The Prospect of Symbolic Reparations

Kristin Foringer, University of Michigan

Published on: April 17, 2021

Photo: Woman stands alongside a monument honoring massacre victims in Medellín, Colombia.

In a 1997 document of international standards, the United Nations specified that victims of human rights violations are entitled to “truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition.” The right to symbolic reparation, as part of this package, has experienced a slow conceptual evolution in subsequent legal documents. While first emerging through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the late 1990s, the concept of “symbolic reparations” remains relatively fluid and under-specified within the purview of transitional justice policies around the world. Human rights practitioners would benefit from more scholarship on the scope and effectiveness of symbolic reparations globally, as they represent a novel approach to post-conflict reconciliation efforts.

A 2008 guide to designing reparations programs published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights defined symbolic reparations as including “official apologies, the change of names of public spaces, the establishment of days of commemoration, the creation of museums and parks dedicated to the memory of victims, or rehabilitation measures such as restoring the good name of victims.” Other regional bodies including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have similarly interpreted symbolic reparations through rulings like Villatina Massacre v. Colombia in 2005, which mandated the construction of a monument in memory of eight children killed by Colombian police in 1992.

From a policy perspective, symbolic reparations overcome some of the logistical and ideological challenges presented by more traditional forms of material reparations. Scholars have demonstrated that some victims reject monetary reparations because it is seen as “blood money,” or the state’s way of buying themselves out of accountability for harm (Hamber and Wilson 2002, Moon 2012, Campisi 2014). Additionally, in contexts like Colombia, monetary reparations may lose their distinctiveness amidst other direct payments from the state that victims already receive, thereby reducing the capacity of the money to act as recognizable reparation for past harm. Conflict scholar Peter Dixon explains that from these victims’ perspectives, “what could be the government’s history-defining act of contrition for a half-century of bloodshed is just another check or financial transfer.” Given some of these disadvantages and, not to mention, the immense financial cost of monetary reparations to states, symbolic or commemorative forms of reparations have emerged as a strategic alternative.

Sociologist John Torpey, however, has suggested that symbolic reparations (“commemorative reparations”) are more “backward” facing than other modes of reparation that are interested in the economic, material transformation of victimized groups in the present-day. Recent scholarship on the aspirations and outcomes of symbolic reparations moves beyond this characterization to suggest the future-oriented, transformative capacity of these cultural projects (Hamber 2003). On an abstract level, theorist Ricardo Arcos-Palma has argued that the artistic and creative modes of symbolic reparations projects work to generate a “symbolic space where the absent can be regenerated” and restore broken social contracts between society and the state. Greeley et al (2020) similarly argue that symbolic reparations create “the broader conditions” for a departure from violent engagement in society, or the “non-repetition” of human rights violations which is considered a necessary benchmark in post-conflict societies. Speaking specifically of South American societies, Macarena Gómez-Barris reveals how cultural memory initiatives offer “ways to imagine the past en route and linked to the future,” especially in post-conflict contexts where judicial processes have been “slow, uneven, or deficient.” These arguments suggest a unique feature of symbolic reparations policies in that their creative modes of engagement with society can facilitate a kind of innovation aimed toward recovery after conflict and long-term peacekeeping.

Future scholarly and practitioner-based understandings of symbolic reparations must contend with a crowded repertoire of post-conflict strategies for peacebuilding. Ultimately, the design of reparations programs for a given context should depend on the nature and scope of violence committed against citizens, the size of the named victim population, and the relative presence or absence of stability following conflict.

In countries like Colombia, where reparations legislation was passed in 2011—a whole five years prior to its formal Peace Agreement, which to this day is still fragile—symbolic reparations in the form of historical memory initiatives stood out as a meaningful companion to monetary reparations and land restitution. The combination of symbolic and material reparations, in this case, is an appropriate solution for several decades of widespread violence inflicted upon more than 9 million citizens during civil war. Colombia’s implementation of symbolic reparations policy, while far from perfect, stands as a helpful example for other societies recovering from long-term conflict. Practitioners should consider a robust toolkit of initiatives like monument and museum construction, historical memory programs, and set-aside days of commemoration--not as a substitute for material reparations for victims--but as a perhaps longer-lasting strategy for reconciliation.

Kristin Foringer is a USIP-Minerva Peace and Security Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on law and culture in post-conflict Colombia, with current work focused specifically on collective memory and symbolic reparations in the country.