Reparations: An International Call for Accountability

Have You Ever?

Have you ever heard of the Holocaust? Of Apartheid? Of Colonization? How about the Tuskegee Experiment? Or policies of forced sterilization? How much have you learned about Japanese Internment? 

Who can be held responsible for these human rights violations? Can society ever understand the full scope of the damages that these injustices have inflicted? How can the economic, psychological, historical, and emotional consequences be repaired?

The Answer

For some international experts, state and local governments, and activists, the answer to the last question can be found in reparations. Some governments responsible for human rights abuses have turned to monetary reparations as a way to repair, at minimum, the economic damages inflicted. 

At various points, especially throughout the 20th century, different national, state, and local governments have paid reparations to different people, communities, and even other states. Following Apartheid, the National Unity Government of South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission focused on reconciliation between survivors and perpetrators of human rights violations. The Commission awarded some cash payments, although those were largely considered insufficient and did not reach everyone impacted. 

North Carolina, one of the 33 states in the U.S. that adopted a eugenics program that disproportionately resulted in the sterilization of Black women, passed a 10 million dollar reparations program. However, survivors of the eugenics efforts have objected to this attempt to monetize the value of their lives and bodies. Many states, additionally, have failed to ever admit they participated or perpetuated these efforts. 


Broadly understood, reparations are compensation given for abuse or injury. The United Nations has stated that reparations are a right of the victims who have suffered a human rights violation and are a responsibility of the state. A “victim” is defined as an individual or a collective that has suffered physical or mental harm, emotional suffering, economic loss, or substantial impairment of rights. Reparations are an essential part of transitional justice, which are judicial and non-judicial measures implemented to amend for human rights abuses. 

How It Works

The United Nations has acknowledged the importance and necessity of reparations for transitional states that are moving from authoritarian regimes and need to amend for human rights violations. Under international law, the United Nations has asserted that victims of abuses have a right to effective reparations. This includes monetary compensation, restitution of status before the violation took place, and rehabilitation. Perhaps the most critical part is, however, that the state must take steps to ensure that the perpetrated breach of human rights will not reoccur. 

In part, advocacy for reparations seeks to recognize that survivors of past and present abuses have rights. By acknowledging those rights, the state or the party that owes compensation also must admit that those rights were violated. Reparations emphasize the need to center the voices of survivors of human rights violations. In doing so, complicit states or parties are taking the first important step in acknowledging the victim's suffering. 

The next step of a repertory process is to offer redress and then some form of compensation. Reparations may be symbolic or material. An example of material reparations is cash payments. A symbolic reparation could be a memorial that serves as a communal process of remembering. 

Separate from the definitions and mechanisms outlined by the United Nations, there are several different models of reparations. Reparations can either go directly to individuals and families or the government of a nation. Some critics argue compensations paid to a government are unlikely to reach the people and communities for whom they are intended.  

Applying It

In many cases at the federal, state, and local levels, monetary reparations have been proven to be insufficient. In the present day, the concept of reparations is mentioned most often in the context of that which the United States government owes to descendants of formerly enslaved Black Americans. Urging state and local governments to recognize legislation that has proposed reparation measures is an important step that everyone can take to remedy human rights violations. The definition and guidelines set out by the United Nations are important tools, but understanding the limitations and continuing to center the voices of survivors is critical to any potential success.

Think Further

  1. What challenges do you think states might face in implementing reparations? 
  2. Why are some governments successfully held accountable for reparations while others are not?
  3. Can you think of any other ways beyond those listed that reparations can be effective?


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Learn More

  1. Gray, David C. “A No-Excuse Approach to Transitional Justice: Reparations As Tools of Extraordinary Justice.” Washington University Law Review, vol. 87.
  2. Matthews, Dylan. “Six Times Victims Have Received Reparations.” Vox, 23 May 2014.,
  3. Should We Pay Reparations for Wrongs Committed in the Past?,