The future of the past: Intergenerational trauma and transitional justice


Devon Kearney


Recently I completed a research project for the Fund for Global Human Rights on the present and future of transitional justice: the things societies can do to address mass human rights abuses in their history. What I found is that a lot of money and attention have gone into the institutions of justice, truth commissions, and the International Criminal Court, and not very much into building and supporting movements of victims to sustain demands for justice and shape what justice eventually looks like.

A wide array of the experts I interviewed, in different ways, suggested that transitional justice processes have been insufficiently political. Perhaps owing to the outsized role of prosecutions in our conception of what justice for violent crime must be, impartiality is seen as sacrosanct. The statue of Justice blindfolded is an allegorical figure recognized around the world. Concerns that accountability for the past must not be seen as mere ‘victor’s justice’ may also be a reason civil society activists are kept at arm’s length.

Impartiality sounds noble, but it obscures the fault lines that persist. Those most responsible for human rights abuses under repressive regimes or during civil war do not usually slink away. They remain powerful, and when their impunity is threatened they will defend themselves. Any effort at reckoning with the past is thus inherently, unavoidably political, and moreover it often pits still powerful elites against marginalized groups whose human rights were always easy to ignore. It is not a fair fight. If we are not supporting these victims to organize and demand justice effectively, if social movements are not at the heart of transitional justice, we should not be surprised when our efforts fail, as they have in many places in recent years.

In many of my interviews there was a thread of pessimism, a nagging worry I suspect many transitional justice activists, experts, and funders feel today. With backsliding in Guatemala and Myanmar, and stalled efforts in Tunisia and elsewhere, some of my interlocutors expressed a sense of failure. Others noted that there is donor fatigue in the international community. Some expressed the fear that transitional justice has passed its prime.

Is the heyday of transitional justice in the past? Will our failures and disappointment drive funding away, leaving the promise of justice for victims of the world’s greatest crimes to wither?

What I am certain of is that we lost something essential by elevating impartial justice over the messy scrum of civil society activism, supporting formalized transitional justice institutions in place of victim-led movements.

But, for better or for worse, it is never too late. The intergenerational legacy of mass atrocities shapes families, warps societies, and even changes DNA. The need for justice is lasting.

Memorial at Manzanar concentration camp, California

Recently, I attended a webinar organized by the Japanese-American groups Densho and Tsuru for Solidarity on the impact of WWII Japanese incarceration on the ‘Yonsei’ generation. Broadly, this is the generation of those whose great-grandparents immigrated and who, for these purposes, are two generations away from those ugly days when the United States put people of Japanese descent behind barbed wire, causing many to lose everything they had owned and worked for. ‘The Past is Not Past’ was the title of the event, evoking William Faulkner’s famous quote that goes on to frame actions as a web, ‘ripples of consequence echoing down the generations.’

The presenters showed that the lines of transmission for the trauma experienced in those desolate camps are live wires, even if they do not carry the same jolt. Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist, filmmaker and co-founder of Tsuru for Solidarity, explained how intergenerational trauma plays out, from her work with Japanese-American patients over the years. The impact changes shape, but it remains real for Yonsei today.

Many Nisei men, second-generation and American by birth, died unusually young. Depression, substance abuse, hoarding and other psychosocial ailments were common among those who came out of the incarceration camps and had to start their lives over. Their children, the Sansei, some of whom have childhood memories of barracks and guard towers, grew up in the shadow of their parents’ grief, fear and silence. Many were slow to process the enormity of their history, though the many Sansei in the audience, now approaching their 70s, made clear that they are coming to grips with it.

‘The Yonsei were much more likely to name and provide some detail on mental health consequences,’ said Donna Nagata, a psychologist presenting her research on the Yonsei experience. ‘A second difference was the really strong expression of concerns about combating injustice and not just around issues of the incarceration specifically but more broadly…. I think we tend to have this model of thinking that role models are always our elders. I think this goes the other way, too, where Yonsei were bringing their energy and creativity and sort of this openness to labeling the experience is a role model to me, as a Sansei.’

The political ramifications of what happened to their grandparents informs the Yonsei worldview in ways that were less evident when Nagata surveyed their parents’ generation thirty years ago. Paranoia, or at least a healthy distrust of the government, is one dimension. Political engagement is another. Their Nisei and Sansei elders won reparations from the Reagan Administration for the injustices they suffered. The new generation is more expansively political. Tsuru for Solidarity, a Sansei-Yonsei led group, was among the most vociferous opponents of the barbaric approach the Trump Administration took towards Latin American migrants in our time.

Sometimes, it takes two or even three generations just to be able to talk about a thing, to come to grips with anger and channel it, to emerge from isolated shock and grief and come together. When we are talking about the arc of justice, it’s always early days. After an unfathomable wrong has been done to so many people, future generations will also bear the scars, and they too need redress.

‘Are you prepared to invest in these movements for thirty or forty years or more?’ said an expert whose experience with transitional justice dates back to the days after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, expressing his admiration for the mothers of the disappeared movements in Latin America. ‘Because that is what it takes.’

It is too early to call transitional justice a failure because wherever there have been mass injustices and atrocities, there is a multigenerational process of coming to grips with the past. We cannot always shorten the process with big, ambitious, short-term efforts of the kind that has come to define the field. What we can do is give victims the resources — money, training, psychosocial assistance, and time — to be able to reflect on the injustices they have suffered, to come together in grief and eventually in resolve, and to define and then pursue justice.

This is where our philanthropy and expertise should be directed. In ‘Justice As Resistance,’ Habib Nassar writes, ‘what local actors may need is a better distribution of resources, which today are still concentrated in organizations based in the global north. A redistribution of resources would allow them to create, design and implement their own justice strategies.

Next-generation transitional justice philanthropy needs to centre the work of victims and activist movements that, if strong enough, will secure justice on their own terms. To do so, it may need to look beyond just the next generation.

Devon Kearney has worked with human rights and social justice nonprofits around the world for more than 20 years.

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Benedetta de Niederhausern

Great article. Insightful thank you.

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