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The correlation between reparations and assistance and its impact on beneficiaries

The notion of reparative justice, in forms of either reparations or assistance provided to beneficiaries, and its issue of a seemingly unclear dichotomy between the two of them in transitional justice, has been discussed and examined by many scholars. According to Peter J. Dixon’s work on reparations and assistance, the distinction between the two is notably diminishing, even though international courts pursue a clear separation of both measures as both measures differentiate in the principles of responsibility, recognition, process, form and impact. Thus, it is important to know what each measurement generally implies. By Dixon’s definition, reparations are measures provided to a violated, harmed and/or injured party by that party who is responsible for the act of violence/harm or injury, which thereby is automatically held accountable and obligated to attempt to redress its wrongdoing. Reparations are based on the rights of individuals and are often considered transformative, by having a long-term impact on its beneficiaries.

Assistance, on the other hand, is usually more transitory as it aims to fulfil short-term needs of individuals, in order to provide more stable life conditions for its beneficiaries. Accordingly, assistance is most likely to appear in the form of development projects, humanitarian relief, state subsidies and the like.

Even though, the two measures seem distinct to each other in theory, the distinction often tend to blur in practice, as they happen to look very similar once institutionalized by the courts. Their former differences in the above mentioned five principles seem almost to become alike when translated into practice. One reason for this assimilation can be illustrated by the example that in many cases both measures, reparations and assistance, are financially funded by the same institutions or entities which is why the measures are often provided through almost identical or at least similar processes.

This similarity of both measurements in practice has caused/or has been caused by the intertwining of the two in transitional justice. Although the cooperation of both forms of reparative justice, where assistance mostly works as a bolster for reparation, has been proved reasonable and effective, the diminishing distinction between the former and the latter has been perceived and utilized differently by different models that combine reparations and assistance. Dixon introduces three different models of combination, however we will only focus on two of them, namely the ‘subsistence’ model and the ‘swiss cheese’ model, whereas the third model, ‘Interim Relief”, seems less relevant for us to consider, as it has solely worked in theory.

While the ‘subsistence model’, where assistance is usually provided beforehand so that the beneficiaries are able to (re)-establish more stable livelihoods in order to receive the long-term oriented reparations, inhibits favouritism to a clear distinction between both measurements provided and wants its beneficiaries to be aware of the former, transitional justice examples that resemble the ‘swiss cheese’ model, which is characterized by assistance filling in the gaps that reparations were not able to address, tend to prefer the unawareness of its beneficiaries of the distinction. Examining these different perceptions on the interconnection between reparations and assistance, the question of whether awareness or unawareness is more beneficial for the recipients, arises. It should be noted here that each model can not be seen as a clear distinction from the other and both models of combination interlink in some ways, also the examples offered to illustrate the models can contain elements of both models and only serve to exemplify.

Having recipients of a combination of assistance and reparations aware of the distinction between the two, as it is often the case in the ‘subsistence’ model, has certain advantages. The ability of victims of human rights violation to know whether or not one receives reparations or assistance, or a combination of the former, and additionally to know the distinction between the measurements can turn out to be quite important. This is due to the assumption that reparations have a strong symbolic meaning and power, consequently giving victims the chance to be recognized as such and offer them a measure to identify themselves with. Knowing as a beneficiary that one has not ‘only’ received assistance that is supposed to satisfy their substantial needs, but that their violated rights are tried to be redressed by reparations, often given by the wrongdoers who are also held accountable, obviously seems like an important step for the victims’ rehabilitation process. It seems important for victims to know that the violation of their human rights is recognized and that someone is held accountable for it. If a victim would not be certain of whether or not the measure he or she received has been assistance or reparations, his or her agency is being restricted, since his or her chance to choose identify him or herself with its status as a legitimate rights holder is being taken away from him or her. The distinction between reparations and assistance also makes increases the transparency of who is held accountable for their wrongdoings, giving victims the notion that justice has at least attempted to be restored. In a case like Colombia, where over 16% of the country’s population has been registered as victims, it seems relevant for each victim to find his or her own position and status in this huge range of fellow-victims.

However, an obvious disadvantage of the beneficiaries’ awareness of the distinction between reparations and assistance is the issue of their victimization that comes along with it. Despite the general notion that victims seek for a space to present themselves and an arena to be recognized as victims of human rights violation, this cannot be generalized unto all beneficiaries. Many people whose rights have been violated and who have been harmed, seek to deny their status as victims, for instance due to the fact that they rather see themselves as heroes, do not want to be put under a specific label or into a box and retain their individuality. The distinction between reparations and assistance, however, could have the effect of victimizing many recipients of reparations against their will, due to the important symbolic meaning and political context of reparations. This issue seems to be better addressed by the ‘swiss-cheese’ model.

The differentiation between assistance and reparations may be indistinct here, as we experience in the case of Lubanga. In this case where many beneficiaries have been child soldiers, the blurriness in distinguishing between assistance and reparation, was considered to be more beneficial for the children’s’ future. This can be argued as the principle of receiving recognition, which is one of the main intentions behind reparations, would not encourage their rehabilitation in society, but rather stigmatize them as child soldiers. Therefore the indistinct relationship between reparations and assistance, in the case of Lubanga was more appropriate, in regards to the possibility of establishing a new life for the former child soldiers where they could just be considered as members of a broader beneficiary group, like the vulnerable youth.

The overall problem is that both models generalize victims and their preferences, or may not even consider their preferences when trying to make clear or unclear distinction between reparations and assistance. The case of reintegrating child soldiers into the society of the DRC poses as an example of how the swiss-model has shown to make most sense in this particular matter. However, there must have been cases of child soldiers in DRC who would have wanted to be recognized as such in order to determine their clear status as right holders, since their rights have been enormously violated by being forced to become a child soldier in the first place.

It becomes apparent, that neither of the models are superior to the other and that the question of whether it is advantageous for the beneficiaries to be aware or unaware of the distinction between reparations and assistance depends on individual preferences and circumstances, that models used by the International Courts do not address adequately or at all.

Text referred to:

  • Dixon, Peter J (2015), Reparations, Assistance and the Experience of Justice: lessons from Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

written by Zofia Sjeerm, Natascha Berntsen Hyld, Tyeisha Sofie Hess Lund and Jule Chiara Wichern


1 comment to The correlation between reparations and assistance and its impact on beneficiaries

  • jacobra

    Thank you for a thorough recapitulation of the differences between these two responses to transitional justice and recognition.
    What are the effects of Peter Dixon’s argument if we try to implement it in practice? Should we let the victims or the beneficiaries decide themselves? Should we leave each individual case up to its particular context before we decide on what method we apply? What would such an individualism mean for notions of justice? Do the needs of victims triump the rights of the collective as Emily Camins argues?

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