, say, a humanitarian duty to redistribute
property to others. Lyons takes the view that "property rights themselves, and not just
their exercise or contents, are relative to circumstances", while Waldron argues that
property entitlement is itself a set of claim rights, liberty rights and powers that are "circumstantially sensitive".24
In a world in which there is enormous poverty and disparity of entitlement, this
might appear to render all property rights precarious.25 Apparently unpeturbed by this
consequence, Waldron develops the further argument that, if legitimate entitlement is
sensitive to changes in background circumstances, then the same must apply to illegitimate acquisition. He gives an example in which the violation by one group of the legitimate rights of others to a given waterhole is overtaken by ecological catastrophe
such that the interlopers acquire a right to share what they had wrongly begun to use. In
these circumstances, "they are entitled to share that water hole. Their use of Hg no
longer counts as an injustice; it is now in fact part of what justice now requires. The
initial injustice by F against G has been superseded by circumstances".26 More gener22
23
24
25

26

J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 25; J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 70.
D. Lyons, "The New Indian Land Claims", 375.
D. Lyons, "The New Indian Land Claims", 370; J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 23; J.
Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 67f.
If the implications of this conclusion do not alarm Lyons and Waldron, then it is not clear why they
should be concerned about large scale transfers of property or wealth in the course of rectifying the
historical injustices of colonization.
J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 68; see also page 70, where he writes: "it seems
possible that an act which counted as an 'justice when it was committed in circumstances Q may
be transformed, so far as its ongoing effect is concerned, into a just situation if circumstances
change in the meantime form C] to C 2 . When this happens, I shall say the injustice has been

Colonization and Historical Injustice

169

ally, unjust infringement of rights of others may become justified in light of changed
circumstances. This conclusion is unavoidable unless we make legitimate entitlement
impervious to circumstance. It follows then that a change in circumstances might justify
forcing the indigenous owners of a given territory to share their land with others, even
though it might have been unjustly appropriated in the past: "If circumstances make a
difference to what counts as just acquisition, then they must make a difference also to
what counts as an unjust incursion".27 This argument leaves unanswered a number of
questions about the terms and conditions on which territory might be shared. Does it
imply that sovereignty over the entire territory ought to be ceded? Does it imply that
indigenous people should be removed or excluded from their traditional lands? These
are exactly the kinds of changes forced upon in the course of colonization.
Nevertheless, let us assume for the sake of argument that the case for the possibility
of supersession of injustice is sound. It does not follow that this has in fact occurred in
any particular colonial context. Waldron admits that the conceptual possibility of historic supersession does not mean that it has occurred in any given situation: "Everything
depends on which circumstances are taken to be morally significant and how as a matter
of fact circumstances have changed".28 Nevertheless, he does think that the changes
which have occurred in countries such as Aotearoa/ New Zealand and Australia are "exactly the sort of facts one would expect to make a difference to the justice of a set of
entitlements over resources". These include the fact that "population has increased
manyfold and the descendants of the colonists have nowhere else to go", as well as the
occurrence of "demographic and ecological changes".29 While it is undoubtedly true
that such changes have taken place, their precise moral implication remains to be determined. There are, after all, significant differences between the kind of case on which
Waldron relies in order to argue for the possibility of supersession and the actual circumstances of colonization. The argument for the conceptual possibility of supersession
relies on a hypothetical case of ecological disaster such that the need of others to make
use of the resources owned by the indigenous population was both extreme and brought
about by circumstances beyond their control. It is by no means clear that the colonial
occupation of countries such as Aotearoa/ New Zealand and Australia occurred under
morally similar circumstances. Whatever the reasons for the initial settlement in indigenous territories, and whatever the justification for the initial claims to sovereignty over
these territories, their effective occupation took place over centuries and, in the Australian case, involved neither negotiations nor treaties with the indigenous inhabitants.
These were not regarded as having any rights or entitlements which required recognition
and, as a result, the issue of whether or not settlement occurred in response to a greater
need or in response to circumstances beyond the control of those who came never arose.
In the terms of Waldron's example, it is relevant to the entitlement of the colonists to
ask whether there is a compelling moral case for their appropriation of indigenous land.
Yet it is far from obvious how we would begin to answer this question. The historical
reality of the motives behind colonization and the often brutal manner in which it was
carried out are simply glossed over in benign talk of population increase, demographic
and ecological changes.

27
28
29

superseded" (See also J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 24).


J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 68; see also J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 25.
J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 71, see also J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 25.
J. Waldron, "Superseding Historic Injustice", 26.

170

Paul Patton

Moreover, even if we accept that questions about the circumstances and methods of
colonial occupation have no bearing on the situation of the descendants of the original
colonists, it still remains to be asked how exactly the changes wrought by colonization
(increase of the settler population, ecological changes, etc.) affect the claims of the descendants of the indigenous owners. Assuming that wholesale repatriation of the settler
population is not an option, how should we strike a balance between their interests and
those of the surviving indigenous peoples? It is surely too strong to suggest that the interests of the latter group are simply invalidated by virtue of the supersession argument.
Perhaps they should be modified to the extent necessary to take into account the legitimate interests and aspirations of the descendants of the original invaders? Conversely,
we may ask whether the interests of these descendants and other more recent arrivals
exclude the possibility of considerable reparation for those who still suffer the adverse
consequences of historical injustice?
5.

The Complexity of Colonial Injustice

Waldron's discussion of the possible supersession of property entitlements approaches


the issue of Aboriginal claims to land and resources from the perspective of historic injustice in order to ask whether what may have been unjust appropriation by settlers in
the past continues to constitute injustice in the present (given the changes in background
circumstances etc.). By contrast, Justice Brennan's judgment in Mabo approaches the
issue from the perspective of the principle of equality and suggests that the legal justifications previously offered for refusing to recognize indigenous rights and interests in
land are "unjust and disciminatory" and can no longer be accepted: "It is contrary both
to international standards and to the fundamental values of our common law to entrench
a discriminatory rule which, because of the supposed position on the scale of social organization of the indigenous inhabitants of a settled colony, denies them a right to occupy their traditional lands".30 In practice, with regard to the nature of native title and
the conditions under which it may have evaporated or be susceptible to extinction by the
Crown the Mabo judgment and subsequent decisions confirm that it is a weaker form of
title destined to give way to the interests of other land users. Although the arguments
advanced for treating native title in this way are legal and pragmatic rather than moral,
the end result is not dissimilar to the outcome suggested by Waldron's argument for prescriptibility.
In effect, the issue of justice in respect of indigenous entitlements to land involves
questions of equal treatment before the law, of the continuation of the corporate entity
which has the entitlement and the relationship to land on which it is based, as well as the
legitimate rights and expectations of the non-indigenous population. In addition, it may
be argued that the ongoing injustice - wrongful dispossession - is also bound up with
another form of continuing injustice, namely the lack of acknowledgment, recognition
and respect for the identity, law and culture of a particular people. This was a crucial
part of the legal basis on which Aboriginal land was appropriated in the Australian
colonies: it was only possible to consider the land terra nullius and therefore legally
available for claim on the condition that Aboriginal law was not recognized as law and
the people not recognized as capable of having legitimate entitlements to property. To
the extent that Aboriginal law and culture has survived, then the failure to recognize this
is an ongoing injustice. It may well be true that the overall circumstance in relation to
30

The Mabo Decision, 29.

Colonization and Historical Injustice

171

the need for and use of land and resources has changed so that the livelihood of nonindigenous peoples now depend on access to and use of these same resources. It may
well be true, as Waldron suggests, that "the costs of respecting primeval entitlements
are much greater now than they were in 1800".31 This is an argument for taking these
legitimate interests into account, which is what is achieved in effect by the legal rules
relating to the vulnerability of native title to extinguishment and to co-existence with
other rights and interests in land, but not an argument for the supersession of the property rights of the indigenous peoples. Moreover, the legal basis on which this pragmatic
accommodation is achieved is the sovereign power of the colonial judiciary, a sovereignty imposed by means of the doctrine of terra nullius. To the extent that this remains
the basis for the legal authority of the colonial state, the injustice of non-recognition is
ongoing. Australian indigenous people have made it clear what is required to redress
this wrong, namely their recognition as parties to an eventual negotiated settlement,
treaty or document of reconciliation.
If it is correct to insist upon the complex and interrelated forms of injustice that are
bound up in colonization, then it is premature to speak of the supersession of injustice.
The distinctions between distributive, reparative and relational justice are a matter of
theoretical convenience rather than historical experience. They do not in themselves
justify their application to the circumstances of colonization in isolation from one another. An adequate response to the injustice of colonization requires that we take into
account all three forms of injustice along with their historical interaction.

31

J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice", 71.

173

172 Paul Patton


Bibliography
Bartlett, R.H. (ed.), The Mabo Decision, Butterworths, 1993.
Bigelow, J., Pargetter, R. and R. Young, "Land, Weil-Being and Compensation", Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 68 (1990).
Dodson, P., "Lingiari - Until the Chains are Broken", 4th Annual Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, Essays on Australian Reconciliation, ed. M. Grattan, Black Inc
Books, 2000.
Keating, P., The H.V. Evatt Lecture - New Visions For Australia, Evatt Foundation,
1993.
Kymlicka, W., Liberalism, Community and Culture, Clarendon Press, 1989.
Kymlicka, W., Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Clarendon Press, 1995.
Lyons, D., "The New Indian Land Claims and Original Rights to Land", originally published in Social Theory and Practice, 4 (1977), republished in Reading Nozick. Essays on Anarchy, State and Utopia, ed. J. Paul, Blackwell, 1982.
Nietzsche, F, Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1969.
Patton, P., "Reconciliation, droits aborigenes et paradoxe constitutionnel en Australie",
Alterite et Droit: Contributions Vetude du rapport entre droit et culture, ed. Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, Editions Bruylant, 2002.
Tully, J., Strange Multiplicity. Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (1994 John
Robert Seeley Lectures), Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Tully, J., "The Struggles of Indigenous Peoples for and of Freedom", Political Theory
and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ed. D. Ivison, P. Patton, and W. Sanders,
Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Waldron, J., "Historic Injustice. Its Remembrance and Supersession", Justice, Ethics
and New Zealand Society, ed. G. Oddie and R. Perrett, Oxford University Press,
1992.
Waldron, J., "Superseding Historic Injustice", Ethics, 103 (1992).
Waldron, J., "Redressing Historic Injustice", this volume.

Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation1

Lukas H. Meyer

Contents
Introduction
3.

Surviving Duties
Carrying Out Acts of Symbolic Compensation in Fulfilling a Surviving
Duty Towards the Dead Victims

4.

Concluding Remarks

173
174
178
181

1. Introduction
Our obligations to provide measures of compensation for past injustices are often justified by appeal to the interests of contemporaries and future people: We should attempt
to counteract the negative consequences of these past wrongs for the well-being of current and future people. However, such a forward-looking interpretation of the relevance
of past injustices is incomplete when understood as a statement of how we ought to respond to the fact that past people were severely wronged. The true moral significance of
past wrongs does not lie in their impact on currently living and future people's well-being; rather, the significance of past wrongs should be seen in the fact that past people
were victims of these injustices. We need to enquire into the question of what we owe to
the dead victims of past public evils. The forward-looking interpretation is misleading
in suggesting that we owe them nothing - that, in the words of Max Horkheimer, "[p]ast
injuries took place in the past and the matter ended there. The slain are truly slain."2
One could defend the claim that we are obliged to the past victims of injustices by
attributing rights to them. To attribute rights to dead people may seem unproblematic if
we assume that people continue to exist after their physical death, that they exist as people who can be affected by the events of this world or that they might even be able to
act in ways that have an impact on what happens in the world. These assumptions about
the ontological status of previously living people are at least as controversial as the as-

For helpful discussion, comments and suggestions I should like to thank Brian Barry, Brian Bix,
Axel Gosseries, David Heyd, Stanley L. Paulson, Walter Welsch, Andrew Williams, and two anonymous referees of Revue Philosophique de Louvain (which published the article under the title
"Obligations Persistantes et R6paration Symbolique" in 101 (2003).
"Das vergangene Unrecht ist geschehen und abgeschlossen. Die Erschlagenen sind wirklich erschlagen." In a letter to Walter Benjamin 1937, as quoted in R. Tiedemann, Dialektik im Stillstand,
107.

172 Paul Patton


Bibliography
Bartlett, R.H. (ed.), The Mabo Decision, Butterworths, 1993.
Bigelow, J., Pargetter, R. and R. Young, "Land, Weil-Being and Compensation", Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 68 (1990).
Dodson, P., "Lingiari - Until the Chains are Broken", 4th Annual Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, Essays on Australian Reconciliation, ed. M. Grattan, Black Inc
Books, 2000.
Keating, P., The H.V. Evatt Lecture - New Visions For Australia, Evatt Foundation,
1993.
Kymlicka, W., Liberalism, Community and Culture, Clarendon Press, 1989.
Kymlicka, W., Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Clarendon Press, 1995.
Lyons, D., "The New Indian Land Claims and Original Rights to Land", originally published in Social Theory and Practice, 4 (1977), republished in Reading Nozick. Essays on Anarchy, State and Utopia, ed. J. Paul, Blackwell, 1982.
Nietzsche, F, Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1969.
Patton, P., "Reconciliation, droits aborigenes et paradoxe constitutionnel en Australie",
Alterite et Droit: Contributions Vetude du rapport entre droit et culture, ed, Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, Editions Bruylant, 2002.
Tully, J., Strange Multiplicity. Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (1994 John
Robert Seeley Lectures), Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Tully, J., "The Struggles of Indigenous Peoples for and of Freedom", Political Theory
and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ed. D. Ivison, P. Patton, and W. Sanders,
Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Waldron, J., "Historic Injustice. Its Remembrance and Supersession", Justice, Ethics
and New Zealand Society, ed. G. Oddie and R. Perrett, Oxford University Press,
1992.
Waldron, J., "Superseding Historic Injustice", Ethics, 103 (1992).
Waldron, J., "Redressing Historic Injustice", this volume.

173

Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

Lukas H. Meyer

Contents
1.

Introduction

173

2.

Surviving Duties

174

3.

Carrying Out Acts of Symbolic Compensation in Fulfilling a Surviving


Duty Towards the Dead Victims

178

4.

Concluding Remarks

181

1. Introduction
Our obligations to provide measures of compensation for past injustices are often justified by appeal to the interests of contemporaries and future people: We should attempt
to counteract the negative consequences of these past wrongs for the well-being of current and future people. However, such a forward-looking interpretation of the relevance
of past injustices is incomplete when understood as a statement of how we ought to respond to the fact that past people were severely wronged. The true moral significance of
past wrongs does not lie in their impact on currently living and future people's well-being; rather, the significance of past wrongs should be seen in the fact that past people
were victims of these injustices. We need to enquire into the question of what we owe to
the dead victims of past public evils. The forward-looking interpretation is misleading
in suggesting that we owe them nothing - that, in the words of Max Horkheimer, "[p]ast
injuries took place in the past and the matter ended there. The slain are truly slain."
One could defend the claim that we are obliged to the past victims of injustices by
attributing rights to them. To attribute rights to dead people may seem unproblematic if
we assume that people continue to exist after their physical death, that they exist as people who can be affected by the events of this world or that they might even be able to
act in ways that have an impact on what happens in the world. These assumptions about
the ontological status of previously living people are at least as controversial as the as-

For helpful discussion, comments and suggestions I should like to thank Brian Barry, Brian Bix,
Axel Gosseries, David Heyd, Stanley L. Paulson, Walter Welsch, Andrew Williams, and two anonymous referees of Revue Philosophique de Louvain (which published the article under the title
"Obligations Persistantes et Reparation Symbolique" in 101 (2003).
"Das vergangene Unrecht ist geschehen und abgeschlossen. Die Erschlagenen sind wirklich erschlagen." In a letter to Walter Benjamin 1937, as quoted in R. Tiedemann, Dialektik im Stillstand,
107.

174 Lukas H.Meyer


sumption that dead people do not exist as persons.3 A presupposition that is equally
compatible with at least some of the controversial and mutually exclusive presuppositions on the ontological status of dead people can be considered a suitable starting point
for a philosophical investigation into the question of whether we can stand under duties
to previously living people. In the following discussion I am proceeding on the assumption that dead people either do not exist (al) or, if they do, that there is no connection
between them and currently living (a2). The second assumption (a2) is meant to imply
that for currently living people dead people are neither passive nor active subjects. In
other words, I am proceeding on the assumption that the end of the physical existence of
a human person, that is, his or her death, is the end of the possibility of this person acting in a way that she has an impact on the world as we know it and of events of this
world or currently living persons' actions affecting the dead person (presupposition (A),
that is: (al) and (a2)).
2.

