Narinder Nanu/AFP by way of Getty Images)
The king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, apologized in July 2023 for his ancestors’ position within the colonial slave commerce.
He is just not alone in expressing regret for previous wrongs. In 2021, France returned 26 artistic endeavors seized by French colonial troopers in Africa – the biggest restitution France has ever made to a former colony. In the identical 12 months, Germany formally apologized for its 1904-08 genocide of the Herero and Nama individuals of Namibia and paid reparations.
This is, some political scientists have noticed, the “age of apology” for previous wrongs. Reams of articles, significantly in Western media, are dedicated to former colonizer international locations and whether or not they have enacted redress – returned museum artifacts, paid reparations or apologized for previous wrongs.
Yet that is not often the results of official requests. In truth, only a few former colonies have formally – that’s, authorities to authorities – pressed perpetrators to redress previous injustices.
My evaluation discovered that governments in 78% of such instances haven’t requested to be compensated for historic acts of injustice in opposition to them. As a scholar of worldwide relations who has studied the impact of colonialism on the present-day overseas coverage of nations affected, I discovered this puzzling. Why don’t extra sufferer states press for intercountry redress?
The reply lies in the truth that colonial pasts and atoning for injustices are controversial – not simply in what have been perpetrator international locations, but additionally of their victims. What to ask redress for, from whom and for whom are sophisticated questions with no straightforward solutions. And there are sometimes divergent narratives inside sufferer international locations about how one can view previous colonial historical past, additional hampering redress.
Focus on perpetrator nation
There is a disproportionate quantity of consideration paid as to whether perpetrator international locations – that’s, former colonizers who established extractive and exploitative governments in colony states – supply redress. They are lauded once they enact redress and shamed when they don’t.
The processes pertaining to redress inside sufferer international locations – the previous colonies – will get much less consideration. This, I imagine, has the impact of constructing these international locations peripheral to a dialog through which they need to be central.
This issues – success or failure of redress can rely on whether or not sufferer international locations formally push for it.
Take the experiences of two previously colonized international locations that I studied in depth in relation to the query of redress: India and Namibia.
The Indian expertise: Different narratives
It’s tough for a rustic, significantly a poor growing nation, to take a former colonizer, often a a lot richer nation, to the International Court of Justice to ask for redress for the complete expertise of colonialism.
But most former colonies have by no means formally requested for some type of redress – be it apology, reparations or restitution, even for particular acts of injustice.
India is an instance of the issue in constructing consensus for official redress. Take the Jallianwala Bagh bloodbath of 1919, through which British troops killed a whole lot of peaceable protesters, together with girls and youngsters.
The Indian authorities has by no means formally requested for an apology from the United Kingdom over the incident.
Part of the issue is completely different teams inside India have completely different narratives concerning the 200 years of British colonial rule. No one disputes that the Raj was exploitative and violent. But which acts of violence to emphasise? How a lot duty needs to be assigned to the British? And ought to any optimistic attributes of the Raj be highlighted? These are all debated.
Such factors of divergence are mirrored in India’s federal and state-issued historical past textbooks, in accordance with my evaluation.
The bloody Partition of India in 1947 and the following creation of Pakistan, for instance, are blamed on the British in federal and plenty of state textbooks. But it deserves only a small paragraph in Gujarati textbooks, the place it’s blamed totally on the Muslim League, the founding celebration of Pakistan. In the state of Tamil Nadu, Partition is talked about with none description of both the horrors that adopted or the place duty lay.
Different narratives additionally seem within the Indian Parliament. When the problem of redress got here up in 1997 – the fiftieth 12 months of Indian independence and simply earlier than Queen Elizabeth II visited India – politicians agreed that India’s emergence from what politician Somnath Chatterjee described as “a strangulating and dehumanizing slavery below a colonial imperialist energy” was price celebrating. But on the problem of whether or not Elizabeth ought to apologize for the Jallianwala Bagh bloodbath, there was little settlement. Calls from some politicians for an apology have been drowned out by others who jabbed on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, stating its allies had by no means apologized for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi.
As of this writing, the U.Ok. has expressed remorse for the bloodbath however by no means apologized, infuriating many Indians.
The lengthy journey for Namibian redress
Namibia is an unusual case of redress the place the federal government has formally pushed for an apology and reparations from its former colonizer, Germany. But even then it was a painful, advanced and time-consuming course of dogged by most of the themes which have prevented India and others from in search of formal redress.
Between 1884 and 1919, Namibia was a German colony, with some communities systematically dispossessed of their conventional lands. In 1904, one among these communities, the Herero, rebelled, adopted in 1905 by the Nama. In response, German troops slaughtered 1000’s in a massacre that’s immediately extensively acknowledged to be a genocide. Survivors, together with girls and youngsters, have been herded into horrific focus camps and subjected to compelled labor and medical experiments.
Ullstein Bild by way of Getty Images
The wrestle to carry Germany accountable started many years in the past, with people from the Herero and Nama communities calling for accountability and reparations. Germany rebuffed them repeatedly, exactly as a result of the Namibian authorities didn’t take up their name. Only in 2015, after the Namibian authorities formally requested redress, did Germany acquiesce.
In May 2021, Germany lastly agreed to acknowledge the genocide, apologize and set up a fund of US$1.35 billion towards reconstruction and growth tasks in Herero- and Nama-dominated areas.
Why did it take so lengthy? For the Herero and Nama, the genocide and lack of conventional lands have been at all times forefront. But for others in Namibia – notably, the dominant political celebration, the South West Africa People’s Organization, or SWAPO, which consists largely of members of the Ovambo ethnic group – uniting Namibians to come back collectively in a nationwide, anti-colonial wrestle for independence was deemed extra vital than specializing in the wrongs suffered by anyone group.
After independence, the ruling SWAPO prioritized nation-building and unity and cultivated ties with the German authorities, hoping for overseas support and financial growth. Complicating issues, the Ovambo had not misplaced their very own conventional lands to colonialism in the identical manner because the Herero and Nama.
For years, government-approved college historical past textbooks utilized in Namibian faculties mirrored the SWAPO narrative. One Ovambo former college historical past trainer informed me that Namibian youngsters discovered concerning the “conflict of nationwide resistance” and the way exploitative colonialism had necessitated that conflict. But the phrase “genocide” was by no means used, and there have been no mentions of the struggling of affected communities.
Around 2010, Namibian activists, NGO employees and authorities officers from all communities started to seek for widespread floor to reconcile the completely different narratives. Some makes an attempt failed. A 2014 museum exhibition on the genocide collapsed after its financier, the Finnish embassy, withdrew funding – allegedly below stress, one Namibian knowledgeable informed me, from the German authorities. But others succeeded. The National Archives of Namibia launched a mission to gather educational papers on divergent narratives of the liberation wrestle and colonial historical past.
As reconciling narratives progressed, historical past textbooks have been revised to honor not simply SWAPO’s model of historical past, but additionally spotlight the brutalities suffered by the Herero and Nama. They included frank discussions of genocide and colonial atrocities. Against this backdrop, the Namibian authorities formally initiated a request for redress from Germany. Both governments appointed groups to discover a decision, ensuing within the 2021 reparation fund.
Redress between international locations is uncommon. Successful redress much more so. But the instance of Namibia exhibits that it may be achieved when the governments of sufferer international locations provoke redress. By focusing solely on perpetrator states, we miss a possibility to look at their victims as brokers of change, and thereby perpetuate redress as an uncommon phenomenon.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations.