Seating Arrangements at the Table of World Morality

Simon Chesterman

  • The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices by Elazar Barkan
    Norton, 414 pp, £21.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 393 04886 1

For the past four years, a debate has raged in Australia over whether the process of reconciliation between its indigenous and non-indigenous populations should include a formal apology for past injustices. John Howard, who became Prime Minister in 1996, has repeatedly rejected what he regards as an over-apologetic tendency, epitomised by certain policies of the previous Labor Government, and by references in the Australian High Court’s Mabo judgment, which recognised native title to Aboriginal lands taken by settlers, to ‘a national legacy of unutterable shame’. Speaking in Parliament that year, he warned of the need to guard against the ‘rewriting of Australian political history’:

I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history. I think there is a yearning in the Australian community right across the political divide for its leader to enunciate more pride and sense of achievement in what has gone before us. I think we have been too apologetic about our history in the past. I believe it is tremendously important, particularly as we approach the centenary of the Federation of Australia, that the Australian achievement has been a heroic one, a courageous one and a humanitarian one.

Howard’s refusal to make a formal apology for the policies of the past (he has expressed ‘personal sorrow’ over some injustices) is at odds with a growing number of official apologies that have been made in different parts of the world since the late 1980s. A lot of these relate to World War Two: Switzerland has recently apologised to Jews for its actions during and after the conflict, Germany for its use of slave labour, the United States for the imprisonment without trial of Japanese Americans. The Queen’s travels of late have been punctuated by apologies to the legatees of colonialism; President Clinton has apologised for US support of Guatemalan rightists, for its treatment of native Hawaiians, and, in part, for the institution of slavery. Even the Pope has made a series of extraordinary statements, apologising for the Church’s silencing of Galileo, for its role in persecuting the Jews, and for its treatment of women and minorities (though without mentioning the Inquisition, the Holocaust or the Crusades by name).

Seizing on one such act of contrition, Elazar Barkan begins his survey of how countries attempt to deal with historical injustices on a portentous note: ‘Virginia Woolf might have said that on or about 5 March 1997, world morality – not to say, human nature – changed.’ Woolf’s often-quoted line referred to a Post-Impressionist art exhibition organised by her friend Roger Fry in December 1910. Barkan’s chosen date is that of the Swiss Government’s announcement that it would sell substantial amounts of its gold to create a humanitarian fund of $5 billion, to be dispensed in part to Holocaust victims. He sees this admission of wrongdoing, backed up by compensation, as a watershed in ‘international morality’, promising a new ethic of restitution for past injustices.

The Guilt of Nations is a timely book, usefully describing 11 situations in which reconciliation has been attempted. They are linked by the idea that restitution may provide an effective model for their resolution (and the resolution of other historical conflicts). Preceded and followed by forays into the theory of restitution, the main text is divided into two parts. In Part One Barkan considers the aftermath of World War Two, discussing the processes that led to reparations being made by Germany to the Jews, Switzerland’s opening up of its secret bank accounts to inspection, and the compensation paid to Japanese Americans who were interned on the West Coast. Separate chapters look also at the less successful example of Japan’s treatment of the ‘comfort women’ forced into sexual slavery by the military, as well as the unresolved questions of Russian plunder of Nazi art (and vice versa), and restitution in post-Communist East Central Europe. In Part Two he turns to the legacy of colonialism, examining the situation of indigenous populations in the continental United States, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, concluding with a chapter on the question of restitution for slavery.

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