Surviving Duties

Is this presupposition compatible with an interpretation of the claim that the true significance of past wrongs lies in the fact that past people were the victims of these injustices? The position of surviving duties is compatible with presupposition (A).4 The duties survive the death of the bearer of the right5. While the bearer of the right does no
longer exist, currently living people can stand under the correlative duties. The notion of
surviving duties relies on the idea that the reasons for a person's right imply reasons for
a duty under which other people stand after the death of the bearer of the right. If it is a
moral right, then these reasons will also include general social reasons which are relevant not only for the bearer of the right but also for the bearer of the surviving duty, his
contemporaries (and future people). For example, we all have reasons to protect people's trust that promises be kept and that people have the reputation they deserve. The
reasons for the surviving duties also include the reasons that are necessary for showing
that a particular person had the moral right.
For the following discussion I will assume:
(A*) Dead people have no interests or rights with respect to the state of affairs in the
world as we know it.
(B) Currently living people can stand under duties.
Claim (B) seems unproblematic. Claim (A*) corresponds to presupposition (A) as introduced above. The position under consideration relies upon the following claims:
(C) Some rights are future-oriented in the sense that they impose duties in the future,
(c) Such rights can impose surviving duties: The rights imply duties that are (also)
binding after the death of the bearer of the right if the appropriate bearer of the
duty is identified.
I would like to comment on these claims by investigating the reasons for surviving
duties with the help of an example of a person who wishes to establish posthumously a
3
4

See T. Mulgan, "The Place of the Dead in Liberal Political Philosophy", 52-70, 54f.
See C. Wellman, Real Rights, 155-7. For a critique of positions on "posthumous harm" that are
compatible with presuppostion (A) but do not support the claim under consideration, see A. Gos~
series, Intergenerational Justice, ch. iv, 'The Dead End of Intergenerational Justice. What Do We
Owe Our Ancestors" (on file with author).
Or of a person's legitimate claim. In the following I will speak of moral rights rather than moral
claims, but nothing hinges on this as long as it is understood that people can stand under a duty to
respond to the legitimate claims of others.

Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

175

prize for the sciences. I will call the person Alfred Nobel even though the example and
the variations on the example I will use in the following discussion make no claim to resemble the historical person Alfred Nobel to whose bequeathal we owe the Nobel Prize.
"A right implies a duty" means that a proposition about the right's validity implies a
proposition that some duty exists. Such an implication relies upon the claim that the reasons for the right contain (some of) the reasons for the duty. In the case of rights that are
future-oriented in the sense indicated, the reasons for the rights of people while alive are
sufficient for holding currently living people under a duty, that is, a surviving duty.
With respect to moral rights specifically moral reasons are among these reasons. Such
reasons are meant to protect the conditions of a morally speaking valuable social life.
Suppose Alfred Nobel kept to himself his wish to establish posthumously a prize for
the sciences. Although he accumulated the fortune necessary for the purpose, Nobel neglected to write it in his will. Hiking in isolated mountains together with his friend Barbara, Nobel has an accident and both he and his friend realize that he will die before
they can call on somebody for help. He asks his friend to promise him that she will
make sure that his fortune will be spent for the establishment of a prize for the sciences
and that his wish to this effect will be acknowledged as if it had been written in his will.
Why should Barbara keep his promise? The particular strength of the position under
consideration is to be seen in its connecting the surviving duty both to the previous right
of the deceased person and to those general moral reasons which are relevant for the
bearer of the duty and his contemporaries. First, the particular reasons which ground the
right of the no longer existing person imply reasons for the validity of the surviving
duty. Some of the reasons for a currently living person to stand under the duty towards
the deceased person are implied by the reasons for attributing the corresponding right to
the deceased person while alive. This is also the sense in which we stand under surviving duties towards the deceased person. For example, the surviving duty to keep a
death-bed promise is valid, inter alia, for the reason that the promise was given to the
deceased person and that is why the latter, while alive, had a moral right that the promise given to him be kept. If the duty is not understood to be binding due to the fact, inter
alia, that the deceased person had the future-oriented right, surviving duties could not be
distinguished from interpretations of, for example, death-bed promises according to
which the duty to keep the promise is owed to our contemporaries alone (and possibly
to people living in the future). The position under consideration differs from some consequentialist interpretations of, for example, death-bed promises by insisting that a surviving duty necessarily be based upon, inter alia, the reasons for the previous future-oriented right and that these reasons contain the specific reasons for the attribution of the
previous right to the deceased person.6
So far I have investigated one type of reason for a current person to stand under a
duty towards the deceased person. These reasons are implied by the reasons for attributing the corresponding right to the deceased person while alive. However, and second,
there are other reasons too. These reasons are general in that they concern the protection
or promotion of values important for the quality of social life. With respect to death-bed
promises trust and the protection from betrayal are at stake. We ail have reasons to protect the value of people having confidence that promises be kept. In so far as people can
and do have an interest in future posthumous states of affairs of the world as we know
it, and in so far as pursuing such interests can be of high importance to the well-being of
Ernest Partridge discusses the example of Alfred Nobel and defends a rule-utilitarian reading of
death-bed promises in his "Posthumous Interests and Posthumous Respect", 243f, 259-61.

176 Lukas H.Meyer


people while alive,7 it is important for people that others can bind themselves by promises or contracts to the effect that they will carry out certain actions after the promisee's
death, and that when others have done so, that they can be confident that the promise
will be kept. For the practice of such promises, trust is of special importance, for the
promisee will not be able to determine whether the promise was kept. Thus, the practice
of such promises is particularly dependent upon the protection of the value of people
having confidence in promises being kept. At the same time, if such promises have often not been kept, this is likely to undermine the confidence in promises being kept generally. The right of the deceased person that the promise, given will be kept is based on,
among others, these reasons. Although the right and the person who is the bearer of the
right has ceased to exist, the moral reasons are still valid and the duty of the person who
gave the promise continues to be binding on the basis of these reasons. As these reasons
are general moral reasons they are not only relevant for the individual bearer of the right
but also for the surviving bearer of the correlative duty and his contemporaries. The
death of the bearer of the right leaves these moral reasons unaffected and the surviving
duty is based on these reasons in conjunction with the reasons that are implied by the
particular reasons for the attribution of the correlative right to the deceased person while
alive. Thus, contemporaries of a person who stands under a surviving duty have reason
to impose sanctions on the person should he not keep his promise.
One might wonder whether this interpretation of surviving duties as currently living
persons' duties towards deceased people is compatible with the presupposition that dead
people are bearers of neither interests nor rights and that they cannot be affected by the
actions of currently living people. At the very least, the position of surviving duties I am
defending presupposes the possibility of the attribution of posthumous properties and,
more particularly, of their change.
If Barbara were not to keep his promise, Nobel would have the posthumous property
of being the person with respect to whom Barbara violated the duty to keep the promise
she gave. Such posthumous predication is incompatible with the claim
(D) If X has the property P at a particular time t, then X exists at t.8
For our understanding of posthumous duties is to be compatible with the mortality
assumption (al), that is, with the assumption that dead people do not exist. The idea of
surviving duties presupposes the possibility of posthumous predication of properties to
no longer existing persons and, thus, the rejection of (D). More particularly the idea of
surviving duties presupposes the possibility that previously living people undergo a
change of properties after their death.
If a property is attributed to an entity at a particular point in time and it was not true
of the entity at an earlier point of time, and it might not be true of the entity at a later
point in time, then the entity undergoes change. For example, John forges the will of
Nobel with the result that Nobel's fortune is spent contrary to his wishes. A short time
later Barbara uncovers the fraud, Nobel's will is restored and his wishes are fulfilled. At
first, the deceased Nobel is posthumously the person who is betrayed by John's forgery
of his will; later on, it is true that Nobel has the property of being the person whose will
is restored and whose wishes are fulfilled. How can Nobel undergo such changes if he is
non-existent?
Here we can rely on an explanation of posthumous predication as introduced by
David-Hillel Ruben. His explanation relies on two distinctions, namely, the distinction
7
8

See also L.H. Meyer, "More than They Have a Right to", 137-56, 141-43.
See W.J. Waluchow, "Feinberg's Theory of 'Preposthumous' Harm", 727-34.

Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

111

between real and non-real changes and the distinction between relational and non-relational properties. The first distinction is the distinction between changes as ordinarily
understood and changes that are only apparent: The change in a schoolboy if he comes
to admire Socrates whom he did not admire before is an example of real change,
whereas the change in Socrates when the schoolboy comes to admire him is an example
of non-real change.9 The second distinction concerns the distinction between non-relational properties and relational properties. For the non-relational property of an object
one can ascribe the property without knowing anything else about other objects.1 This
does not hold true for the relational property of an object. The property that an object
has as the result of a change of its color might be an example of a non-relational property while the property that Adam and Eve have each time they acquire a new descendant is an example of a relational property."
In our example, John forges Nobel's will. This is an event, a change in the state of
affairs that is based on non-relational changes in the person John. John undergoes a
change and that brings about a non-relational property of John he did not have before.
John violates a duty by acting contrary to the reasons that are valid for him. Not fulfilling his duty might cause feelings of guilt on his part - a non-relational change of the
person John. What is more, his not fulfilling his duty can have certain consequences and
this is the case in our example: When the forgery is uncovered John's contemporaries
criticize his breach of duty. Doing so requires of them to act or to refrain from acting in
certain ways. All these non-relational changes are real changes in the state of affairs.
However, John's violation of his surviving duty also entails relational changes. First,
John's relations with Nobel undergo a change. Nobel now is a person with respect to
whom John violated a duty under which John would not have stood had Nobel not been
the bearer of the correlative right. Second, John's relations with his contemporaries undergo change. Because of his breach of duty John is now considered a person deserving
of a sanction. According to the interpretation of surviving duties as sketched above,
John has general moral reasons to fulfill his duty, and when he acts contrary to these
reasons this is a matter of general moral concern.
Thus, I would like to maintain that Nobel can be a relatum of a relational change.
Because Nobel is non-existent he cannot undergo non-relational changes. According to
Ruben's analysis, for each relational change there is a simultaneous or earlier non-relational change to which the relational change is owed or on which the relational change
depends.12 We can distinguish several types of the relationship between relational and
non-relational changes.13 If a currently living person acts contrary to the surviving duty
under which he stands, then only one of the relata which undergoes a relational change
also undergoes a real change, namely, the currently living person - in our example,
John. The other relatum, the deceased person, undergoes only a non-real change, namely, a relational change - in our example, Nobel. John, the person who violates the duty
undergoes a real change and because of this he also undergoes a change in his relation
9

10
11

12
13

See D.-H. Ruben, "A Puzzle About Posthumous Predicaton", 211-36, 223-31. Sec also P. Geach,
Logic Matters, 318-23; P. Geach, God and the Soul, 66f, 70-3, 98f; Michael Dummett discusses
"phoney changes" in Frege. Philosophy of Language, ch. 14.
Ruben understands this be a sufficient condition. See D.-H. Ruben, "A Puzzle About Posthumous
Respect", 217, fn. 7.
Ibid., 216f, 223. In the following I will speak of relational and non-relational changes. The former
change brings about that an object has a relational property the object did not have before; the latter
brings about that an object has a non-relational property the object did not have before.
Ibid., 230.
Ibid., 224, 231.

178 Lukas H. Meyer


Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

to Nobel, the deceased person. Since the latter person is dead, he cannot undergo a real
change but only non-real changes.
We are now in a position to qualify the claim (D), which we found to be incompatible with the idea of surviving duties. The claim reads: If X has the property P at a particular time t, then X exists at t. This holds true if the property in question is a matter of
undergoing real change. The modified claim reads:
(D*) If X has the property P at a particular time t and the property is a matter of undergoing real change, then X exists at t.14
Only existing bearers of properties can have properties that indicate that the bearer
undergoes real change; non-existing bearers of properties can have properties that indicate a change in their relations to other entities owing to real changes in the latter. It is
true that real changes at time t presuppose existence at time t. However, this does not
mean that non-existing entities cannot undergo non-real changes. In other words the
posthumous attribution of non-real changes is possible. The idea of surviving duties
presupposes the possibility of such attribution, namely of attributing the following
property to a deceased person: being the person whose previous future-oriented right is
now violated by a living person; the latter person breaches a surviving duty and thus
undergoes a real change owing to which the relations between the living and the deceased person undergo a change without the deceased person's thereby undergoing a
real change. The notion of dead people being wronged or harmed presupposes a real
change in the dead person. If dead people cannot undergo real changes they cannot be
harmed or wronged.
3.

Carrying Out Acts of Symbolic Compensation in Fulfilling a Surviving Duty


Towards the Dead Victims

Does the position of surviving duties help us in responding to the objection against the
forward-looking understanding of the significance of historical injustices? I shall propose the idea that since people as members of ongoing societies can be said to have an
obligation to compensate surviving and indirect victims of past injustices,15 they may
also have an obligation symbolically to compensate dead victims of past injustices, that
is people who cannot be affected by our actions.
As I have argued above, we can stand under surviving duties towards past people
even though neither can we change the value to them of any moment of their lives since
they cannot be affected by what people do after their death nor can they be thought to be
bearers of interests or rights. Until now I have discussed duties towards dead people
with reference to (variations on) the example of Alfred Nobel and his bequeathal. Currently living people can act in ways that will constitute a violation of the surviving duties under which they stand owing to the rights past people had in the past. We stand
under particuJar surviving duties towards past people owing to their future-oriented
projects, the promises we made to them or the contractual obligations we entered with
them. However, not all people have the opportunity or the wish to have a specific impact on posthumous states of affairs. Not all people pursue projects that are future-oriented in the relevant way and not all people oblige others to bring about what for them
are posthumous states of affairs. Here I want to suggest that we can stand under surviving duties towards dead people owing to the fact that they were victims of historical in14
15

Ibid., 232, 236.


SeeL.H. Meyer, 'Transnational Autonomy", 263-301, sect. 8.

179

justices. For us to show that currently living people can stand under such duties, we will
have to assume that people generally have interests with respect to posthumous states of
affairs. Indeed, people can be thought to generally have the interest to enjoy a good
reputation both during their lifetime and posthumously. When people were violated in
their rights and badly so, their posthumous reputation depends upon their being publicly
acknowledged as victims of these wrongs and others being identified as the wrongdoers.
In acknowledging past people as victims of egregious wrongs we cannot affect their
well-being. Also, such acknowledgement cannot be expressed vis--vis the dead victims, but only vis--vis currently living people in light of the wrongs past people suffered. However, if it is true that we stand under surviving duties towards past victims of
historical injustice owing to the wrongs they suffered, then our fulfilling the duty by
publicly acknowledging the past injustices they suffered will change the relation between us and the dead victims of historical injustice. It will be true of the past victims of
these injustices that they have the posthumous property that we fulfilled our surviving
duty towards them. To be sure, a change of the relation between a currently living person and a dead person does not bring about or rely upon a real change of the latter person. Rather the relational change is based upon the real change of the person who carries out the act.
For us to bring about the public acknowledgment of past people as victims of historical injustice can require different measures under different circumstances. Currently
living people can express their acknowledgment of past people as victims of past
wrongs in an indirect way, namely, by providing measures of compensation for those
who are worse off than they should be owing to the effects of the past injustices suffered
by their predecessors. The message of such measures of compensation can contain the
acknowledgment that past people were victims of past wrong. Here I would like to suggest that we can understand efforts at finding appropriate forms of commemoration of
today's dead victims as efforts at bringing about measures of symbolic compensation
and restitution.
Establishing a memorial is the typical course of action where the effort is made to realize the symbolic value of compensating those victims who are no longer living. A
memorial may be a public speech, a day in the official calendar, a conference, a public
space or a monument - for example, a sculpture or an installation. Often these memorials are meant to commemorate crimes that previous members committed in the name of
a political society whose currently living members now want to carry out actions of
public symbolic compensation or restitution for these crimes towards the victims and
their descendants. While there is still no established practice for such efforts at public
symbolic compensation, such acts of symbolic compensation have been carried out
since the 1970s in Germany and we have been observing the beginnings of an international practice of symbolic compensation.16
How can we understand this practice of symbolic compensation? Here I can only adumbrate the basic idea: the value of real compensation - the rectification or compensation at which we would aim if only it were possible - is imputed, at least in part, to the
act of symbolic compensation.17 The imputation of the value of real compensation to the
acts of symbolic compensation is partly based upon the expressive value of acts of symbolic compensation. For those who carry out acts of symbolic compensation these acts
make it possible to express attitudes towards the past victims - attitudes that are consti16
17

For a comparison of the memorials for the victims of the Shoa in Poland, Germany and Israel, see
J.E. Young, 'The Texture of Memory", 1799-811.
See R. Nozick's analysis of symbolic value in chs. 1 and 2 of his The Nature of Rationality.

Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

180 Lukas H.Meyer

tutive of acts of compensation. Acts of symbolic compensation make it possible for us


to act in such a way as to express an understanding of ourselves as people who wish to,
and would, carry out acts of real compensation if this were only possible. If successful
we will have firmly expressed an understanding of ourselves as persons who would
provide measures of real compensation to the previously living person or people if this
were only possible.
Acts of symbolic compensation can be valuable for those who carry out the acts
since doing so helps to express attitudes that are important for their self-understanding
and, thus, for their identity. They understand themselv.es to be persons committed to
support the just claims of those who have been injured and to be persons prepared to
contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a just political society. Indeed, acts
of symbolic compensation will not help us in fulfilling our duties towards the past victims of wrongs and thus in bringing about a change in our relationship to the dead victims unless we succeed in expressing that we are people who wish to, and would, carry
out acts of real compensation if this were only possible. Carrying out acts of symbolic
compensation can symbolize that one is a person who shares this identity, can be evidence of one's being such a person and, importantly, can have the consequence of
helping one to secure the self-understanding of being such a person. The latter is a real
consequence of such acts and can be of great importance to the person carrying out the
act.18
However, we will not succeed in bringing about these consequences in carrying out
acts of symbolic compensation if we aim to bring about these consequences as such.
Carrying out an act of symbolic value as a means of bringing about certain consequences will change the character of the act and, thus, the reasons that speak on behalf
of carrying out the act in the first place. It is certainly not the case that we will become a
person of a certain identity simply in virtue of our carrying out an act in a specific
situation in which a person of this identity would have carried out the act. Carrying out
acts of symbolic compensation does not by itself cause one to become a person of this
identity. While such consequences for the self-understanding of a person can be an important factor in explaining the person's acts, in choosing what to do the person cannot
herself explicitly take into account this type of consequence without thereby diminishing or undermining this very effect of her act.
Carrying out acts of symbolic compensation will have consequences for others as
well. There will often be surviving and indirect victims of past injustices. Acts of symbolic compensation can have consequences for the surviving victims, for the descendants of victims, and for the group whose previous members were harmed by the injustices: The public acknowledgment of the suffering of past people who were wronged by,
say, a genocidal policy cannot be separated from the acknowledgment of those who survived the same policy and suffer as an effect of this policy or from those who suffer as
indirect victims of the policy. Those who carry out acts of symbolic compensation will
want to provide measures of real compensation to those who currently suffer as a result
of the same past wrongs. The reasons for acts of symbolic compensation include the
reasons for carrying out measures of real compensation where this is possible. Measures
of symbolic compensation belong to the measures likely to have the effect of providing
surviving victims with assistance in recovering or regaining the status of membership in
their respective societies, such that they are once again able to lead lives under condi18

Elizabeth Anderson provides a theory of expressive reasoning and the relation between expressive
reasoning and consequentialist reasoning in Value in Ethics and Economics. I would need to say a
good bit more if I were going to bring what I say here to bear on Anderson's theory.

181

tions of justice. In so far as people were wronged as members of a group that continues
to exist, the public acknowledgment of past victims also provides a measure of acknowledgment for the group whose previous members were wronged.19
Carrying out acts of symbolic compensation may hinder us from realizing other values, may have negative consequences or have consequences less positive than other
courses of action - and this can be the case even if carrying out such acts can bring
about positive consequences for others. First, carrying out acts of symbolic compensation can compete with acts that make possible the realization of important non-symbolic
values. Of course, we may well find that realizing non-symbolic values is more important than realizing symbolic values. The conflict may be due to the fact that carrying out
the act of symbolic compensation is costly, materially speaking. Indeed, establishing a
monument or a museum as a measure of public commemoration of victims of past injustices can be costly. However, if we find ourselves in a situation in which we have to
choose between carrying out such a measure of symbolic compensation and realizing
another project that is meant to improve the conditions of the worst off by, say, establishing a medical facility for homeless people, there will often be alternative ways of
expressing the value of symbolic compensation, some of which are likely to be less
costly. For example, the establishment of a day of commemoration in the official calendar may well make it possible for us to realize the value of symbolic compensation and
be less costly than the establishment of a museum or a monument. Depending upon the
specific situation in which we find ourselves - depending upon, for example, what measures of public commemoration have been established -, a less costly alternative may be
as good in expressing the value of symbolic compensation as the more costly one. In
any case, there does not seem to be a general correlation between material expenditure
in carrying out such an act and the success in symbolically realizing the value in question. If so, it then seems likely that a conflict of the sort referred to can be resolved or
mitigated by choosing one of the less costly alternatives in carrying out acts of symbolic
compensation.
Other conflicts might be more difficult to resolve. Carrying out acts of symbolic
compensation may compete with realizing other symbolic values. Also, carrying out
such actions can have consequences that undermine or threaten the self-understanding
of groups that members of these groups want to preserve. For example, public acts of
this sort may undermine the stability of a particular institution, say, the military, whose
compliance with the rules of the new regime, yet to be established, may well be a condition of the success of a "transition to democracy". I doubt that one can say much in
general in response to these types of conflicts. How we assess the conflicts depends
upon, inter alia, how we assess the self-understandings of the groups and institutions
that are said to be threatened. These self-understandings might well not deserve our respect. Our assessment will also depend upon who is negatively affected and in what
ways and by whom as an effect of our carrying out actions of symbolic compensation.
At the same time, it can be true that our success in realizing the symbolic value in question does not require our carrying out acts of a sort that have threatening negative consequences for others. Indeed, since such consequences are connected with our attempt at
symbolically compensating people, this very connection may well undermine our
chances of realizing the symbolic value in question, which in part depends upon the
19

The Roma (Gypsies) were victims of a racially motivated genocide committed by the Nazis - a
truth that has been long denied with the result that most surviving victims as well as the descendants of those murdered were excluded from compensation and restitution. See L.H. Meyer,
'Transnational Autonomy", 269.

182 Lukas H.Meyer


public acknowledgment of the past victims as victims of wrongs. We might often be
able to find an alternative course of action that is more promising with respect to both
our chance of realizing the symbolic value in question and diminishing the threatening
consequences to others.
4.

Concluding Remarks

I presented the interpretation of symbolic compensation as a response to an objection to


the forward-looking understanding of the significance f historical injustices. According
to the forward-looking interpretation past injustices matter only and insofar as they have
an impact on the well-being of currently living and future people. The forward-looking
interpretation of the relevance of historical injustices is incomplete: the significance of
past wrongs should also be seen in the fact that past people were victims of these injustices.
Symbolic compensation as understood here provides an interpretation of our relating
to the fact that past people were victims of injustices without presupposing that past
people can be bearers of interests or rights today. Insofar as people while alive generally
have an interest and a just claim to enjoy the reputation they deserve and insofar the reasons for their just claim can oblige us even after the bearer of the interest and the just
claim has ceased to exist, our carrying out acts of symbolic compensation can be understood as fulfilling a surviving duty towards dead people who were wronged in the past,
namely, the duty of restoring the posthumous reputation they deserve. Our measures of
symbolic compensation, if successful, will change our relations to past victims of
wrongs without changing the value to these past victims of any moment of their lives.
Such a change of our relations to the past victims does not presuppose a real change in
the past people. Rather, the relational change is based upon real change of the person
who carries out the act. Bringing about this relational change can be important for the
self-understanding of the people who carry out the acts. Carrying out acts of symbolic
compensation can have positive consequences for surviving and indirect victims as well.

Surviving Duties and Symbolic Compensation

183

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Geach, P., God and the Soul, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.
Geach, P., Ix>gic Matters, Basil Blackwell, 1981.
Gosseries, A., lntergenerational Justice. Probing the Assumptions, Exploring the Implications, 2000 (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Louvain).
Meyer, L.H., "More than They Have a Right to. Future People and our Future-Oriented
Projects", Contingent Future Persons, ed. N. Fotion and J.C. Heller, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.
Meyer, L.H., "Transnational Autonomy. Responding to Historical Injustice in the Case
of the Saami and Roma Peoples", International Journal on Minority and Group
Rights 8 (2001).
Mulgan, T., 'The Place of the Dead in Liberal Political Philosophy", Journal of Political Philosophy 1 (1999).
Nozick, R., The Nature of Rationality, Princeton University Press, 1993.
Partridge, E., "Posthumous Interests and Posthumous Respect", Ethics 91 (1981).
Ruben, D.-H., "A Puzzle About Posthumous Predicaton", Philosophical Review 97
(1988).
Tiedemann, R., Dialektik im Stillstand. Versuche zum Sptwerk Walter Benjamins,
Suhrkamp, 1983.
Waluchow, W.J., "Feinberg's Theory of 'Preposthumous' Harm", Dialogue 25 (1986).
Wellman, C , Real Rights, Oxford UP, 1995.
Young, J.E., 'The Texture of Memory. Holocaust Memorials and Meaning", Remembering for the Future. Jews and Christians During and After the Holocaust, Pergamon Press, 1988.

185
Ressentiment and Reconciliation. Alternative Responses to Historical Evil

David Heyd

Contents
1.

Looking Backwards and Looking Forwards

185

2.

Jean Amery and the Moral Power of Ressentiment

188

3.

Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

192

4.

Hope or Despair. Dealing with Historical Evil

195

1. Looking Backwards and Looking Forwards


Little is known of Lot's wife. We do not even know her name. This woman's claim to
fame comes from one single, dramatic verse in the Old Testament: "Lot's wife looked
back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt".12 Why did she do so? We know
that God specifically warned Lot "Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop
anywhere in the Plain".3 Many interpretations were offered in the Jewish exegetical
literature for Lot's wife's disregard for the divine command: feminine curiosity, the
woman's empathy with her daughters who were left behind, her sinful attachment to her
material property, or her pity for the city of Sodom to which she belonged according to
tradition. And the reason for her death is usually associated with seeing the face of God,
who descended himself from heaven to perform the act of destruction of Sodom and
Gomorrah. Since none of these interpretations is directly supported by the biblical text, I
can take the liberty and add my own reading: looking backwards is in itself a petrifying
act, particularly when the object of gaze is a past trauma from which one tries to escape.
Compare Lot to his wife. Lot, I wish to argue, is a survivalist, from beginning to end.
When negotiating with his uncle, Abraham, how to divide the land between the two. Lot
chooses the plain of the Jordan since it is "well watered" (and despite its people being
"very wicked sinners against the Lord".4 Then, when fleeing from Sodom before God
pours on it sulphury fire, Lot negotiates with God so as to make his escape the quickest
and safest. Unlike his wife, Lot looks only forwards, trying to save his life. Finally, after
his wife's death, his two surviving spouse-less daughters make Lot drink wine and lie
with him one after the other so as to "maintain life through our father". Again, life

1
2
3
4

Genesis, 19:26.
Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures.
Ibid., 19:17.
Ibid., 13: 10,13.

186 David Heyd

proves to be stronger than morality and Lot's posterity survives: he becomes the father
of all Moabites and all Ammonites.5
Lot's wife, in contrast, looks backwards. She is not preoccupied with her future survival but with the processing of the trauma of the previous night's encounter with the
wicked Sodomites. She cannot resist the urge to see the punishment of the people of
Sodom. Her satisfaction arises out of being witness to the annihilation of the evil culture. She knows the risk of this vindictive or vengeful attitude, since God explicitly
warned her husband against looking backwards. But she cannot overcome the impulse
to personally witness the justified punishment for the sins committed against her family
and God. She cannot forget being the victim of the Sodomites' evil. But looking back.is
a deadening act. It surely goes against the evolutionary imperative: if chased by a predator, run away as quickly as possible; any attempt to look back may cause you to waste
time, trip and be hunted down. The natural direction of human sight and human movement is forwards. We are not built so as to simultaneously look back and move on.
Thus, unlike many interpretations of the story, which highlight the motive of the violation of a taboo and the gaze at the forbidden (as in Pandora or Cupid and Psyche), I am
focusing on the backward movement.
In a more philosophical vein, moving forwards is flowing on with time, whereas
looking back, being stuck with the past, is an attempt to abolish time by freezing it. Lot
is constantly concerned with time: he is aware that time is short and that it might be too
short for him to be saved. He asks God to let him flee to a closer place so as not to miss
the opportunity to find refuge. The whole story is colored by the sense of time: first,
Lot's delay in leaving Sodom and then his panicky haste. Lot's wife, in contrast, ignores
the dimension of time in making the perspective of the past a substitute for the realistic
future-oriented movement. She thus becomes a timeless witness to the evil of Sodom
and the divine penalty, a fossilized person in the form of a monument, a pillar of salt.6
This paper is concerned with the bi-directional axis of our temporal consciousness,
the backward- and forward-looking. Where does morality lie on this axis? On the one
hand, moral judgment is aimed at the future: it is typically prescriptive, action-guiding,
ideal-based; it commands and commends what should be done; it posits models for
emulation and imitation like the virtuous character. The future-oriented perspective presupposes the human capacity to change, to transform one's own personality and the
world. The "ought-implies-can" principle presupposes hope in the possibility of morality to ameliorate the human condition. On the other hand, moral judgment is reactive, it
responds to past behavior and events. In this judgmental function, morality serves to
decide the value of actions which can no longer be molded or altered.
In the particular sphere of justice, one may say that distributive justice is typically,
though not exclusively, geared to the future. It decides what the right way of allocating
a resource will or would be, i.e. serves as a guiding principle for action. Retributive justice is typically backward-looking, being concerned with the right response to past
wrongs (or good deeds), in many cases in terms of assigning punishment (or rewards),
or at least making a condemning (or commending) judgment. However, morality is also
preoccupied with mental attitudes and personal reactions to past wrongs, and as we shall
5
6

Ibid., 19: 30-38.


D. Noy, "The Reversal of Lot's Wife". Noy, an important Jewish folklore scholar, points out the
dominance of the motive of urgency in the divine goading of Lot's escape (8), but does not read his
wife's reversed look in testimonial terms. It is true that many later Jewish readings of the story ascribe to Lot's wife a negative character, lack of faith, or stinginess, though some hypothesize that
she was motivated by a sense of loyalty to her family and city.

