Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide.
In June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries. In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century. A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools.
On July 18th, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled, “Truth, Reconciliation and Healing: Towards a Unified Future,” where expert panelists reviewed lessons learned and discussed ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination. Speakers addressed official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America.
According to Dr. Gail C. Christopher, “this country was built over two and a half centuries with the deeply embedded fallacy of a hierarchy of human value, that some human beings just simply don’t have value.” She continued, “racism, anti-Semitism, religious bias, extremism, xenophobia – they all have their root in this fundamental fallacy of a hierarchy of human value. […] Our country has a history of enslaving people, committing genocide among Indigenous people, and embracing centuries of institutionalized racism [additionally] inequities caused by racism [are] costing our nation almost $2 trillion annually in lost purchasing power, reduced job opportunities, and diminished productivity.” She went on to note that unlike other countries that have endured war, sectarian or racial strife, the United States has never undertaken a comprehensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or other process, undergirding the antiquated belief in a hierarchical separation of races. To address this problem, she discussed her efforts to adapt a truth and reconciliation process across America based upon “truth, racial healing, and transformation.”
Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat discussed his work over three U.S. administrations to provide belated justice for victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi tyranny during World War II, as a Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-era issues. “I’ve negotiated $17 billion in recoveries for Holocaust survivors who suffered under the Nazis. Eight billion as a U.S. government representative under Clinton and Obama administrations and $9 billion as the chief negotiator for the Jewish claims conference in our annual negotiations with Germany,” he stated. The payments covered everything from forced enslaved labor, unpaid insurance policies, to looted works of art including for non-Jews in some cases. His other efforts included a presidential commission on the Holocaust led by Eli Wiesel that led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and $5 billion for a German remembrance foundation. He also described how Jewish refugees were refused entry into some countries, or their assets confiscated and then used to finance Nazi war efforts. Citing the Justice for Uncompensated Holocaust Survivors (JUST) Act, he called for Congress to hold hearings on findings from a report to be released in November 2019 on whether countries have met their commitments under the Terezin Declaration.
Former Flemish Christian and Democratic Party (CD&V) Councilwoman Tracy Tansia Bibo spoke in her video testimony about recent efforts to address the horrors of Belgian colonialism from the period of Leopold II through the 1960s where people’s hands were cut off when they did not reach their rubber quota, communities and villages burned in response to uprisings and women were raped. As one of the authors of Belgian legislation that led to an apology from the Prime Minister, Councilwoman Bibo described efforts to provide reparations and other means of redress for the kidnapping and forced adoption of close to 20,000 children from former Belgian colonies in Burundi, Congo, and Rwanda. She noted that in addition to the apology, archives had been opened and travel assistance provided to support families in finding one another. With the work of the Belgian government on hold since the last elections, she highlighted continuing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for Belgium and its former colony, including open societal dialogue; recognition of colonization and its modern day-effects; education and knowledge about colonization and racism; and reparations to address social and economic inequities stemming from institutional racism and colonization.
“It’s hard to talk about reparations,” she said. “Reparations is about fighting racial inequalities created by political systems that in the past were maintained by a privileged group. Hearings to determine exactly what this recovery means are therefore necessary… What if we finance programmes that, for example, aim to provide better health care for the black population who, according to studies, are more affected by certain diseases? What if we eliminate inequality in education by means of targeted programmes? Reparations is about more than handing out cheques to the black population. It is about eliminating inequalities.”
Dutch Councilman and ChristienUnie Party Leader Don Ceder shared a European perspective on truth and reconciliation efforts, following his role in passing June 2019 legislation calling for a formal apology for the city of Amsterdam’s role in enslaving close to 600,000 Africans in the colonies and the Netherlands being the largest slave trader between West African and South America in the 17th century. The apology is scheduled to take place July 1, 2020 on the Dutch day of remembering the abolition of slavery also known as Keti Koti – a Surinamese term that means “the chains are broken.” According to Ceder, the effort was a result of seven political parties coming together because, “we see that a formal apology for the shared past is a mature step to a consolidated shared future in Amsterdam [in part because] though slavery has been abolished since 1863 in the Netherlands, the traces remain visible everywhere around the city today.” Amsterdam will join cities such as Liverpool and Charleston and countries such as Benin and Ghana in issuing formal apologies for their participation in racial oppression, in addition to the European Parliament calling for all Member states to apologize for their roles. Ceder recognized that a new narrative may be needed to redefine Amsterdam with the understanding that withholding truth only creates an obstacle to a unified future.
Dr. Diane Orentlicher cited numerous lessons learned from her work in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Experience in many countries has shown that, unless they are adequately addressed, historic wrongs leave deep wounds, whose toxic legacy afflicts not only victims but whole societies. […] Social divisions rooted in wrongs and oppression will not be fixed without an honest reckoning, including a robust acknowledgement and condemnation of the original wrongs and a determination to address their toxic legacies.” Listing “denial” and “silence” as some of the main barriers to societies recovering from tragedy, she stated, “I do not believe Bosnia can become unified in any meaningful sense until public officials and other elites, as well as ordinary citizens, acknowledge the full extent of atrocities committed by members of their in-group and unequivocally condemn their crimes.“ Acknowledging that addressing historic wrongs can be painful, she noted the importance of honesty, bringing people together, courageous and innovative leadership, and persistence.