chapter  4
Inherited responsibility and the challenge of political reconciliation
ByERNESTO VERDEJA
Pages 22

The question of inherited responsibility for mass crimes and violations has historically been central to victim discourses, but remained largely ignored, or at most tolerated, by the descendants of perpetrators and others not involved in conflict. This is unsurprising, given the uncomfortable nature of accusatory claims and the often continued political marginalization of the aggrieved. What is remarkable, however, is the transformation of discussions over historical responsibility over the past several decades and the ways in which these discussions have come to occupy a central role in understandings of collective identity. Certainly, the emergence of a robust human rights discourse in the latter twentieth century, even if only observed in “the breach,” as well as new political mobilization and linkages among historically disparaged groups, have fed and sustained this remarkable transformation.2 These changes are evident around the world: among Germans post-World War II (especially in West Germany); in “settler” societies such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as they grapple with the legacies of colonization and extermination; in Latin America’s efforts to come to terms with its own appalling treatment of indigenous communities; and East Asian nations confronting the history of subordination and humiliation under Japanese and Western rule. The legacies of discrimination rooted in the Atlantic slave trade and later reinforced through legal and cultural practices of domination and exclusion have similarly generated a profound reexamination – and resistance to reexamination – of national identities and political membership. The popular ferment over inherited responsibility has both domestic and

international sources, shaped by the specific legacies of violence and the claims and needs of the present. But what, in fact, is meant by inherited responsibility? What are the claims of responsibility, and how can it be imagined and formulated in defensible terms; that is, in terms that are just to victims and their descendants but which also promote a plausible and morally acceptable form of reconciliation? This chapter argues that inherited responsibilities require contemporary

political actors to address historical wrongs. The chapter has two objectives. First, it provides a justification for the idea of inherited responsibility.

It argues that such responsibility is derived from a broader category of political responsibility that all members of a political community carry by virtue of membership. Second, the chapter argues that inherited responsibility requires rethinking the nature of political reconciliation, which includes three elements: critical reflection on the past; symbolic and material recognition; and ensuring the means for political participation for members of historically wronged groups. To speak of inherited responsibility, we first need a sense of the injustices

under consideration. Historical injustices, on which I will focus here, are past harms committed by individuals or groups against other individuals or groups, whose impacts are still felt in the present in some way. Normally, these legacies are material (in terms of continued economic and similar forms of marginalization), symbolic (such as denigrating stereotypes), and occasionally representational (in terms of restricted opportunities to exercise meaningful political participation).3 What makes these wrongs particularly difficult to address is that they are not merely the result of individual or specific state agents’ behavior, but rather often occurred within, and were sustained by, broader social structures of domination. The specific structures vary by case, but, drawing from Iris Marion Young (2011), we can say that structures refer to the arrangement of institutional norms and rules, routines, dominant discourses and deployment of resources that create and reinforce the general conditions in which people act. Specific historical wrongs, then, are normally rooted in unjust social structures, such as colonialism or racism. For instance, the particular violations committed by Japanese forces against Korean women occurred within the context of Japanese imperialism and militarism. The lynching of African-Americans between the 1880s and 1930s likewise must be approached from within the broader context of post-Civil War reactionary politics, racism, and the political and economic subordination of Blacks through a variety of White terrorist strategies.4 The relevant social structures that facilitated violence therefore also require critical scrutiny. The claims for redress can vary significantly: they may be for restitution

(the return of unjustly seized land, art, cultural patrimony); compensation for some historical wrong; or redistribution of wealth for past exploitation (such as the wealth generated by the exploitation of slaves and nominally free Black Americans in the United States), among other types of claims. Most often, it is the descendants of these various victims who face the legacies of harms and the challenges of securing some form of justice. In some cases, both the original perpetrators and victims are long dead, as with slavery in the United States, but the contemporary society continues to grapple with the consequences. In other cases, the harms are more recent, and some of the original actors and their descendants live in the shadow of past crimes (as with the legacy of Japanese imperial rule in East Asia). Of course, the fact that harms occurred in the relatively distant past does

not, on its own terms, necessarily demand of present societies that these

wrongs be addressed. It is clear that the past is littered with atrocities and injustices – indeed, for Walter Benjamin (1968), it seems as though history consists of little more – but it is less clear why this should have any normative bearing on the present. What makes past wrongs historical injustices in the sense discussed here is that they “raise issues, by definition, that concern people that were not involved in the wrong” (Perez 2011: 153).5 That is to say, historical injustices continue to raise issues for present generations who are neither the primary victims nor the perpetrators. There is, of course, often a slow transition from contemporary to historical injustices, as earlier generations pass away and newer generations come to reinterpret the past in ways that resonate with their own historical understandings, and thus current wrongs become phenomena of historical attention. In any case, the issue of historical injustice concerns, in fact, two closely related but distinct questions. The first is how to understand responsibility in the present for the wrongs of the past, and the second is what this responsibility enjoins us to do now. Part I of this chapter will consider the first question, and Part II the second.