Ressentiment and Reconciliation

187

see, these can also concentrate either on the future or on the past: hope, reconciliation,
and the willingness to restore the original relationship, or, alternatively, vindictiveness,
resentment and the unwillingness to forget and forgive. Here we are getting close to the
subject of historical justice.
The two faces of morality, the backward- and forward-looking, can be complementary and even mutually reinforcing. For instance, learning from the past in order to
avoid future wrongs is one function of moral judgment and punishment. Evaluating past
behavior is an effective means of moral education and the strengthening of virtues of
character. Closer to our particular concern, admission of past wrongs by the perpetrators
and forgiveness by the wronged party are often the only way to true reconciliation in the
future. However, there are contexts in which it seems that the relationship between the
two perspectives is tense and that the two are incompatible or even mutually exclusive.
This is the focus of the following discussion.
Justice is a sphere in which judgment about the past and judgment about the future
are closely inter-related. Thus, what should be allocated to members of a group is often
a function of their past behavior. Judgments of future deserts are based on judgments on
past actions. In being corrective or compensatory and re-distributive, justice restores a
desirable condition, thus overcoming the past condition, making the past morally irrelevant. However, judgments of justice are also concerned with private and collective
attitudes, and here the possibility of correction and restoration becomes itself morally
controversial. Forgiveness and resentment are typical examples from the personal
sphere. Even if a past wrong is punished and the wronged party compensated, it is not a
moral duty for the latter to forgive the wrongdoer, to restore previous relations. Resentment is not only an understandable attitude but may even be expected as the morally
correct attitude of the victim of a crime towards its perpetrator.
Despite many theoretical problems, the extrapolation of distributive and retributive
justice from the individual to the collective level is easier than the parallel move in
matters of moral attitudes. The reason is simple: attitudes are in their nature personal;
they belong to the psychological domain of the way individuals feel and respond. Distributions of goods or the imposition of penalties are impersonal and can be applied to
groups as well as to individuals. Historical justice, by its nature, is concerned with collective rather than individual justice. It is accordingly based on impersonal principles of
collective responsibility, reparation, compensation, and re-distribution, rather than on
the more personal attitudes of forgiveness or resentment, empathy and vindictiveness. It
is easier to ascribe groups with agency (action) than with emotions.
There are however cases in which the personal dimension spills over to the impersonal in the way historical justice ought to be carried out. I would like to deal with two
alternative kinds of such penetration of the personal into the political or historical: Jean
Amery and Desmond Tutu, two radically different moral approaches to the question of
the right response to historical evil. There is very little historical or circumstantial connection between the two cases of post-war attitude to Germany and post-apartheid relations between blacks and whites in South Africa. But the juxtaposition of the two allows
us to examine the deep ethical views which underlie the two conceptions. I am taking
my lead from the two key concepts used by the two thinkers in their attempt to justify
their normative conclusions: ressentiment on the one hand, and reconciliation on the
other. My general proposition is that the two typically express the two directions of
moral judgment: the backward- and forward-looking.
The two thinkers have much in common: their writing is equally passionate, their
moral integrity equally impeccable (and based on being victims to the history of their

Ressentiment and Reconciliation

188 David Heyd

respective societies); neither of them is a philosopher in the professional sense of the


word and their writing is, accordingly, not based on an abstract systematic argument,
but rather amounts to a more personal and moving plea to their readers, to the world
around them. Although the rhetoric of the two is often moralistic in nature, trying to
preach from high ground, they address a deep philosophical issue, worthy of theoretical
examination.
2. Jean Amery and the Moral Power of Ressentiment
Jean Amery, born as Hans Mayer in 1912, grew up in west Austria and then in Vienna.
His father was an assimilated Jew and his mother a catholic, and till the Nuremberg
laws he was hardly aware of his Jewish identity. After having married a Jewish woman
in 1937 and the Anschluss in 1938, Amery fled to Belgium where he was arrested by
the Belgian police in 1940 as a foreign German citizen and exiled to southern France,
where he was interned in various camps. In 1941 Amery escaped from the camp, arrived
illegally back in Belgium, was arrested again, this time as a Jew, tortured by the Gestapo for his involvement in the resistance movement and sent to concentration camps,
first Auschwitz and then Bergen Belsen. After the war, Amery stayed in Brussels,
adopted, as he himself tells, "a pseudonym with a Romance ring" (the surname being an
anagram of his former name). He earned his living from journalistic writing for various
papers and only in the 1960's started writing essays about his war experiences. In 1978
Amery committed suicide in Salzburg, an act whose inevitability can be detected in his
essays, including the most touching final sentences of the essay on Ressentiments which
is our subject.7
Despite his wide-range education and studies in philosophy (particularly of the positivist movement) and his extensive writing on philosophy, Amery was not a professional philosopher and his writing was never academic. His literary style is typically
personal, very passionate, often angry, sometimes poignant. He does not try to suggest
general abstract arguments or a moral theory, but rather to express what seems to him an
authentic voice of an individual victim that should be given a particular moral weight. I
would like to argue that the claim for the validity of the particular angle of the victim is
itself a philosophical argument. It says that the position from which certain claims about
historical justice are made is no less relevant in assessing the force of the claims than
their substantive content, or to be more precise, that the substantive content of ethical
judgment is partly colored by the experience and attitudes of the person making it. It is
not merely the principle of integrity ("are you in a position to tell me how to behave"),
which does not directly affect the propositional content of the moral judgment but only
the authority of its subject, but a personalistic view of ethical judgment itself: the justified moral response to historical evil should be informed by the mental attitude of its
victims.8 Society cannot be the moral judge, since it "thinks only about its continued
existence", i.e. looking forwards so that evil does not happen again.9

7
8

For a very moving discussion of Amery's suicide on the background of his personal and philosophical reflections, see S. Neiman, "Jean Amery Takes his Life", 775-782.
In that respect I wish to go beyond Neiman, who identifies the personal character of Amery's writings in the "representative" features of his life (ibid., 775). Amery, in my understanding, proposes a
general thesis about the role of resentment in moral judgment in the context of historical justice.
J. Amery, At the Mind's Limits, 70.

189

"Resentments" (originally "Ressentiments") is one of five essays published in 1966


in a collection under the title Jenseits von Schuld und Shne.l0 Both the title of the essay
and that of the collection which is of course intentionally reminiscent of Jenseits von
Gut und Bse refer to Nietzsche, whose view of ressentiment is put under sharp critical
examination. The background of the essay is the author's sense of grudge experienced
while traveling around the beautiful landscape of Germany and witnessing the peaceful
and prosperous life of the German people. The aim of the essay as defined by the author
is to "justify [this] psychic condition that has been condemned by moralists and psychologists alike".11 Amery wants to deal with the alleged sickness of the grudge and
legitimize it. However, he is aware that this expression of personal "retrospective
grudge" may make the reader feel uneasy.12 In other words, the very imposition of the
essay on the public is a manifestation of "lack of tact".13 Tact, says Amery is an important feature in everyday behavior. I may add that tact's virtue lies in its ability to make
inter-personal relations smoother by leaving unsaid what could be offensive or difficult
to swallow.14 Amery is aware of the incompatibility of tact and full honesty in some circumstances and pleads with the reader to allow him the latter at the cost of the former.
The object of Amery's resentment is Germany's post-war re-awakening, the relative
indifference to its past, its present prosperity and above all its return to normality. He
cannot forgive the rapid disappearance of remorse, the physical re-building of the country, and more deeply the sense that the past has already been atoned for and hence
"overcome". Ame"ry does not seek revenge, the pathetic attempt to punish the perpetrator by the same means originally used against the victim. But he does cherish ressentiment, that particular moral sentiment (rather than vengeful deeds) which insists on remembering and reminding those who tend to forget. The English phrase "harbouring
resentment" is appropriate in the context of Amery's discussion, since the verb "to harbour" means primarily giving shelter to someone who is persecuted. And indeed,
Amery feels that the sense of ressentiment is being aggressively silenced by the "enlightened" world, inside and outside Germany. It is considered, as he says, both a psychological sickness which should be treated and a moral taint which should be removed.
Amery's task is to defend resentment against both accusations. The critique of resentment in terms of its pathology is difficult to ignore since the survivor is aware of the
"warping" effect of his personal trauma. But the moral clarity and confidence in which
he views the appropriateness of his grudge reassures him of the validity of his emotional
response, even against the widespread societal denial of its "health". Even if resentment
is a sign of sickness, it is "a form of the human condition that morally as well as historically is of a higher order than that of healthy straightness".15
What primarily disturbs Amery, as can be seen from the opening sentences of his essay, is the visual images of contemporary Germany: the beautiful landscape, the idyllic
towns and villages, the clean and modern cities. His visual fantasy is the perpetuation of
the image of Germany in ruins, the scenery of 1945, a huge potato-field. Does not that
ring a biblical bell? It is the satisfaction of seeing Sodom and Gomorrah in flames and
in total destruction, which Lot's wife, like Amery, could not and would not resist. It is

10
11
12
13
14
15

Ame>y, At the Mind's Limits. All references are to this English edition, first published in 1980.
Ibid., 65.
Ibid., 64.
Ibid., 65.
See D. Heyd, 'Tact. Sense, Sensitivity, and Virtue", 217-231.
Am6ry, At the Mind's Limits, 68.

190 David Heyd

the personal testimony, both of the historical evil and the ultimate retribution which
motivates the reversal of the look.16
The philosophical tone of the whole essay is explicitly anti-Nietzschean. For
Nietzsche, ressentiment is the vengeance of those who have no power to inflict real
harm on those they hate. They are forced to rest content with imaginary revenge which
they entertain in the dark privacy of their minds. Resentment is the single most important emotion underlying herd-morality, the means by which the weak try to force the
powerful to play according to their moral rules of egalitarian justice and the authority of
"bad conscience". According to Nietzsche, the general loathsome feature of the sentiment of resentment is its being reactive rather than active. It involves the negation of the
other instead of the affirmation of oneself (which is the sign of real virtue). In being
merely a response to others, it is the sign of the unauthentic and dishonest character.
And of course it could not escape Amery's eyes that the source of the slave revolt in
morality is ascribed by Nietzsche to the resentment of the priestly Jews.17
Now, if Nietzsche's genealogy of morals is a striking reversal of the deepest assumptions of Judeo-Christian ethics, a radical transposition of the fundamental concepts
of good and evil, Amery boldly turns Nietzsche's theory of resentment on its head! Ressentiment is the heart of his morality, the authentic indication of honesty and moral integrity, the true sign of personal non-conformity and power to escape the herd. But
tragically Amery is only partly successful in his anti-Nietzschean gambit. He is forced
to admit that both his idea of resentment and Nietzsche's have one feature in common:
they are both forms of revolt against life. Life is in Nietzsche's conception a value
which must be fostered and expanded; it is the overall expression of the spiritual will to
power. But for Amery, life is simply the irresistible force moving us onwards, biologically and politically. While for Nietzsche life is the ultimate ideal, for Amery it is sheer
survival. While for the former it is a normative concept, for the latter it is a positively
"given" fact. Unlike Nietzsche, for whom life is a self-aware attempt to flourish by transcending the daily business of biological and social survival, Amery views life as routine normality, most typically characterized in terms of non-reflective inertia.18
But upon reflecting on it, Amery becomes aware that
Resentment is not only an unnatural but also a logically inconsistent condition. It nails
every one of us onto the cross of his ruined past. Absurdly, it demands that the irreversible be turned around, that the event be undone. Resentment blocks the exit to the genuine human dimension, the future. I know that the time-sense of the person trapped in resentment is twisted around, dis-ordered, if you wish, for it desires two impossible things:
regression into the past and nullification of what happened.19
Amery speaks again and again about the "natural time-sense" ("natrliches Zeitgefhl"), that consciousness which is future-oriented: "what will be tomorrow is more
valuable than what was yesterday".20 But his whole essay is a heroic effort to counter
16
17
18

19
20

'Therefore, I did not strive for an explicative account ... I can do no more than give testimony"
(Amery's preface to the 1977 reissue of the above quoted book, viii).
F. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, sects, 7, 8, 10, Second Essay, sect. 11.
Amery mentions also Max Scheler, whose work on ressentiment closely follows Nietzsche's.
Scheler speaks of "the ressentiment of the vitally unfit against the fit, of those who are partially
dead against the living!". M. Scheler, Ressentiment, 162. Unlike Nietzsche, Scheler refers to the
psychological and sociological dimension of resentment rather than to the moral and hence is less
of a challenge to Amery's analysis and defense.
Amery, At the Mind's Limits, 68.
Ibid., 76.

Ressentiment and Reconciliation

191

that natural direction of time. Amery uses the language of delay: he is aware that he is
"not in tune".21 with the present, that he "clings to the past",22 that he is stubborn.23 He
knows that resentment means staying behind. But he will not give in, since this is in his
mind the only way to respond in a moral way to historical evil. Adaptation to the requirements of the present and the imperative of the "better future" are seen by Amery as
moral treason. Like Nietzsche's overman, the man of resentment must bear extreme
loneliness, but for opposite reasons: unlike the Nietzschean free spirit which is alone in
its sense of the future, the resentful victim is desperately stuck in the past.
As we shall see, healing is a central metaphor used by both Amery and Desmond
Tutu. Healing is fundamentally a typical physiological process associated with health
and survival. Unhealed wounds tend to inflame and eventually poison the whole body.
Healing is the natural course of events which usually takes place without medical intervention. It captures the natural aspect of the future oriented direction of biological and
social movement. On the psychological level it is often connected with forgetting; on
the moral level it is usually manifested in forgiveness. But again, Amery's self-imposed
mission is to intentionally stop the natural process of healing, forgetting and forgiveness. Reconciliation is not only morally dubious in Amery's eyes, but also "hostile to
history", that is to say to the honest handling of the past.24 25
We arrive at the deep level of morality. In its essence morality is not only non-natural in the Kantian sense, but also un-natural. Moral judgment is a "revolt against reality", a constant protest against the power of nature to spontaneously heal wounds and
overcome evil. The natural time-sense is not only extra-moral but am/moral. In its
very normativity, moral judgment cannot be "natural", either in its attempt to shape the
future rather than simply accept it as it will be, or in judging the past rather than understanding why it was. And in the double function of morality, which was the starting
point of this paper, the response to the past, primarily of crimes and atrocities, has priority over the attempt to shape the future. But Am6ry is not naive. He knows that in the
battle between the two senses or directions of time, the future, the natural, the realistic
will always have the upper hand. Life is stronger than morality. Evolution made us a
species that can survive only on the condition of a far-reaching degree of forgetfulness,
adaptability and reconciliation.
But then, although on the social level, the sober-minded Ame>y knows all too well
that there is no real hope for inspiring (or infecting?) a whole society with the resentful
perspective of the victim (what he calls "an extravagant moral daydream"27) he insists
that the genuine moral stance is individual and personal. Politically he is on the losing
side. Nietzsche's fear of the victory of the herd-morality of resentment is unfounded.
Life overpowers moral conscience. All that is left for historical justice is the authentic
21
22
23
24
25

26
27

Ibid., 65.
Ibid., 67.
Ibid.
Ibid.,71f.
Cf. Jean Amdry's response to Simon Wiesenthal's query about the issue of forgiveness to a dying
SS officer in S. Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, 105-109. Amdry stresses that to the extent that forgiveness is a psychological matter, he is indifferent whether it is granted; if it is a theological issue, he,
as an atheist, does not understand its import; and if it is a political question, then it should by no
means be granted. In the same volume (181-183), Primo Levi strongly rejects the option of forgiveness in this context since its request by the Nazi officer was a childish and impudent act which
would have meant much to him but nothing to Wiesenthal, creating an unjust balance between perpetrator and victim.
Amry, At the Mind's Limits, 72.
Ibid., 79.

192

David Hey>d

expression of the resentful individual. But the victim is eventually expected to "finish"
with that ressentiment, "finish" - as Amery alarmingly adds - in the sense of killing. In
a most shocking, though delayed correspondence of theory and practice, Jean Amery
committed suicide twelve years after having concluded his essay on resentment with a
plea for patience by the public disturbed by the grudge of the victim.28
As I mentioned, the title of Amery's collection of essays is "Beyond Guilt and
Atonement". Playing on the Nietzschean idea of transcending common morality in favor of a higher one, Amery seems to be trying to similarly transcend legal justice and
theologically based morality. Guilt is the identifiable aspect of the crime to which a
punishment can be attached. Retributive justice balances the guilt by a penalty. Analogously, sin can be atoned for and consequently wiped out. Legal justice and religious
atonement are both means of achieving closure, of settling the balance of the horrifying
atrocities of the past. But morality does not seek a "settlement". On the contrary, its aim
is to leave the account open. But this means a persistent look backwards, and as we
learnt from the story of Lot's wife, this is a deadening perspective, petrifying, or even
literally killing.
Historical justice can be achieved only if history is "moralized", that is to say, if instead of reconciling ourselves with the past and overcoming it, both perpetrators and
victims place it in the center of their consciousness: this implies a degree of resentment
(not revenge) on the part of the victim and a sense of shame (not guilt) by the people of
the perpetrators. German society, according to Amery, must internalize the Third Reich
as part of its past on an equal footing as the Enlightenment and Gthe. The objects of
pride and shame are symmetrically relevant in society's self-image.29 Furthermore, although there is no justification for collective guilt, there is a place for collective shame,
since guilt is a function of what we do while shame arises out of what we are; and what
we are, our identity, is partly a collective matter.
3. Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Desmond Tutu's conception of historical justice is a kind of mirror image of Amery's.
Tutu's moral fervor equals that of Amery, as does his commitment to moral honesty.
Both are devoted to the pursuit of historical justice following a trauma caused by evil of
an unimagined scale. Both are aware of the inherent tension between moral judgment
and practical needs. However the historical circumstances in which they live and their
personal position in society are very different. Although both are victims of past evil
which they want to address and redress, Tutu is a public figure, whose approach is
deeply informed by political considerations, while Amery is a private bystander and observer. Furthermore, while German Jews were integrated in German society before the
Nazi period, black South Africans were never seen by the whites as equal. But paradoxically, it is Tutu who is speaking of reconciliation, as if there was a pre-apartheid
inter-racial relationship which should be restored, while Amery despairs of any chance
28

29

A fine example of Amery's prophetic insight is how quickly the uniqueness of the Nazi evil will be
lost by the end of the 20th century when "everything will be submerged in a general 'Century of
Barbarism'" (ibid., 80).
This important point was raised by Richard Rorty too. He asks why the Left in America cannot be
proud of some of the good achieved by American society and is exclusively obsessed by the shameful wrongs for which it is responsible. It is the mirror image of the complacent post-war German attitude which took pride in Germany's glorious past, skipping the shameful twelve years of the Nazi
period.

