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Human Rights Quarterly 25.3 (2003) 820-821



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The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, by Elazar Barkan (New York: Norton, 2002). 414 pages including index.

In a way, the pictures on the cover of Elazar Barkan's thoughtful book, The Guilt of Nations: Negotiating Historical Injustices tell it all: an engraving of the atrocities committed against Native Americans in Spanish Florida circa 1598, a Dorothea Lange photograph documenting the children of Japanese ancestry awaiting relocation at a World War II Assembly Center in Turlock, California on 2 May 1942, a monument of skulls found at the Cambodian killing fields photographed by Richard Powers in May 1995, starved concentration camp prisoners liberated in Ebensee, Austria photographed by Lt. A.E. Samuelson on 7 May 1945, and finally a photograph taken in South Carolina in 1899 of what appears to be three former slaves. Of course, despite powerful images like these, vexing moral, legal and political questions remain: who can legitimately speak for the victims of historical injustice? Who is ultimately responsible for their suffering, and can the suffering of past generations be amended by apology and restitution of nation-states today? These are just some of the complex and difficult questions that Barkan's book skillfully addresses by the use of historical materials and philosophical reflections on international morality and the present state of post-modernity in the twenty-first century.

Following a preface in which Barkan points to "a potentially new international morality" 1 in which the "new globalism" 2 might provide the kind of context in which the perpetrators of past wrong doings may evidence a greater willingness to acknowledge and compensate victims and their descendants for past wrong doings, and a well-balanced introduction in which he soberly reflects that restitution for past wrong doings may open up the possibility of greater justice in human relations. His book is divided into two parts. Part One, which consists of six chapters, examines the struggle for restitution on the part of victims in the aftermath of World War II. These chapters include an examination of German reparation to the Jews after the Holocaust, the restitution and apology to Japanese Americans for their detention in relocation camps during the second world war, the refusal of the Japanese government to formally apologize for the use of sex slaves and comfort-women during World War II, the complex negations surrounding the Russian and German plunder of art treasures during World War II, the collusion between Swiss banks and the Nazis regarding the property of fleeing refugees, and the unresolved restitution in East European countries for the loss of property in the wake of the war, and the rise of communism. Barkin is equally ambitious in Part Two of his book's coverage of historical wrong doings and the restitution movement in the aftermath of Western colonialism in Africa, the Americas [End Page 820] and Oceanic countries including New Zealand and Australia. The six chapters in this section include detailed recounting of the indigenous rights movement, the Native American Repatriation Act and current controversies over the restitution for slavery. While each of the histories presented in Barkan's book are different, one central theme is obvious. Unless claimants for historical wrong doing are well organized, media savvy and persistent, there is little chance of success. After reading Barkin, it also appears obvious that unless claims of historical wrong doing are directed at Western liberal democracies (count New Zealand and Australia in that group) who have both the commitment to the rule of law and an interest in appearing fair-minded on the world stage, there is even less chance for a forthcoming apology let alone reparations.

The most original section of Barkin's book is the conclusion in which he argues "international public opinion and organizations are increasingly attentive to moral issues." 3 Barkin understands there to be a Neo-Enlightenment transformation taking place in which a "synthesis is built on a core of liberal rights enveloped by social and cultural values stemming from local traditions and preferences. It...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-794X
Print ISSN
0275-0392
Pages
pp. 820-821
Launched on MUSE
2003-08-05
Open Access
No
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