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Reparations: the price of genocide

The Price of the Holocaust

Will reparations ever assuage the pain suffered those at the hands of murderers? It might well depend on how such payments are decided upon.

Earlier this month it was reported that the German government is set to pay out 772 million euros ($1 billion) for the care of ageing Holocaust survivors.

To many it’s a commendable gesture.  The new compensation, which will be handed out in stages between 2014 and 2017, is set to benefit a reported 56,000 people around the world. It’s also part of a deeper German attempt to pay for past sins. Since 1952, the German state has been estimated at having paid out some $89 billion in reparation payments.

In a similar vein, the Cambodian government has also recently approved collective reparations for victims of the Khmer Rouge.  Such reparations are reportedly going to include a national commemoration day and the preservation of crime sites, along with the construction of a museum, library and monument.

But is this flurry of reparations for victims of genocide really in line with what the victims themselves have asked for and require?

If you were to ask international law that question you will find the law is largely on the side of the victims.  International law establishes the legal basis of a right to reparation: one rooted in the rights of the victim.

In the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (2005), the law states that remedies to human rights violations include equal and effective access to justice; adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered; and access to relevant information concerning violations and reparations mechanisms.

In both Germany and Cambodia the question then is this: are the reparations being afforded by these countries in line with what the law recommends?

Is the German provision of money over 60 years after the Holocaust ended, really “effective and prompt reparation”?

Is a museum in  Phnom Pen an appropriate and adequate response that will address the ongoing pain of victims of the Khmer Rouge?

Perhaps not.

As a legal official at the Center for Justice and Accountability in Cambodia says: “an adequate reparation would be both medical and mental health services to address these continuing harms.”  And the German offer of end-of-life money to victims of the Holocaust has been criticised for being too little, too late.  Though the amount of reparations given by the German government are admirable in comparison say, to the reparations given by the Russian government of victims of Stalin’s purges.

But perhaps the problem with many instances of reparations is that the needs of victims is rarely central to the decision as to what form reparations should take.

It’s a fine balancing act, for sure, between political need and victim need. But perhaps, in future, those in charge of awarding reparations should be more guided by the following principles. Principles that state:

  • Reparations should be made with the needs of victims and survivors in mind first and foremost.
  • Reparations should be made, where appropriate, on a case-by-case basis.
  • Reparations should be made with their decisions rooted in the realities of those impacted by violence.

By ignoring these principles reparations face the danger of being mere blood-tainted payments with no meaningful link to past crimes or future healing.

By following these principles, reparations act as a victim-informed warning to the world as to the immeasurable impact armed violence truly has.

With this in mind, therefore, AOAV calls upon warring parties around the world – whether those in conflict or coming out of conflict – to acknowledge victims, to assist in in their recuperation and to ensure that, if reparations are paid, they are done so with the victim at the forefront of that decision.  Only by doing this will these countries be able to break away from the vicious cycle of armed violence.