Ressentiment and Reconciliation

193

of genuine restoration of the pre-war relations. On the other hand, for South Africa there
is no practical alternative to co-existence, and hence reconciliation seems to be imperative, whereas dissociation of Jews from German culture and society was an option, both
psychological and political.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the ingenious institutional tool
for promoting a feasible plan for redressing past wrongs without losing the chance of
future co-existence. This was by no means an original institution. At least twenty truth
commissions were established and proceeded with varying success throughout the
world since 1970. The South African institution was established by a 1995 law, after
careful reflection and a wide public debate. Archbishop Tutu was nominated as chairman and after three years of intensive (and painful) work the commission submitted its
long report to President Mandela. We are not concerned here with the working of the
TRC or its success (which is controversial),30 but with the philosophical conception underlying it, primarily as it is expressed by Desmond Tutu himself.
The name of the institution is of course revealing. Truth and reconciliation are assumed to be high values. But are they? Furthermore, they are supposed to be related,
maybe in a quasi-causal way. The logo of the Commission refers to truth as the road to
reconciliation. But in what way is it so? Take truth first. One can think of four sources
of value of "truth". First, truth as such is good. Secondly, the knowledge of truth is
valuable. Thirdly, the memory of truth is what is cherished. And fourthly, the process of
exposing the truth is what really counts. Truth as such is a particularly abstract notion
and cannot be the aim of a truth commission. And anyway there was no chance for consent on the narrative of the apartheid period. Knowing the truth gets closer to the idea of
such a commission, although it is still a relatively abstract condition. It is definitely
morally wrong to suppress information about atrocities, or to deny what happened, or to
hide the fact that someone was responsible for these atrocities. We are not willing to
accept that people simply disappeared or that that evil "just happened". But knowledge
in itself does not guarantee a moral transformation. Remembering the truth is an essential constituent of historical justice, since it involves the persistence of knowledge and
its bequest to future generations. Forgetting is often considered a major moral sin against the victims of historical crimes. It expresses indifference not only to their plight
but also to the basic components of the collective identity of society. ' Tutu was accordingly against a general amnesty, the granting of which would have meant legitimizing a general amnesia. Finally, exposing or the process of revealing truth is of independent moral value, which I call "confessional". It involves an interpersonal, or collective dynamic, in which people undergo a psychological transformation, leading to a
new phase in their moral consciousness.
It seems that it is here that Tutu's main commitment to truth as a moral goal lies. His
writing is replete with terms like "healing", "catharsis", "coming to terms with" and, above all, "reconciliation". Truth as such, its knowledge or its memory does not mean
being reconciled with it. But the process of uncovering it may bring forth the ability to
cope with it, change one's attitude to others, even forgive. For AmeYy, truth and the
constant reminder of truth to those who are liable to suppress and forget it, is the safeguard for the persistence of ressentiment, of a hostile attitude and the attempt to foster
shame in the camp of the evildoers. For Tutu, truth is the exact opposite: the instrument
of moral reform and mutual reconciliation of the victim with the perpetrator. But this
30
31

For one of the many books on the history, procedures, testimonies and outcomes of the TRC, see K.
Christie, The South African Truth Commission.
See A. Margalit, The Ethics of Memory.

194 David Heyd

can happen only if truth is achieved through the right process, which is the public, personal confession, with all its pain and shame. For Tutu truth is of a therapeutic value,
and its exposure is an interim procedure which should come to an end. In that respect,
unlike Ambry's resentment, which in its nature should persist as long as possible, down
into the long future of German society, the idea of the TRC was typically transitional
and was institutionally devised with a strict time limit. It was designed to lead to a new
phase in South African history.
Yet, Tutu is aware that reconciliation is not an easy goal, not only politically but also
morally:
Forgiveness and reconciliation has a price tag attached to it. We've got to where we are, a
democratic dispensation, by negotiation. And the heart of that negotiation was compromise. And people have got to acknowledge that yes, we were on the brink of civil war in
1994 ... that's part of the cost. And you say to those who say we want justice, that if there
were no amnesty, then we would have had justice and ashes.32
Like Amery, Tutu admits that reconciliation means renouncing a legitimate moral
sentiment. But this is a necessary compromise which in itself is of a moral value since it
saves society from total destruction. We are back at the time axis, now looking forwards
rather than backwards, justifying the need for rapprochement in terms of the vital interests of the future. Even if on the personal level, resentment and vengeance are understandable, on the social and political level they are suicidal and in the name of collective
survival should be overcome. This does not mean that Tutu wishes to completely relinquish the individual's perspective. For example, he acknowledges the freedom of the
victim to refuse to forgive the wrongdoer, and he does not require remorse of the
wrongdoer as a condition for amnesty. But he supports the principle that once a confession of truth is fully and honestly made, immunity from legal prosecution should be secured. Forgiveness, which is a personal matter, is left to the individual's discretion. But
legal pardon is automatically given on the basis of the interests of society and the moral
effect of the public confession on both the confessor and the wide audience.33
Tutu's conception of justice in the historical sense is accordingly not retributive but
rather restorative. It does not seek punishment or revenge, even though these are in
themselves morally legitimate, but the creation of a new kind of relationship. But this
future-oriented approach is not blind to the past. It requires a transitional phase in which
the process of disclosure and direct confrontation between the evildoer and the victim
serves as a necessary means. Unlike Amery, Tutu wants closure, a "settlement", since
this is the only way to open a new page for a society with such a troubled moral history.
Reconciliation is an alternative to vengeance since it is based on acknowledgment of the
crime. By insisting on the full disclosure of the evil deeds, these deeds become "accounted for", which in turn means accountability of the perpetrators. For Tutu, some
form of monetary compensation is important in the process of reconciliation since it is a
symbolical manifestation of the moral acknowledgment involved in the confessional act

32
33

Quoted in K. Christie, The South African Truth Commission, 65.


A distorted version of the future-oriented perspective of justice in post-apartheid South Africa is
expressed by the main female protagonist of J. M. Coetzee's recent novel Disgrace. The young
white woman, who was raped by a black youth, prefers not to take any punitive measure against
him. This is explained by her black neighbor involved in the crime: the lady is looking forwards,
not backwards. Her father, in contrast, cannot stand her conciliatory approach and develops a typically resentful attitude to the violators of his daughter.

Ressentiment and Reconciliation

195

of telling the truth.34 For AmeYy, compensation is incompatible with resentment and
hence his suspicion that the grand restitution scheme of post-war Germany might serve
to relieve German society of the need to face its past.
Although Tutu does not expect every individual victim to grant forgiveness, he entitles his book "No Future without Forgiveness".35 The alternatives to the TRC were either forgetfulness (like the Zimbabwean case or the aim of the South African National
Party), or Nuremberg-style trials and the perpetuation of resentment. Tutu boldly attempted a third way, in which a political goal is achieved through a morally powerful
procedure, a future-oriented aim of collective survival through a personal confrontation
with the past. But this ingenious device of reconciliation can be achieved only on the
basis of deep theological or religious assumptions, primarily relating to a fundamental
moral credit (given even to the agents of the most atrocious deeds) and to the model of
God's forgiveness as boundless.36 These are exactly the assumptions which are shared
by neither Amery nor Primo Levi. Wynand Malan, a member of the Amnesty Committee in South Africa, says,
If we want to judge the past on the basis of superimposing present choices or moral
frames ... we have no chance of dealing with it - hence I have totally discarded a moral
frame as a basis for reconciliation.37

In the absence of a theologically based ethics, the sole basis for the morality of dealing with evil is, as Amery insists, "humanistic", and this either implies the necessity of
resentment or the pragmatic acceptance of sheer compromise. Tutu, through his religious faith, is trying to "humanize" the perpetrator, his assumption being that every person is created in God's image.38 It is as if he has to "import" a metaphysical principle to
save the humanity of the cruel murderer. But forgiveness requires faith also in another
sense: as Tutu is fully aware, there is a measure of risk in any act of asking for or
granting forgiveness; it can be met with a negative response, and one must give credit
that the forgiven party will indeed change in the future and that the confession of evil
was sincere. The power of forgiveness is that though it assumes good faith it also tends
to create good faith even in those who lack it. This is the deep dynamic behind the ideal
of reconciliation.39
Truth and reconciliation are the two poles of the Janus-face of morality: the shaping
of the future in the light of the judgment of the past. Truth is not simply the adequate
picture of what really happened but an experience or sensibility, a moral perception.40 In
that respect, Tutu cannot be described as a biblical Lot. He is not a mere survivalist. But
he aspires to be freed from the risk of being enslaved to the past by feelings of bitterness
34
35
36

37
38
39

40

Apology not followed by restitution means nothing, says Tutu. See D. Shriver, An Ethic for
Enemies, 224.
D. Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness.
See T. Govier, "Forgiveness and the Unforgivable", 64. Govier discusses both the German and the
South African cases in examining the limits of forgiveness and emphasizes that for Tutu even in the
most monstrous criminal there is an element of decency.
Quoted in K. Christie, The South African Truth Commission, 139.
D. Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, ch. 5.
In my work on supererogation I argued that forgiveness, being beyond duty, is typically shown to
people with whom we have personal relations; but its moral power lies also in its potential to create
such personal relationship when shown to people with whom the forgiver had no such prior relationship. D. Heyd, Supererogation, 162.
P. Duvenage, "The Politics of Memory and Forgetting after Auschwitz and Apartheid", 22. 'The
memory of who we are, what we have done to others, is thus a precondition of the exercise of moral
judgement".

196

and resentment, since those are explicitly associated with un-health and "death-dealing
spirits".41 This is why forgiveness plays such a major role in his theology of hope. But
forgiveness consists of a very tense, even impossible relation between memory of the
past and a change of heart for the future. In one of the most poignant scenes in Frances
Read and Deborah Hoffman's documentary film A Long Night's Journey into Day, a
black mother faces the murderer of her son and says in a most resentful and angry tone:
"I forgive you", adding "I will never forget your face". The possibility of genuine reconciliation remains empirically to be proven and conceptually controversial.
4.

Hope or Despair. Dealing with Historical Evil

The first priority of morality is fighting evil. But historical evil cannot be undone. It can
be only addressed, suppressed or redressed. We have examined in some detail two
points of view which equally resist forgetfulness or indifference. Both Amery and Tutu
realize the limits of retributive justice and the pressing force of social stability and
peace, and recognize the irresistible power of life, survival and inertia. But while for
Tutu these have a moral meaning, for Amery they belong to the political. For unlike
Tutu, Amery does not believe that the moral, which in his case is purely personal, can
be transformed into the political order. Reconciliation for Amery means at most an inevitable pragmatic settlement (for instance, he himself complains that the new capitalist
"system" in Germany is making use of his own public appearances in the media). Both
take as their starting point the personal response of the individual - resentment on the
one hand, forgiveness on the other - but only Tutu strives to use it as a lever for a new
social order. It is a difference between the morality of hope and that of despair and resignation, opposite strategies in processing a deep trauma.
Nowhere is this contrast more concisely expressed than in the different understanding of healing. For healing is a basic natural process, an epitome of what happens in a
standard way, "by itself, if not interfered with or given the right conditions. Tutu repeatedly refers to healing as the primary goal of the TRC, since it is exactly the transitional phase in a wounded organ before being restored to its former, healthy condition.
The ultimate goal is the disappearance of the wound, although this goal can be achieved
only if the process (of healing) takes place in the right way. For Amery this is exactly
what is repugnant in healing: the wound should remain open, indefinitely. All restorative ideals are illusory or suppressive of truth. There is a close association between
healing and kitsch, or sentimentality. Harboring resentment is valuable because it counters the natural process. And while for Tutu forgiveness is supererogatory (that is to say
of a particular moral value due to its free discretionary aspects), for Amery it is wrong.
We saw Amery's contempt for forgiveness in his response to Wiesenthal's moral query
in The Sunflower. A later edition of the book contains Tutu's reply too. He takes issue
with the Jewish view that no forgiveness can be granted for the horrors of the Holocaust
and calls for Jewish thinkers to reopen the case and come to a different conclusion "for
the sake of the world".42
Both thinkers are "humanists". But while for Amery humanism means ethics without
God, Tutu's humanism is informed by ubuntu, the traditional sense of humanness and
compassion, and is theologically based on the divine image engraved in every human
being. For Amery it is human to feel re-sentiment as an ongoing and self-perpetuating
41
42

Ressentiment and Reconciliation

David Heyd

D. Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, 122.


Ibid., 225.

197

response to evil which cannot be undone. For Tutu the touching characteristic of human
beings is their capacity to re-concile, that is etymologically speaking to re-combine or
re-gain.
We may conclude with Hannah Arendt who sharply perceives the bi-directional attitude on the time axis of human action.43 Past deeds are irreversible, cannot be undone.
Future deeds are infinitely unpredictable and create a chaotic uncertainty. Human beings
deal with the two limitations by their power to forgive (past actions) on the one hand
and make promises (future actions) on the other. These are means for overcoming the
fixation with the past and for managing the unexpected future, or in our terms, for settling past wrongs and surviving in the future. Arendt would not accept Amery's ressentiment, although she admits that extreme crimes are not forgivable. But neither does she
agree with the theologically based analysis of forgiveness as suggested by Tutu, since
she interprets the New Testament view of forgiveness in human terms. But how should
we relate to exactly those cases of extreme evil is a question which is left open. We
cannot escape the conclusion that resentment and reconciliation are two deep alternative
responses to historical evil which cannot be fully reconciled.

Bibliography
Amery, J., At the Mind's Limits, trs. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, Granta
Books, 1999 (English edition, first published in 1980).
Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Christie, K., The South African Truth Commission, Macmillan, 2000.
Duvenage, P., "The Politics of Memory and Forgetting after Auschwitz and Apartheid",
Philosophy and Social Criticism 25 (1999).
Govier, T., "Forgiveness and the Unforgivable", American Philosophical Quarterly 36
(1999).
Heyd, D., Supererogation. Its Status in Ethical Theory, Cambridge University Press,
1982.
Heyd, D., "Tact. Sense, Sensitivity, and Virtue", Inquiry 38 (1995).
Margalit, A., The Ethics of Memory, Harvard University Press, 2002.
Neiman, S., "Jean Amery Takes his Life", Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and
Thought in German Culture 1096-1996, ed. S.L. Gilman and J. Zipes, Yale University Press, 1997.
Nietzsche, F., Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1969.
Noy, D., 'The Reversal of Lot's Wife", Festschrift for Zalman Shazar, ed B.Z. Lurie,
Kiryat Sefer, 1973 (in Hebrew).
Scheler, M., Ressentiment, trans. W.W. Holdheim, The Free Press, 1961.
Shriver, D., An Ethic for Enemies. Forgiveness in Politics, Oxford University Press,
1995.
Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures, The Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
Tutu, D., No Future without Forgiveness, Rider, 1999.
Wiesenthal, S., The Sunflower, Schocken Books, 1997.

43

H. Arendt, The Human Condition, sect. 33 O'lrreversibility and the Power to Forgive").

199

The Relevance of Biblical Thought for Understanding Guilt and Shame

George P. Fletcher

Contents
1.

Guilt in Genesis

199

2.

Shame in Genesis

203

Contemporary debates about responsibility for the crimes of the past raise questions both
of collective guilt and collective shame for the deeds of our forebears. While these subjects
pose important philosophical challenges in themselves, I am intrigued by the relevance of
the biblical text to our current sensibilities about collective guilt and shame. These texts
bear on the current discussion because they - along with other ancient sources - have
entered into the intuitive reactions that shape the way we think about doing justice over
time.
In this essay I shall focus on guilt and shame in the Hebrew Bible with some reference
to the way these ideas have been received into Christian thought. The purpose of the inquiry
is to suggest that biblical ideas continue to resonate in our thinking about how nations
should come to grips with crimes in the past.
1.

Guilt in Genesis

When we go back to the Hebrew Bible, we have some difficulty pinpointing the exact
emergence of the concept of guilt in the narrative of creation and the patriarchs.1 A good
deal depends on the translation of the word "guilt" into Hebrew. Modem Hebrew relies upon the word "ashma" to capture the idea of guilt in the criminal law. Variations on the root
aleph-shin-mem for ashma figure prominently in the biblical text but there is no reason to
assume that this is the only way to render the concept of "guilt" in ancient Hebrew. For example there is considerable dispute about the proper reading the colloquy between Cain and
God after Cain slays his brother Abel and God sentences him to become a solitary wanderer
of the earth - a fitting punishment for someone who has slain his brother. Cain intervenes,
"My avon is more than I can bear." The problem is finding the right translation of avon into
English or any other modern Western language.
The King James translation of the Bible popularized Cain's lament as "My punishment
is greater than I can bear." (Gen. 4:13) This way of rendering the text demeans Cam into
someone who has committed fratricide and is unable to own up to the deed and accept
1

This article represents a revision of my thoughts as presented in the Storrs Lectures: "The Problem of
Collective Guilt. Liberals and Romantics at War", Yale Law Journal 111 (2002).

200

George P. Fletcher

punishment for what he has done. Interpreting Cain's avon as punishment fits well with the
first murderer's initial response to God: "Am I my brother's keeper?" But there are many
clues that this translation is incorrect. For one thing, in the modern Hebrew the word avon
refers to a misdemeanor, a kind of crime, and not to the punishment for the crime. The Jewish liturgy also conceives of avon as kind of sin or offense. It would be proper, therefore,
to render Cain's statement as: "My sin (crime, iniquity) is greater than I can bear." This
would be, in effect, be a confession of guilt. For reasons I do not comprehend, translators
gravitate today toward reading avon as punishment rather than as crime or sin. In my view,
Luther got it right when he translated the verse as: "Meine Snde ist grer, denn da sie
mir vergeben werden mge." In the current on-line version of the translation, however, the
editor has rewritten Luther's original as: "Meine Strafe ist zu schwer, als da ich sie tragen
knnte." The same shift has occurred in the scholarship of James Kugel, who concedes that
early readers of the text read avon as sin or iniquity but that this reading was, in his view,
surely incorrect. Would that he had given an argument for this tendentious conclusion.2
The most common translation of "guilt" into Hebrew is asham or ashma based on the
root aleph-shin-mem. This word makes its first appearance in the biblical narrative in the
last of the three tellings of the story of a patriarch entering a foreign land and fearing that
the "barbarians" will kill him in order to gain the sexual favors of his wife. The pattern is
always the same: first Abraham (twice) and then Isaac relive the same deception. Each tells
the foreign potentate (first Pharaoh and then a king named Avimelech in the land of Gerar)
that his wife is, in fact, his sister. In all three cases something happens to inform the
potentate that either he or a man of his court is about to commit adultery.
In the first version, after Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, Pharaoh takes her into
court. Plagues then descend upon "Pharaoh and his household" as a sign that a sexual sin
has occurred or is about to occur. Pharaoh quickly realizes that something is wrong in the
natural order and confronts Abraham with his lie. In the later retelling of the same basic
story, the truth of sexual sin is realized not by a plague but by God coming to the king in
a dream and saying "You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is
a married woman." In the third telling, when Isaac passes off Rebecca as his sister, a king
also named Avimelech discovers the lie when he sees them engaging in affectionate
behavior that would be incest if they were actually brother and sister. Assuming that they
are not an incestuous couple, Avimelech confronts Isaac, establishes the lie, and then says:
"What have you done to us? One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you
would have brought guilt upon us." (Gen. 26:10). In Luther's translation: "du httest so eine
Schuld auf uns gebracht." The one who is responsible for the situation, the one who lied,
is paradoxically not affected by the guilt. Guilt is objective and it affects the entire land
where the sin occurs.
The analogy with Oedipus is compelling. As Oedipus brought a plague on Thebes by
killing his father and marrying his mother, Isaac brings guilt on the land of Avimelech. The
existence of the stain invites reflection about its cause, and the investigation into the cause
provides the structure of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex. The striking difference between the
Greek and the Hebrew story, however, lies in the personal reaction to the incident that
brings the stain or threatens to bring the stain on the land. Oedipus puts out his eyes with
his wife Jocasta's brooch and goes into voluntary exile. The biblical text tells us nothing

The Relevance of Biblical Thought for Understanding Guilt and Shame

about Isaac's feelings for having brought about this situation of potential stain and
pollution.
In the second telling of this story, when it is Abraham rather Isaac who engages in the
lie, Avimelech says something similar to Abraham after the deception is revealed to the
potentate in a dream: "What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that
thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?" (Gen. 20:9) In Luther's version:
"da du eine so groe Snde wolltest auf mich und mein Reich bringen?" Here the key
word is not asham but chataah, which is conventionally translated as sin (Snde).
As between these two references to a stain brought upon the land, there is a good reason
for taking asham (Gen. 26:10) and not chataah (Gen. 20:9) as the first reference to "guilt"
we find the same pattern in the use of the word asham as we have already noted in the use
of avon, namely a strong conceptual link between the ideas of guilt (or sin or iniquity) and
of punishment. Like avon, asham refers ambiguously both to the deed and the effort to
cleanse the world of its stain.
The term ashem comes into prominence in chapter five of Leviticus, where we encounter
the various forms of sacrifice necessary to cleanse the world of various kinds of pollution.
Asham is the word used in this context to describe a whole range of sacrifices. The
prescription is to bring a "guilt sacrifice" to atone for specific sins, burnt offerings for
others. The conceptual merging of the deed and the remedy validates the general biblical
pattern. The easy interchange of the negative and the positive, the contamination and the
decontamination, reveals a way of thinking totally different from the modem conception
of guilt.
Walter Burkert, a distinguished historian of Greek religion and culture, has a different
take on this easy association of guilt and punishment in the ancient world. He suggests that
those who committed the offense requiring a sacrificial response actually tendered personal
feelings of guilt and projected these subjective feelings onto the sacrifice.3 Perhaps there
are periods of Greek history when this was true but I find the approach implausible as an
account of the biblical concept of guilt.
It is puzzling that personal feelings of guilt seem to be absent in the biblical narrative of
sin. Of course, Adam and Eve might feel shame after they eat of the forbidden fruit and
discover their nakedness but there is no sign that they feel guilt for having disobeyed God.
When Joseph's brothers learn that the sibling they tried to kill is alive, well, and prospering,
they cry in joy but not in guilt. We will turn later to the problem of shame but we might still
be puzzled by the apparent gap between the biblical and modem approaches to guilt.
Our understanding of guilt lies at the intersection of the biblical idea of pollution and the
modem idea that guilt resides first and foremost in feeling guilty. The evolution toward our
current approach to guilt has required the transition from the objective phenomenon of
pollution to the subjective condition of feeling unworthy and yearning for punishment.
Though we retain the ancient idea of objective guilt, the focus has shifted to the modem
idea of feeling guilty.
Along with this change there has been a shift from guilt as a fixed quantity, the same for
everyone, to the concept of guilt as a matter of degree. The striking assumption of modernity is that some people are more guilty than others. Their relative degrees of guilt depend
on two factors: first, how much they contribute or how close they come to causing physical
3

See J. Kugel, The Bible as It Was, 94-96.

201

W. Burkert, "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual", 87, 112 (noting that "the community is knit
together in the common experience of shock and guilt" at the time of sacrifices).

202

George P. Fletcher

harm, and second, their internal knowledge of the action and its risks. The principal who
controls the actions leading to harm is more guilty than the accessory who merely aids in
execution of the plan. Those who take risks intentionally are worse than those who do so
inadvertently. These assumptions about relative guilt are built into the modem way of
thinking about crime and punishment.
These shifts from the external to the internal, and from the categorical to the scalar,
account for another conceptual transformation. The notion of guilt in the biblical culture
was connected with a particular kind of response - the sacrifice of animals in a religious
ritual. In the modern, secular understanding of guilt, the linkage is not with sacrifice in the
Temple but with punishment prescribed in court. As Herbert Morris writes, "To be guilty
is, among other things, both to owe something to another and to be the justified object of
their hostility." The connection between guilt and a personal debt comes through more
clearly in German than it does in English. The words Schuld (guilt) and Verschulden (debt)
are etymologically connected, but this hint of a conceptual connection is not so apparent
in Romance or Slavic languages or in English.
This transformation of guilt is much too deep and too radical to be attributed to any
single historical process. It is difficult even to date the transformation. It would seem to be
older than the rebellion of the German Romantics against the French Enlightenment in the
end of the eighteenth century, but it is not clear when the shift occurred. Did it take place
with the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, with the emergence of Christianity and its conception of individual salvation, or with the sixteenth-century Protestant doctrine of
salvation by faith alone? These religious movements account neither for the secularization
of guilt nor for the grading of guilt as a matter of degree. Nor can the history of religion
account for the modern phenomenon of free-floating guilt and its detachment from all
external anchors. The modern condition is best expressed in the plight of Kafka's Joseph
K. He knows that he is charged with something. He is regarded as guilty for something, but
he does not know what. He must wander the maze of the law in search of the trial that will
resolve his anxiety about his internal state of unworthiness. It is as though he is Oedipus,
but with the plagues internalized and without a truth that can be discovered.
Among all these transformations is another that is critical for purposes of this investigation, namely a shift in the presumed point of departure from collective to individual guilt.
For the ancients, particularly the ancient Hebrews, collective guilt was the normal instance
of the concept. Though we must accept the conventional assumption that individual guiJt
is well-understood and collective guilt problematic, it is hard for me to believe that we can
entirely escape the influence of the past. The biblical understanding, as reflected in the story
of Isaac and Avimelech, must remain with us in some fashion. We use the concept of guilt
today in the shadow of the biblical language. The ancient understanding seeps though our
intuitions and opens us to the plausibility of attaching guilt to collective entities like the nation.
As Oedipus and Avimelech are paradigmatic figures for the ancients in their approach
toward guilt, Raskolnikov is the exemplar of the modern man who knows precisely what
he has done but fails initially to grasp the moral qualities of his actions. He undergoes a
process of discovery, as did Oedipus and Avimelech. Raskolnikov captures the existential
situation of all the ideological killers who know precisely what they have done but who
have yet to discover their guilt for having put their hand to evil. The process of discovery
carries with it the sudden explosion of truth. Repression caves in, and truth overwhelms.
The reaction can often be violent, as in the case of Oedipus. Or it can be therapeutic and
lead to a reconciliation with the victims or with one's self.

The Relevance of Biblical Thought for Understanding Guilt and Shame

203

The important implication for our purposes is that this process of exploration and discovery applies to groups as well as to individuals. An entire culture can support slavery, but
the mass of people will be able to ignore the humanity of their fellow human beings only
for so long. Sooner or later the truth will break through, and the abolitionist spirit will be
born. These political transformations cannot but invite a sense of guilt for the mistakes of
the past. For Germans living after the war, the critical experience was apparently a
television series - named Holocaust - that told the story of one Jewish family exposed to
systematic persecution and mass murder. Suddenly, thousands of people understood for the
first time the depth of the crime that their fellow countrymen had committed.
2.

Shame in Genesis

In the modern approach to guilt, we are more likely to begin with our feelings than follow
the pattern of the ancients and infer guilt for a plague or from a vision of God in a dream.
As we know from the tale of Joseph K, however, it is difficult to rely on feelings of guilt
to generate an inference of guilt in fact. The feelings thrive on psychological sources other
than actions that might occasion guilt for sins and crimes actually committed.
The centrality of the self in modern thought has led to a general tendency to think about
shame in place of guilt. If sin and pollution are the favored foci of the ancients, shame has
become the pet theme not only of contemporary psychiatry but of philosophers and social
critics attempting to come to grips with crimes of the past.
Some rather simple distinctions hold between shame and guilt. People feel shame for
who and what they are, and guilt for what they have done. Shame is felt in the eyes of
others, real or imagined, and for that reason associated with seeing and be seen (recall
Oedipus putting out his eyes). Guilt is experienced as the voice of conscience and therefore
associated with hearing.
Shame can often be irrational. For example, a hunchback might feel ashamed for the
contortions of his body, though there is no suggestion of personal responsibility. You can
feel shame about the behavior of other people over which you have no control at all. Guilt,
by contrast, has some connection to morality, to right and wrong, to sources of conscience
based on rational criteria.
The sense of shame in the biblical context hardly differs from the contemporary understanding. The leading pair of passages frame the eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam
and Eve. Before they eat of the fruit, we encounter a negative reference to shame: "And
they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." (Gen. 2:25) In Luther:
Und sie waren beide nackt, der Mensch und sein Weib, und schmten sich nicht. After they
eat of the fruit, the reaction seems to be the opposite: "And the eyes of them both were
opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made
themselves aprons." (Gen. 3:7) (Luther: "Da wurden ihnen beiden die Augen aufgetan, und
sie wurden gewahr, da sie nackt waren "). The text does not tell that they felt ashamed
after eating of the fruit, but this is seemingly always inferred from their covering their
genitals immediately upon aware of their nakedness. The strong connection between the
eyes and the sense of shame also supports the reading of shame into the text after the eating
of the fruit.
Genesis grasped the seemingly universal truth that people feel shame about having their
genitals exposed. It is not entirely clear why. Some people think the genitals reveal how

204

George P. Fletcher

much like animals we really are4 and that this is connected to shame felt by Adam and Eve.
But we share four basic functions with animals: sex, excretion, eating, and sleeping. We
feel shame about the first two (the second being so taboo that it is not even discussed in the
Bible), but the latter two animal impulses, eating and sleeping, are rather common human
experiences and they rarely generate a sense of shame. The connection between shame and
sex is itself a topic of great profundity and one of no minor significance in Christian
theology. This is a topic that requires attention in its own right.5
The core experience of shame is feeling exposed, subject to the gaze of another. There
is no suggestion in the text that either Adam or Eve judged each other harshly, blamed each
other, felt guilt or anything in particular, but they were aware of each other's eyes. And the
first reaction to each other's eyes was to sense the nakedness of that part of the body associated with shame. The response to shame, as to nakedness, is to avoid the gaze. This requires
one to cover oneself up, as suggested by the metaphor of clothing oneself in fig leaves.
Shame in individuals, we can conclude, has a sound grounding both in our experience
and in our mythology. The feature that makes it different from responsibility and guilt,
however, is its nonrational quality. There is nothing logical about feeling shame for one's
genitals. And indeed in nudist colonies people can easily overcome their habit of genital
shame. Nor is there anything well-reasoned about minorities feeling ashamed of the way
they are, with the resulting desire to conceal their origins and stay "in the closet". On the
whole, it seems that the practice of coming out liberates people from the strictures of
shame. Yet at the same time, a strong sense of shame provides people with sound moral
restraints. Feeling ashamed for, say, cheating or committing adultery is a healthy reaction
that strengthens our ties with others.
What troubles me, however, is that the way in which many contemporary social thinkers
rely upon shame when they seem in fact to be thinking about guilt. Consider the problem
assayed by the German philosopher Anton Leist as he reflected on the experience of Germans who visit Auschwitz.6 Some feel shame and others do not. What should the first
group say to the second? That they ought to feel shame? (Note they would not say, as
parents say to children, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" It is hard to imagine a duty
to feel shame. We just noted, with regard to shame about a hunched back, that there is no
rational basis for the sentiment. There could hardly be a duty to feel the irrational. All we
can say is that some have the experience and that some do not.
The appeal of shame to contemporary thinkers is not only that the idea is linked more
to subjective experience than is guilt but that shame lends itself to discussions of collective
experience in a contexts where liberal thinkers balk at the principle of collective guilt. A
good example of collective shame as a euphemism for collective guilt comes to the fore in
a thoughtful essay by Andras Sajo about living as a Jew in post-Holocaust Hungary.7 Sajo
argues that Hungarian Christians should feel collective shame for their participation in the
mass murder of Jews after the German invasion in March 1944. As a recognition of this
shame, he claims, they should be willing to make reparations to the victims and their fami4

M. Scheler, "Shame and Feelings of Modesty", 1 (grounding the analysis of shame in the human need
to distinguish humans from animals).

See J.D. Velleman, "The Genesis of Shame", 30. Another topics I resist exploring in this limited
framework is the concept of nakedness in these early passages in Genesis. I approach the problem in
"Thinking About Eden. A Tribute to Herbert Morris", forthcoming in the Quinnipiac Law Review.
A. Leist, "Scham und deutsches Nationalbewusstsein", 369.
A. Sajo, "Affordable Shame", 163.

