International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

United States of Transitional Justice

The United States is no friend of the ICC, sure, but it has been supportive and instrumental in other forms of transitional justice (including independent tribunals), not to mention the NGO leadership from the US. Yet, I continually wonder about the missing legacy of transitional justice within the US itself. As we have studied, mechanisms such as TRCs can be essential to establishing a common understanding of a legacy of mistreatment: an understanding that is occasionally critical to establishing a stable human-rights bound culture. On the flip-side, it is thought that these processes might re-open wounds, shaking national stability and driving groups apart in to “victims” and “perpetrators”. When it comes to our own history, I wonder how addressing our own injustices might affect us now. The mass slaughter of Native-Americans, the extensive slavery of Africans and their descendants, or the internment of Japanese-Americans all seem to be topics that our national mythology has only briefly addressed. Are there benefits to revisiting these unfortunate periods? Would a stronger congressional acceptance of abuses perpetrated against native tribes affect our current treatment of minorities as a whole? Would further revealing to the public view the extent of slavery improve our understanding of lasting economic inequality? Or, on the other hand, might these measures only propose racial divisions of a “forgotten” past. Can we still “transition” from the past?


4 responses to “United States of Transitional Justice

  1. Alana Tiemessen October 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    This is a good reminder that it’s not just non-Western or developing countries with legacies of violence and impunity.

    In a related example, Canada now has a truth commission set up to address the human rights violations associated with the residential school policies for aboriginals. The schools had a devastating impact on aboriginal culture and life and only now is Canada addressing this through a truth commission, official apology, and reparations. See the website here:

    • awatt14 October 14, 2012 at 6:48 pm

      One notion that I have found particularly interesting throughout our class discussions on truth commissions is the lack of TRC’s in the Western world. After reading some of the responses on this TRC in Canada, I am a little skeptical of the level of effectiveness a TRC will have in a western country, particularly in America. After reading the “Residential Schools Settlement Agreement” which lays out the parameters for the truth commission, I found it difficult to imagine a system where a victim could not confront their accuser, even if said accuser confessed to the crimes in a TRC.

      Although a TRC might be one possible way to address some of America’s past atrocities towards its own citizens, I wonder how the American ideas of justice will influence the effectiveness of any sort of truth commission. Is it possible to have a truth commission in a country with such a large and established judicial system?

      This is the link to the Residential Schools Settlement agreement. Schedule N discusses the establishment of truth commissions.

  2. mfcarpenter October 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    I think you raise a lot of important issues. As students in the United States, we are used to contemplating these human rights questions within contexts very foreign to us — the atrocities we read about rarely affect our daily lives and decisions. But you raise a good question about our own history. I spent much of my childhood living on reservations where people constantly discuss the issues you’ve raised in your post. But it always brought me to the same question – then what? If the United States issued a formal apology, it doesn’t undo decades of seeded resentment that has become normal – even expected – in life on the reservation. Which brings me to a larger issue that I have with reconciliation as a goal. It seems like such a nice and important thing to do (I don’t doubt that at all – recognition and apologies are vital to moving forward) but then what? Should Reconciliation be more than formal apologies and acknowledgement that the state has done a horrible act? What further action should the United States take in acknowledging and repairing the relationship with American Indians, and how would the general public feel about that?

  3. gentryj October 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    Your point about the missing legacy rings true in many ways. It should be noted that some efforts at reparations and official apologies have been made. Tribal recognitions and some attempts at repayment for lands lost have been offered to some Native American groups. President Ford provided an official apology for Japanese internment and subsequent presidents organized and executed reparations to victims and their families. Reparations for slavery does remain an issue, particularly since the effects are so widespread.

    Furthermore, numerous other groups could be added to the list. In fact, I am from the western United States in large part because my ancestors were driven out of the Midwest for their LDS religious beliefs. Many of these persecutions were state-sanctioned. In Missouri, the governor actually ordered that Mormons were to be exterminated or driven out. In 1976 this order was rescinded and officially regretted. In 2004, Illinois also provided an official regret for the violence and persecution that occurred. So, some efforts have been made to address the past. Furthermore, efforts have been made in the educational system to address these difficult periods.

    However, one aspect seems to remain incomprehensible to many Americans: individual criminal responsibility for human rights abuses, particularly in relation to government officials. For instance, while debate circles around the legitimacy of using torture on terrorist suspects, there appears to be no call (at least in mainstream dialogue) for criminal prosecution of government officials who were involved in, or complicit with, the use of torture. Furthermore, even though official apologies have followed such events as Japanese internment. These were not coordinated (at least to my knowledge) with any attempt to place any responsibility on the shoulders of individuals. While I am unsure how or under what conditions such individual responsibility should be pursued, it is interesting that it doesn’t seem to enter the dialogue. This much I can say: if such attempts at prosecution were attempted, it would happen at the domestic level, for with its power and prestige, I doubt the United States would ever hand any such authority over to an international court.

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