Historical truth and accountability in the post-colonial state
In the midst of a growing attention for issues related to historical injustices, several governments around the world have established historical commissions to inquire into their colonial pasts, explicitly or implicitly framing their work within the rhetoric of transitional justice. Nevertheless, it is not always clear to what extent the adoption of the transitional justice logic and rhetoric by these commissions also means that they inscribe themselves in the broader normative objectives of transitional justice. Notably – as Prof. Tine Destrooper and Dr. Cira Palli-Aspero, from the Human Rights Center at Ghent University, argue in this blog post – the question about accountability often remains implicit. When legal or criminal accountability are not possible or desirable, are there complementary forms of accountability that should be considered?
Historical truth and accountability in the post-colonial state
In the midst of this growing attention for issues related to historical injustices, several governments around the world, and notably in consolidated democracies, have taken a range of initiatives to address a variety of demands and concerns related to settler or overseas colonial pasts. A specific mechanism often used in this context is the establishment of historical commissions to inquire into their colonial pasts. While these phenomena are not new as such, their recent boom in cases of settler or overseas colonialism is striking. As examples, we can think of the Belgian Special Parliamentary Commission (2020); the Norwegian Commission (2018) set to investigate policy and injustice against the Sámi and Kven Peoples; the Swedish Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset people (2020) and the Swedish Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Sami people (2021); the Finnish Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People (2021); the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission (2020) in Victoria, Australia, and most recently (June 2022) Greenland and Denmark signed an agreement to undertake a historical investigation into the impact of colonialism on Inuit people.
It’s striking that most of these commissions implicitly or explicitly inscribe themselves in the transitional justice paradigm to think about historical injustice. The choice to frame these initiatives within the language of transitional justice can be explained by the fact that its core objectives of consolidating just, stable, inclusive, and peaceful societies hold great normative appeal for consolidated democracies. While making sense at a visceral level, it is not always clear to what extent the adoption (or attribution) of the transitional justice logic and rhetoric by some of these commissions also means that they inscribe themselves in the broader normative objectives of transitional justice. Notably the question about accountability often remains implicit.
Accountability is a key feature of any transitional justice interventions, and as such, approaching the quest for historical justice for colonial harm through the lens of transitional justice, means that we should also think more about the very role and meaning of accountability in these decolonization struggles.
Within the field of transitional justice, accountability commonly revolves around notions of legal and criminal accountability. In other words, ‘the prosecution of those responsible for violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, either in domestic or international courts’.From this perspective, the punishment of perpetrators is a cornerstone of accountability and crucial to avoid the recurrence of past violations. However, when we think about accountability processes for colonial crimes this conceptualization of accountability is clearly not the most relevant one.
The ongoingness of this (post-)colonial injustice problematises mainstream understanding of accountability, which are often rooted in an assumption that accountability relates to acts that happened in a past that lies decisively behind us and that can be traced back to one perpetrator committing one (or a countable series of) delineated unjust acts for which they have to be sanctioned. Whereas here, the same systematic inequalities and epistemic structures that inspired the initial colonial harm still affect specific groups within society.
When considering (post-)colonial injustice as slow violence that permeates pre-, trans- and post-colonial times and that is inscribed in social and political structures, there is a need to further examine the ways in which these protracted forms of injustice can be addressed.
Furthermore, the structural character of the colonial harms requires, therefore, a different approach to accountability that allows to address structural and systemic injustices that foster inequalities in the present. Although some of the colonial crimes can be defined in individual terms, colonialism was an enterprise that encompassed many spheres of the human life (i.e., political, economic, societal, cultural, and religious aspects). In the debate about historical injustice emerging from colonialism, there has been a shift from an individualistic conception ‘to a collective understanding, which focuses on collective agents, such as nations, as the proper entities that should be held responsible for injustices that occurred in the past’. Within this framework, accountability for, recognition to, and redress take a ‘state-centric approach that frames (…) questions about historical responsibility, rectificatory justice, or political reconciliation in terms of interactions between former colonizing and colonized peoples or states’.
Although the contribution of historical commissions to wider processes of recognition and repair is unquestionable, it is less clear how they contribute to the concept of accountability. When legal or criminal accountability are not possible or desirable, are there complementary forms of accountability that should be considered? What does accountability look like in cases where there is need for ‘a larger reckoning with both the structures of power (…) and the histories that continue to resonate as afterlives’?
The recent boom in historical commissions to address the legacies of colonialism is placing this debate at the spotlight, but these are questions that civil society actors have been addressing for many decades. Accepting that the mobilisation of transitional justice to the post-colonial context requires a reconceptualization of its core objectives; a further two-way conversation with civil society actors is needed to better grasp how their understanding of accountability for colonial violence can enrich the existing transitional justice model.
Prof. Dr. Tine Destrooper is an associate professor at the Faculty of Law and Criminology of Ghent University and a member of the Human Rights Centre at Ghent University. Her research focuses on victim participation in transitional justice. She currently carries out a comparative study on the long term and unforeseen effects of victim participation on victims and their communities. Previously, she held positions at various European and American institutions and was director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice in New York.
Dr. Cira Palli-Aspero is Senior Researcher at the Human Rights Centre at Ghent University. She is a professional historian specialised in contemporary political history. Her work lies at the nexus of historiography and transitional justice with focus on state sanctioned historical commissions as mechanisms to address the legacies of the past. She obtained her Ph.D. at the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University.
Transitional Justice & Historical Redress