6
7

The Relevance of Biblical Thought for Understanding Guilt and Shame

205

lies. As a liberal who believes in the paradigm of guilt exclusively for individual action, he
thinks the concept of shame will serve his purposes better. But in fact he would want the
Hungarians to go through a process resembling what they would do if they felt collective
guilt.
Feeling shame is not the kind of sentiment that generates a duty to make compensation.
Even if I feel shame for what I personally have done, I am not sure why I would want to
compensate someone who has suffered as a result of my action. That would not make me
feel less ashamed. But if it is guilt that I am feeling, then compensation might restore my
relationship with the victim and reduce the hostility directed toward me. If the Hungarian
Christians felt shame about their own, their parents', or their grandparents' role in the
murder of Hungarian Jews, the appropriate response would be to try to hide, to cover
themselves in order to avoid the gaze of those they injured. This response would not satisfy
Sajo. He wants them to come out, to stand up and be counted. Ideally, they should confess.
It seems that these are our expectations of people whom we regard as guilty for what they
have done.
If all or just about all Germans experienced shame when they visited Auschwitz, we
could say that they collectively as well as individually experience shame. Another
interpretation of collective shame might be that Leist feels shame in his capacity or aspect
as a German. He feels ashamed about a personal characteristic that he shares with the entire
nation. In this situation, it would not matter how many of his compatriots shared the feeling.
The impulse to reparations or to suffer punishment - all of these responses are responses
to guilt rather than shame. And though the impulse will arise only if there are feelings or
at least a recognition of guilt, the operative feature of guilt in these contexts is not
subjectivity but the objective aspect of pollution that we have observed in biblical practices.
Reparations and punishment both serve symbolically to cleanse the stains of the past. But
these symbolic gestures hardly make sense unless they are read against a biblical backdrop
rich in magical events of pollution and cleansing.
I realize that there is much in these arguments that might unsettle the sentiments of
contemporary liberal thinkers who disavow issues like collective guilt, sin, pollution, and
magical modes of undoing the past. It is much more comforting to take refuge with Leist
or Sajo in the contemporary appeal of shame, including collective shame. But when the
concepts of shame and guilt are properly analyzed, the relevance of guilt, including
collective guilt, is hard to deny. We are forced to take the echoes of the biblical past
seriously and to understand our debates in the light they still shed on the contemporary
mind.

206

George P. Fletcher

Bibliography

Burkert, W., "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual", Greek, Roman & Byzantine Studies
7 (1966).
Fletcher, G.P., "Thinking about Eden. A Tribute to Herbert Morris", forthcoming in
Quinnipiac Law Review.
Kugel, J., The Bible as It Was, Harvard University Press, 1997.
Leist, A., "Scham und deutsches Nationalbewusstsein" [Shame and German National Consciousness], Aktuelle Fragen politischer Philosophie [Current Issues in Political Philosophy], ed. P. Koller and K. Puhl, Hlder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1997.
Sajo, A., "Affordable Shame", The Paradoxes of Unintended Consequences, ed. Lord
Dahrendorf and Yehuda Elkana, Budapest: CEU Press, 2000.
Scheler, M., "Shame and Feelings of Modesty", Person and Self-Value, ed. and trans. M.S.
Frings, M. Nijhoff, 1987.
Velleman, J.D., "The Genesis of Shame", Philosophy & Public Affairs 27 (2001).

//. Institutional Responses to Historical Injustice

209

Transitional Historical Justice1

Ruti Teitel

Contents
1.

Introduction

209

2.

The Dilemmas of Punishment

210

3.

The Transitional Criminal Sanction

211

4.

The Paradigmatic Transitional Response

213

5.

Transitional Justice as Liberal Narrative

215

5.1 Law's History

215

5.2 Narratives of Transition

216

6.

Transitional Justice Deferred and Revived. The Paradox of the Passage of


Time

219

1. Introduction
In the wake of the new century and millennium, we live in a time where questions of
transitional justice are burgeoning.2 Post Cold War transitions have raised a new issue
of how to deal with repressive regimes.3 Beyond this, new liberalization has also reopened past wounds raising the issue across the world of how to respond to past injustices from world wars, colonialism, and slavery. These instances have all raised questions associated with transitional justice: Whether to let bygones be bygones? How
should societies deal with their evil pasts? What, if any, is the relation between a state's
response to its repressive past and its prospects for creating a liberal order?
I propose that we should think about law and political transformation in terms of a
distinctive conception of justice in the context of political transformation, where law
itself plays a constitutive role in the transitions. I contend that the problem of transitional justice arises within the distinctive context of transition - a shift in political orders, more particularly, of change in a liberalizing direction. Understanding the problem
of justice in the transitional context, therefore, requires entering a distinctive discourse
organized in terms of the profound dilemmas characteristic of these extraordinary periods. The threshold dilemma arises from the context of justice in political transformation: Transitions imply paradigm shifts which affects in the conception of justice; there1
2
3

Paper prepared for Potsdam Conference "Historical Justice".


See generally R. Teitel, Transitional Justice.
Regarding the Middle East see "U.S. Department of State, International Information Programs:
Future of Iraq" at http://usinfo.state.gov/regional/nea/iraq/future.htm regarding post war Iraq.

210

fore, law's role appears deeply paradoxical. Law is caught between the past and future,
between the backward-looking and forward-looking, between retrospective and prospective. Transitional justice, therefore, is that justice associated with these political circumstances. Whereas, in ordinary times, law provides order and stability, in periods of
political upheaval, law offers constraints, as it enables transformation. In dynamic periods of political flux, legal responses generate a sui generis paradigm of transformative
law.4
What emerges is a conception of justice that is contextualized and partial; both constituted by and constitutive of the transition.5 What is deemed "just" is contingent and
informed by prior injustice. As a state undergoes political change, legacies of injustice
have a bearing on what is considered transformative; liberal regimes are defined and
legitimated with respect to past state legacies. Indeed, to some degree, it is the legal responses that themselves create transition. This, we shall see, has implications for the
policy choices promoted in such periods. In transition, the rule of law is historically and
politically contingent, elaborated in response to past political repression. While the rule
of law ordinarily implies prospectivity in the law, transitional rule of law is both backward- and forward-looking.
2.

Transitional Historical Justice

Ruti Teitel

The Dilemmas of Punishment

Whether to punish or to amnesty? Punishment dominates our understandings of transitional justice. The core transitional justice debate is often formulated in terms of criminal justice, whether or not to punish the predecessor regime?6 In the public imagination,
transitional justice is generally linked with the trials of ancien regimes. Trials are
thought to be foundational and to enable the drawing of a bright line demarcating the
normative shift from illegitimate to legitimate rule.7 However, the exercise of the state's
punishment power in the circumstances of radical political change raises profound dilemmas. Conventional understandings of individual responsibility are frequently inapplicable. The low incidence of successor trials reveals the real dilemmas in dealing with
systemic wrongdoing by way of the criminal law. In the transitional context, successor
criminal justice raises profoundly agonizing questions and has spurred the emergence of
new legal forms, of limited sanctions that fall outside conventional legal categories.
The basic transitional dilemma is how to conceptualize justice in the context of a
massive political shift. Within international law, this problem is apparently mitigated, as
the international legal system offers a degree of continuity in law.8 The postwar entrenchment of international legal norms affords a jurisdictional basis that transcends the
limits of domestic criminal law in transition. International standards and forums appear
to uphold the rule of law, while satisfying core fairness and impartiality concerns.
Yet, another core dilemma of transitional criminal justice is how to ascribe criminal
accountability for offenses that commonly implicate the state in repression policy. Postwar international humanitarian law offers a normative framework and language for
thinking about successor justice.9 The rubric of the law of war allows re-conceptualizing

regime wrongdoing. International law offers a standard in the "Nuremberg Principles",


a turning point in the conceptualization of responsibility for state crime, where, for the
first time, responsibility was attributed to individuals for atrocities under international
law. The Nuremberg's principles of individual responsibility mediate the individual and
the collective,10 wreaking a radical expansion of potential individual criminal liability at both ends of the power hierarchy. The post-Nuremberg liability explosion has
profound ramifications that have not yet been fully absorbed." The massive contemporary expansion in potential criminal liability raises real dilemmas for successor
regimes deliberating over whom to bring to trial and for what crimes. These dilemmas
continue in the contemporary international criminal proceedings.
In international humanitarian law, the understandings of wartime responsibility extend beyond the international realm to actions within the state.12 At the adhoc criminal
tribunals at the Hague where there are still war crime trials, the postwar understandings
of state persecution have expanded to include nonstate actors. It is also seen in the jurisdiction of the ad hoc international war crimes tribunal regarding the the former Yugoslavia, as well as in the jurisdiction of the permanent International Criminal Court. In
these contemporary instances, a dynamic understanding of "crimes against humanity"
has moved beyond its nexus to armed conflict, to protect against persecution and violations of equal protection in times of peace. Though the strength of international law may
not be evident in a record of international trials, its normative force is evident in international discourse where it stands for what minimal rule of law exists in contemporary
global politics.
3.

8
9

See R. Teitel, Transitional Justice, 213-230.


See ibid.
For the inquiry, see A. Neier, "What to Do About the Guilty".
For the leading argument to punish, see D. Orentlicher, "The Duty to Prosecute Human Rights", 00
Yale Law Journal 100 (1991).
See R. Teitel, Transitional Justice, 20f.
See R. Teitel, "Humanity's Law".

The Transitional Criminal Sanction

Despite the appeals to criminal justice in the abstract, transitional practices over the last
half-century reflect the recurring problems of justice as a result of the norm shift characterizing transition. These compromised conditions of justice mean real limits on the
exercise of the punishment power in periods of political transition. These rule of law
dilemmas help explain why, despite the dramatic expansion in criminal liability in the
abstract, enforcement lags behind. And so, transitional practices reveal a pattern of
criminal investigations and prosecutions followed by little or no penalty. While ordinarily punishment is conceptualized as a unitary practice that includes both the establishment and penalizing of wrongdoing, in the transitional criminal sanction, the elements
of establishing and sanctioning have become somewhat detached from one another. This
"limited sanction" distinguishes criminal justice in transition.1
The limited criminal sanction constitutes compromised prosecution processes that do
not necessarily culminate in full punishment, implying differentiated phases of establishing responsibility, and ascribing penalty. Depending on how limited the process, investigations may or may not lead to indictments, adjudication, conviction, and punish-

10
4
5
6
7

211

11
12
13

See "The Nuremberg Principles: Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the
Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal", Adopted by the International Law Commission of the United Nations 1950, Report of the International Law Commission Covering its Second Session, 5 June - 29 July 1950, Document A/1316, Yearbook of the International Law Commission 1950. Vol. II, 374-380.
See R. Teitel, "Human Rights Genealogy".
See R. Teitel, Transitional Justice, 20f.
Ibid.

212 RutiTeitel
ment. The criminal sanction may be limited to an investigation establishing past wrongdoing.
The limits of the transitional criminal sanction are well illustrated throughout history:
in post-World War I and World War II cases, in the postmilitary trials of southern
Europe, as well as by the contemporary successor criminal proceedings in Latin America and Africa, and in the wave of political change in Central Europe, following the Soviet collapse. Though often forgotten, post-World War II successor justice illustrates the
limited criminal sanction. Years later, a similar sequence unfolded in Southern Europe:
Greece's trials of its military police culminate largely in suspended or commutable sentences. A similar pattern appeared in the transitions out of military rule in Latin America. In the 1980's, soon after the Argentine junta trials, begin the limits on the follow-up
trials. Ultimately, pardons would be extended to everyone convicted of atrocities, even
the junta leaders. Amnesties became the norm throughout much of the continent: Chile,
Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
The story repeats itself after the Communist collapse. Ten years after the revolution
and the story is the transitional limited criminal sanction. In Unified Germany's "border
guards" trials, suspension of sentences is the norm. This was also true of the few prosecutions in the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, which all reflect a limiting of the final phase of punishment policy. Sometimes the limiting of the criminal
sanction is used strategically, as an incentive to achieve other political goals, such as
cooperation in investigations or other political projects; in Chile, a law exempting its
military from prosecution, was conditioned on officers' cooperation in criminal investigations relating to past wrongdoing under military rule. Penalties were dropped up front,
and on condition of, confession to wrongdoing in postapartheid South Africa, the amnestying of crimes deemed "political" left a window open for investigations into past
wrongs, a practice which could also be understood as a limited prosecutorial process.
Other contemporary legal responses, such as the ongoing ad hoc international tribunals established to adjudicate genocide and war crimes of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, reflect similar developments.14 In Rwanda, there has been resort to traditional criminal
proceedings, which also reflect a form of limited criminal sanction that has developed in
that region.
The "limited criminal sanction" offers a pragmatic resolution of the core dilemma of
transition: The basic transitional problem is whether there is any theory of individual
responsibility that could span the move from a repressive to a more liberal regime. The
emergence of the limited sanction suggests a more fluid way of attributing individual
responsibility for systemic wrongs perpetrated under repressive rule as well as of
thinking about what punishment does: clarifying and condemning wrongdoing, without
necessary attribution of individual blame and penalty. The transitional sanction prompts
rethinking the theory of punishment, of thinking about punishment's justification as
more closely connected to discrete stages of the criminal process. The emergence of the
transitional sanction points to an alternative sense of the retributivist idea. Though this
sanction is characterized by its limited character, transitional practices suggest that core
retributive purposes, such as, condemnation of past wrongdoing are vindicable by diminished - even symbolic - punishment. The recognition and condemnation of past
wrongdoing has transformative dimensions. Where wrongdoing is publicly established,
it can liberate the collective in a measured process of transformation. More exposure
can stigmatize and disqualify affected persons from entire realms of the public sphere.
14

See R. Teitel, "Bringing the Messiah through the Law".

Transitional Historical Justice

213

In extraordinary circumstances of radical political change, some of the purposes ordinarily achieved by the full criminal process are advanced in the sanction's more limited
form.
Practices in such periods point to the mediating role of the transitional limited sanction. The absence of plenary punishment in periods of political change suggests that
more complex understandings of criminal responsibility emerge in applying the principle of individual responsibility in the distinct context associated with shifts out of repressive rule. The rule of law within a liberalizing state is commonly equated with individual responsibility. Nevertheless, this perspective on punishment does not account
well for its role in times of radical political flux, where the transitional criminal form is
informed by values related to the distinctive project of political change. Ordinarily,
criminal justice is theorized in starkly dichotomous terms, as animated by either a
backward-looking concern with retribution, or a forward-looking, utilitarian concern
with deterrence, considered internal to the justice system. In transition, however, punishment is informed by a mix of retrospective and prospective purposes: whether to
punish, or to amnesty, to exercise or restrain criminal justice is rationalized in overtly
political terms. Values like mercy and reconciliation generally regarded as outside of
criminal justice, become part of the transitional deliberation. The explicit politicization
of criminal law in these periods challenges ideal understandings of justice and turns out
to be a persistent feature of jurisprudence in the transitional context.
What distinguishes transitional measures is their use to construct normative change.
Even in its arch limited form, the limited sanction is a symbol of rule of law that enables
expression of a critical normative message. Transitional responses' focus vary from
country to country to "undo" rationalized past political violence, through procedures of
inquiry and indictment, rituals of collective knowledge that enable isolation of past
wrongdoing. Where the prior regime was sustained by persecutory policy rationalized
within a legal system, the policy rationale is addressed by the transitional critical legal
response. Critical responses to past persecution express the message that the policy was
manmade, and, so, reformable. Through rituals of appropriation and misappropriation,
of avowal and disavowal, of symbolic loss and gain, legal processes enable the perception of transformation in a liberalizing direction.
4.

The Paradigmatic Transitional Response

The limited sanction's operative effects: establishing, recording, and condemning past
wrongdoing, display affinities with other legal processes that are also constructive of
transition. The massive and systemic wrongdoing characteristic of modern repression
implies recognition of a mix of individual and collective responsibility. So, there is a
pronounced overlap of punitive and administrative institutions and processes. Individualized processes of accountability give way to administrative investigations and commissions of inquiry, the compilation of public records, official pronouncements and
condemnation of past wrongs. These are often subsumed in state histories commissioned pursuant to a political mandate for reconciliation, as in South Africa. Whether
bureaucratic forms of public inquiry and official truth-tellings are desirable and signify
liberalization is contingent on state legacies of repressive rule. But, the generalized transitional use of these independent historical inquiries can be seen in contemporary human
rights law.

Transitional Historical Justice


214

215

Ruti Teitel

The paradigmatic affinities discussed here bear on the recurrent question in transitional justice debates concerning, What is the right response to repressive rule? Which is
more apt to supporting a lasting democracy? Framed this way, the question assumes a
transitional ideal, that normative concerns somehow militate for a particular categorical
response. However, this is simply the wrong question. There is no one right response for
how to deal with a state's repressive past. The question needs to be reframed. Transitional justice is politically contingent upon the character of past wrongdoing, even as at
the same time, there appears to be a paradigmatic transitional response in the law. Transitional constitutionalism, criminal and administrative justice, and the rule of law share
affinities in these norms' contingent relation to prior rule, as well as in their operative
work in the move to a more liberal political order.
Let us now turn to law's constructive role in transition. How is transition constructed? What is law's role in political passage? The paradigmatic form of the law that
emerges in these times operates in an extraordinary fashion, and itself plays a constructive role in the transition. In these circumstances, law's distinctive feature is its mediating function, as it offers the potential for maintaining level of formal continuity, while
also engendering transformative discontinuity. The extent of formal continuity will
depend on the modality of transformation, while the content of the normative shift will
be a function of history, culture, and political tradition, as well as the society's receptiveness to innovation.

