RECONCILIAITON ≠ TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE (Part II)

The relation of transitional justice to contemporary reconciliation studies is an issue that requires much more attention. Some of the most recent examples of reconciliation (Australia and Canada) have not taken place inside of a transitional justice paradigm, but are the consequence of previously democratic states coming to terms with past crimes. Inasmuch as reconciliation in places such as South Africa and Yugoslavia has targeted transgressions that took place outside of democracy–for instance after apartheid or following a coup d’état–the performance of “settler reconciliation” has a much different set of effects and consequences than its counterparts in transitional nations. These differences must be parsed both with and against the TRC genealogy.

The way in which political performances of reconciliation can distract from the lived conditions of victims is more evident if analysis is shifted from South Africa to the world’s longest running official reconciliation initiative, found in Australia. In 1991, the Australian government unanimously voted to establish the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) in order to promote the “process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community” (Reconciliation Australia.org). This initiated a ten-year period of “official reconciliation,” leading to the establishment of Reconciliation Australia, which continues to “monitor Australia’s progress towards reconciliation so that government, business and the community can take on the responsibility to back up words with real commitment” (Reconciliation Australia.org). Conceived as a way to “address progressively” (Short 491) Australia’s Aboriginal/Settler relations, Australian reconciliation has been passed to four Prime Ministers and continues to be an unavoidable fact of Australian politics. As of this writing, it is a twenty-year process.

From a bird’s eye view, “reconciliation” is an integral part of Australia’s political infrastructure. Aside from CAR and Reconciliation Australia, the country also hosts Australians for Reconciliation (AFR), the National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC), and, most recently, the Reconciliation Action Plan, initiated by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in June 2011. Australia also boasts the Division of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation (similar to British Columbia’s department: the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation).[1] On February 13, 2008, four months before Stephen Harper, Australian Prime Minister Paul Rudd issued a formal apology to the survivors of the Stolen Generations,[2] adding another layer to this extended process. However, the largest, most moving performance of reconciliation came in May 2000, when some 500,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge for the reconciliation walk. The walk was organized so that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians could show their support for the reconciliation process (which was by this time almost a decade old).

This particular event is best remembered for a giant sky-written “Sorry” etched in the horizon over the Sydney Opera House. The “Sorry” contrail is perhaps the best metaphor for Australian reconciliation. While the word captured the imagination of the country and the world for a brief moment in time, it quickly faded away. The explicitly ephemeral nature of this apology can be connected to the meager impact Australian reconciliation has had on the larger world of conflict resolution.sorry As Damien Short argues, “Australian reconciliation does not warrant a mention in any of the major texts on reconciliation despite the fact that it has been the longest running official process” (17). This is due to the fact that while it is constantly being written out for all to see, reconciliation in Australia is nothing more than a series of vaporous politics, which, like mist in the sky, have no material impact on the victims they claim to address; rather, they simply affirm Australia’s contribution to the maintenance of Nuremberg ideology and guarantee that state a position in the “new international morality” (Barkan ix). What audiences see here, in its “heavenly” representation, is thus a governmental commitment to reiterating Human Rights principles as an idealist order, while simultaneously disavowing the material consequences of this performance on the subjects it claims to address.

On the ground, however, one sees a very different idea of reconciliation in Australia. By the time John Howard and his conservative Coalition Party came into power in 1996, prominent land claims such as Mabo and Wiki had once again propelled Aboriginal rights into the international spotlight. Thus, for his scene in Australia’s theatre of regret, Howard and his government made yet another performative shift in Australian Aboriginal policy in order to protect political interests and national resources. This time, the state put emphasis on a “practical reconciliation” agenda that focused on ‘individuals’” (qtd. in Short 502). Practical Reconciliation was a neo-liberal tactic designed to undermine Aboriginal rights by focusing on ideas of formal equality and citizenship, ideas which borrowed heavily from the liberal rhetoric of “equality” and “tolerance.” Under this policy, rights were only determined by one’s relation to the state. This form of recognition homogenized the public and precluded any special claims to land or history (including the trauma suffered by the Stolen Generations).

As Aboriginal scholar Larissa Behrendt writes, practical reconciliation was little more than yet another assimilationist policy designed to eliminate the perceived “threat” of Aboriginal rights:

The clear agenda [of practical reconciliation] is one of assimilation and integration. This, of course, is not a new ideology, but a throwback to the paternalistic days when Welfare Boards and Aboriginal Protection Boards dictated the lives of Aboriginal people and their children. It is an ideology that has been used in the past, did not work then, and has not only been rejected by indigenous people, but has left a lasting legacy of disadvantage, trauma and family breakdown that is still plaguing indigenous families and communities today. (qtd in Short, 172)

What Australia helps to illustrate is precisely the grand scale on which the theatre of regret can operate in settler states. “Practical reconciliation” evokes regressive colonialist tropes designed to control Aboriginal people and flatten difference. Yet in spinning out its politics in the theatre of regret, the Australian government is able to couch neo-conservative objectives in the scene of forgiveness demanded by Nuremberg. As such, politics produce a veil of tears used to distort government intentions.

Again, the giant “Sorry” in the sky provides an excellent means to think about performance and the reiteration of Nuremberg principles in settler nations. By contributing to the discourse of Human Rights, Australia makes material the abstract notions of morality that contemporary nation states must participate in. State politics operate beneath this word, which becomes the structuring element of the national symbolic. However, just like skywriting itself, “sorry” gradually fades and is forgotten while conditions remain the same. The scale of the performance demonstrates the commitment to perpetuating Nuremberg ideologies and the new international order, which demands this gesture as a sign of belonging to a larger notion of international morality. The walk for reconciliation and the skywriting itself demonstrate how grand and ostentatious this performance has become. Paradoxically, however, it is precisely the size of the performance that distracts from how reconciliation is actually operating on the ground, in the lives of the people the ideal claims to address. At the level of lived experience, reconciliation is being levied against the people it claims to represent despite the fact that it also helps to shape the lives and experiences of a community in positive ways. Permutations of reconciliation, such as “practical reconciliation,” help to make explicit the ways in which governments attempt to conform to the theatre of regret while eliding deeper ethical concerns.

[1] See also the Ukraine Foundation for Understanding and Reconciliation.

[2] The Stolen Generations are the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian government.

3 comments

  1. Brilliant. Reflagging on The Turning Spiral

  2. that was supposed to say, reblogging 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral.

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