Through transitional legal practices, law constructs transitions. The transitional legal
response is characterized by its limited form, embodied in the provisional constitution
and purge, the limited sanction and reparation, the discrete history and the official narrative. Transitional operative acts include the pronouncements of indictments and verdicts; the issuing of amnesties, reparations, and apologies; and the promulgation of constitutions and reports. These practices, whether of prosecution, lustration, or inquiry,
share critical features as ways to publicly construct new collective political understandings. These are all transitional actions taken to manifest change by publicly sharing new
political knowledge. Law works often on the margin, as it performs critical definitional
work of separation from the prior regime, and integration with the successor regime.
Transitional law has a mediating quality, as it is law between regimes. Transitional legal
practices' peculiar efficacy is their ability to effect separation and integration functions
- all within continuous processes.
The legal process has become the leading transitional response for its ability to convey publicly and authoritatively the political differences that constitute the normative
shift between regimes. These processes construct the relevant political difference between illiberal and liberal regimes. In its symbolic form, transitional jurisprudence reconstructs the relevant political differences through changes in status, membership, and
community. While the relevant critical difference is necessarily contingent, it is commonly recognized as legitimate, in light of a given successor society's past legacies.
Through the language of law, the new order is legitimated.
In modern political transformation, legal practices enable successor societies to make
liberalizing political change. The turn to law by mediating the normative hiatus and shift
characterizing transition, comprises important functional, conceptual, operative and
symbolic dimensions. Law epitomizes the liberal rationalist response to mass suffering
and catastrophe; it expresses the notion that there is, after all, something to be done. By
engaging in transitional justice debates, successor societies signal the rational imagining
of a more liberal political order.

Legal rituals offer the leading alternative to the violent responses of retribution and
vengeance in periods of political upheaval. The transitional legal response is deliberate,
measured, enabling gradual, controlled change. Moreover, as the question of transitional
justice is worked through, the society begins to perform the signs and rites of a functioning liberal order. Transitional law transcends the "merely" symbolic to be the leading ritual of modern political passage. Ritual acts enable the shift between two orders:
of the predecessor and successor regimes. Since contemporary transitions have been
characterized by their peaceful occurrence within the law, it falls upon legal processes
for the most part, to perform the critical "undoings", the inversions of the predicates
justifying the prevailing regime, through public processes that produce the collective
knowledge constitutive of the normative shift. Legal processes simultaneously disavow
aspects of the predecessor regime, and affirm these ideological changes that will be perceived to constitute liberalizing transformation.
New democracies respond to legacies of injustice in diverse ways. Patterns across legal forms constitute a paradigm of "transitional jurisprudence", rooted in prior political
injustice. In these processes, law's role is constructivism Transitional jurisprudence
emerges as a distinct paradigmatic form of law responsive to and constructive of the
extraordinary circumstances of periods of substantial political change. In these times,
the conception of justice is partial, contextual, and situated between at least two legal
and political orders. Legal norms are multiple, the notion of justice compromised. Transitional jurisprudence centers on the law's paradigmatic use in the normative construction of the new political regime.
5.

Transitional Justice as Liberal Narrative

Transitional justice's main contribution is to advance the construction of a collective


liberal narrative. Its uses are to advance the transformative purpose of moving the international community, as well as individual states in transition, towards greater liberalizing political change. Just how does transitional justice offer a liberal narrative? What is
law's potential in constructing a story that lays the basis for political change? We might
begin with the trial, but the transformative dimension will also be evident in other legal
responses.
5.1

Law's History

Punishment has a central role in advancing "historical justice". Trials have longed
played the arch role in transitional historymaking. Criminal justice depends on public,
formal, shared processes that link up the past to the future, the individual to the collective. Historically, criminal trials are the historical, ceremonial form of shared memorymaking in collective, a way to work through community events in controversy. Even in
ordinary times, the criminal trial's purposes are both to adjudicate individual responsibility, but also to establish the truth about an event in controversy in a society; this is
even more true of the trial's role in settling historical controversies characteristic of periods of transition. Transitions follow regime change, and periods of heightened political and historical conflict; therefore, a primary purpose of successor trials is to advance
a measure of historical justice.15
15

See M. Osiel, Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory and the Law.

Transitional

216 RutiTeitel
What sort of "truths" are established in such periods? One might understand these to
be "transitional critical truths", shared political knowledge that responds to the ideology
promulgated by the prior predecessor regime. Through the trial, the collective historical
record produced both delegitimizes the predecessor regime, and legitimizes the successor. While military or political collapse may bring down repressive leadership, unless
the bad regime is also publicly discredited, its ideology may endure. The leading historical trials, whether of the major war criminals at Nuremberg, or, the public trials of
Argentina's military junta, are remembered not for condemning individual wrongdoers,
but, for their roles in creating lasting historical records of state tyranny.16 A more recent
illustration is the trial of Akayesu which formally established the facts of the atrocities
and genocide perpetrated in Rwanda.
Transitional criminal processes enable authoritative accounts of past evil legacies
and collective historymaking. There are many representations: the recreation and dramatization of the repressive past in the trial proceedings, in the written transcript, trial
records and the judgment.
In the contemporary post Cold War period, justice in globalizing politics gives rise to
even more complicated and dissagregated understandings of responsibility, and to a
problematizing of the public and the private. There is an expanding role for multinationals in obtaining monetary settlements that legitimate the transforming global private regime.
The connection of law and history seen in the criminal process is just part of a
broader role for law in constructing the narratives of political transition. The next Part
explores that structure.
5.2

Narratives of Transition

Transitional legal narratives, whether trials, administrative proceedings or historical


commissions of inquiry, make a normative claim about the relation of a state's past to
its prospects for a more democratic future. In the transitional narrative, collective
knowledge becomes relevant to the possibility of change and supports the move away
from dictatorship, and to a more liberal future.
Transitional narratives follow a distinct rhetorical form identified here in terms of the
structure of the story of political change: Beginning in tragedy, they end on a comic or
romantic mode. In the classical understanding, tragedy implicates the elements of catastrophic suffering by individuals, whose fate, due to their status, implicated entire collectives, followed by some discovery or change from ignorance. Contemporary stories
of transitional justice similarly involve stories of affliction on a grand scale. Whereas in
tragedy, knowledge seems only to confirm a fate foretold. In the transition, while such
narratives begin in a tragic mode, there is ultimately a non-tragic resolution. Something
happens in these accounts; the persons enmeshed in the story ultimately avert tragic
fates to somehow adjust and even thrive in a new reality. In the transitional accounts,
change necessitates a critical juncture, knowledge's revelation actually makes a difference. The country's past suffering is somehow reversed, leading to a happy ending of
peace and reconciliation.
The transitional narrative structure is traceable in accounts of periods of political
transformation. National investigatory or "truth" reports commonly read as tragic accounts that end on a redemptive note. The collective suffering operates as a vehicle to a
16

See e.g. Nunca Mas Report of the Argentina National Commission on the Disappeared.

Historical Justice

217

greater societal self-knowledge than is thought to enhance prospects for an enduring


democracy. So, to illustrate, after disappearance policies in Latin America, bureaucratic
processes were deployed to set up investigatory commissions. Entitled "Never Again",11
the truth reports claim to deter future suffering. History provides lessons. Knowledge of
the past suffering is thought to allow liberating transition.
In transitional history making, the story has to come out right. The truth about the
evil past is hidden, unavailable, foreign, and without some form of clarification of the
deception and ensuing self-understanding. By contrast with the Latin American transitions, the post-Communist transitions are characterized by the struggling over what to
do with the state archives. The region's.transitional accounts begin with the story of invasion by a foreign enemy; and then the troubling discovery of collaboration closer to
home permeating the society. Transitional narratives, whether out of a repressive totalitarian rule in the former Soviet bloc, or, out of authoritarian military rule; whether Latin
America's truth reports, or post Communist "lustration", all involve the tragic discovery
of the revelation of new political knowledge.
Liberalizing knowledge is contingent on state legacies of repressive rule. The successor truth regimes' function is critical to prior regime. This contingency is evident in
comparing contemporary transitions. After authoritarian regime rule, where the truth
was a casualty of disappearance policies, the critical response is the "official story".
Whereas after totalitarian rule, where the official history constituted an instrument of
repressive control; the relevant political knowledge was limited to a critical response to
repressive state histories by privatization of that controlled state history, by securing of
access to state archives, and simultaneously introduces competing historical accounts.
Transitional narratives follow a distinct structure. Knowledge's exposure introduces
the possibility of change through the potential of human action that there is something
to be done. The notion is that, now that the truth is known, the political future will be
different. A revealed truth can bring on the move from the tragic past, to the promise of
a hopeful future. Transitional justice operates as a device turned around: Legal processes vest persons with transformative powers, judges, lawyers, commissioners, experts, witnesses with special access to privileged knowledge. Reckoning with the past
enables the sense of a liberalizing transformation.
Transitional narratives suggest that minimally what is at stake in liberalizing transformation is a change of interpretation. In this process, when citizens' understanding of
the ambient situation changes, truth regimes help to support the new politics.18 The pursuit of historical justice is not simply responsive to political change, but rather helps to
construct the political transformation. New political regimes go together with new truth
regimes. The transitional accounts are progressive histories connecting the society's
past with its future prospects. The change in political knowledge allows the move from
bad, to a redemptive future. The change is from "living within a lie to living within the
truth". Even transitional literature reflects stories of this move, of "living within a lie",
to the revelation of newly gained knowledge and self-understanding, effecting a reconstitution of personal and political identity, and of relationships.
In the life of the state, in political flux, the narrative's role is to construct perceptible
transformation. Transitional truth-tellings are not new beginnings, but build upon preexisting state political legacies and are situated within the state's preexisting national
17

18

The Prologue to the Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared declares the
military dictatorship "brought about the greatest and most savage tragedy" in the country's history.
See ibid.
See V. Havel, "The Power of the Powerless", 147f.

218 RutiTeitel
story. Critical transitional responses negotiate between contested accounts in historical
conflict. As political regimes change, transitional histories offer a succession of interpretive accounts or truth regimes, so preserving the state's narrative thread.
Transitional law has become the leading ritual of modem political passage. The turn
to law is the liberal secular response to mass suffering and catastrophe; and expresses
the notion that there is something to be done. In the liberal society, hope is put in the air.
Ritual processes enable passage between predecessor and successor orders. In contemporary transitions, legal processes perform the critical undoings of the prior regime,
through public procedures capable of producing collective knowledge transformative of
political identities. The transitional legal response's paradigmatic feature is that visibly
advances the reconstruction of public knowledge, enabling the separation from the past,
as well as integration towards another future. The paradigmatic transitional legal processes rely on discrete changes in salient public political knowledge for their operative
transformative action. Changes are constructed through shared public justifications underlying political decision making and behavior that simultaneously disavows aspects of
the predecessor ideology and justify the ideological changes constituting liberalizing
transformation.
Transitional legal processes in this way contribute to the interpretive changes that
create the perception of political social transformation. Such processes are effective
ways of changing public reasoning in the political order; for these processes are predicated on authoritative representations of public knowledge. Nevertheless, there is contingency in what knowledge will advance the effective construction of the normative
shift underpinning political regime change. The force of transitional constructions in
public knowledge depends on critical challenges to the policy predicates and rationalizations of predecessor rule and ideology. In transition, what will constitute the relevant
political truth is often marginal and discrete: for example drawing the line between an
"unarmed civilian" and "combatant", and between political and arbitrary violence. Such
findings can topple a regime (at least on the normative level) by undermining a key
ideological predicate of repressive policies. These reinterpretations of the relevant political knowledge challenge the predicates legitimizing the prior regime, and offer new
bases for the rule of law.
Law offers the symbols and rituals of contemporary political passage. Legal rituals,
trials and other public hearings and processes produced transitional histories, social constructions of a democratic nature with a broad reach. Rituals of collective historymaking
help to publicly construct the sense of a transition, performing the critical undoings that
respond to the prior repression: the letting go of discrete facts justificatory of the predecessor regime, critical to political change, dividing political time into a "before" and
"after". Historical production practices associated with transition often publicly affirm
what is already impliedly known in the society, transitional processes bring forward and
enable a public letting go of the evil past.
Transitional narratives highlight the role of knowledge, agency and choice. Transitional histories are dense layered narratives that weave together and mediate individual
and collective responsibility. By establishing "critical political truths" about the past,
these accounts are progressive narratives as they suggest the course of events might
have been different - had this knowledge been previously known - adverting to the potential of individual action. The message is of avertable tragedy. Transitional history's
expression of the hope for prospective individual choice and human action goes to the
core of a liberal human rights discourse.

Transitional Historical Justice

219

Transitional justice histories are redemptive stories, of return, of wholeness, of political unity. These often turn to the corrective, offering an alternative successor identity
centered on political unity. Transitional justice narratives offer an alternative way to reconstitute the collective - across racial, ethnic, and religious lines - a contingent political identity responsive to a society's particular legacies. Transitional narratives advance
construction of a transformative political order; they emphasize the possibility of
bounded choice, of the reconciliation of the potential for individual agency within a
situated politics. Transitional narratives emphasize the possibility of societal self-understanding and averting tragic repetition associated with liberation. Despite past legacies,
there are redemptive political possibilities identified with the contemporary liberal state.
Finally, transitional justice as liberal narrative ought not become a fixed identity.
Entrenchment of unity policies can stunt the development of party politics and the
building of a more robust political culture. Transitional justice underscores the significance of ongoing counternarratives and of nurturing transitional modality. These dynamic processes enable effective liberalization strategies, and allow change.
6.

Transitional Justice Deferred and Revived. The Paradox of the Passage of Time

What are the consequences of the passage of time for transitional justice? The justice of
such claims is generally expected to weaken over time. In theorizing about our intuitions about injustice over time, Jeremy Waldron argues for the supersession over time as
new circumstances overtake past injustice.19
Still, these intuitions do not appear to pertain to the transitional case. The effect of
time appears against our intuitions, transitional projects are often undertaken long after
the relevant state persecution, and often after the passage of much time. Temporizing
often mitigates transitional dilemmas. As the passage of time increases, the likelihood of
regime changes increases affectively the conditions for retributive responses. For example, trials regarding events that occurred in the 1970's underway today in Latin America
and Spain. Trials relating to World War II are still underway in Germany, and elsewhere
in Europe. More than a half century after World War II atrocities, survivors continue to
claim redress.20 Reparatory efforts in the former Soviet bloc are occurring after the passage of extended periods of time. There are many global claims after time, international
deliberations ongoing right now concerning reparations for slavery.21 After wars and
occupations, transitional redress is often long deferred; these reparatory practices do not
appear to be diminished by the passage of time.
Where the wrongdoing at stake pertains to a prior regime, the passage of time may
have contradictory consequences for the possibilities of transitional justice. Time affects
political change with ramifications for the conditions of justice, but our intuitions do not
well account for its effect upon victims' reparatory rights, as well as for the state's obligation to pay compensation - consequences that once again underscore core features
that distinguish corrective justice in the abstract, from reparatory justice in transitional
circumstances. The salient feature is the state's role in past wrongdoing and the legacy's
ongoing consequences for the possibility of repair.
Time's role is paradoxical in these political circumstances. The passage of time can
facilitate identifying the consequences of past wrongs, as there is a greater political dis19
20
21

See J. Waldron, "Redressing Historic Injustice".


See R. Teitel, 'Transitional Justice Genealogy".
Ibid.

Transitional Historical Justice

220 Ruti Teitel

tance from the predecessor regime and broader access to the archives of the state. Moreover, the greater the access to state archives and documentation, the greater the likelihood of compensation. Finally, the passage of time also expands the bases and claims to
redress.
After time, the dilemma of transitional reparatory projects that are temporized, or
postponed, raises problems of intergenerational justice. Whereas, in conventional corrective justice, victims are repaired by their wrongdoers, and, or, by the wrongdoer's
political generation, in transitional reparatory projects, victims' payments often come
from general government funds. With time, change occurs both in the identities of the
beneficiaries, and of those doing the paying. Is it just that the present generation should
pay for the wrongs perpetrated by regimes long gone? After time, reparatory justice,
raises the profound intergenerational question of what obligations subsequent successor
regimes owe to victims of earlier generations.
After time, the fairness of reparations is an important question for transitional societies struggling with these obligations. Justifying a successor regime's assumption of responsibility after the passage of time, clarifies the salient considerations to a state's inherited legacy of wrongdoing. The question is conceived as involving succession to a
continuous