The Injustices of Time: Rights, Race, Redistribution, and Responsibility

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Zinaida Miller is an Assistant Professor of International Law & Human Rights, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

Resurgent debates in U.S. law and politics over reparations and racialized inequality reflect what this Article argues is a significant transnational legal phenomenon: courts, policymakers, and social justice advocates mobilizing pasts of racial and ethnic violence and dispossession to justify competing rules for the distribution of resources and power today. In the United States., South Africa, Canada, and Israel/Palestine, significant legal and political battles revolve around the relationships among past, present, and future. Judges and advocates identify progress from or rupture with the past; embrace or reject institutions intended to record and resolve past events; and attempt to silence or center past violence when interpreting rights in the present. In the U.S., arguments about whether and how slavery is relevant to contemporary racialized inequalities arise in litigation around affirmative action and reparations. These debates contest not the horror of that past but rather its linkage with the beneficiaries of racial privilege today given the passage of time and the formal legal end of slavery and segregation. In South Africa, a critical fault line has emerged between those who view the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the post-1994 Constitution, and Constitutional Court judgments as representative of a flawed but foundational break with the atrocious past and those who assert that today’s radical, racialized inequalities derive from legal and constitutional continuities with the colonial and apartheid pasts. In Canada, recent public debates over the legal definition of genocide revealed tensions over the distribution of resources and power between Indigenous and settler Canadians. The question of whether genocide ended or continues represents a fundamental contest over the material consequences of colonialism in the present. The final case study examines the evasion of the past in the Oslo Accords and its subsequent effects on the structure of Israeli-Palestinian relations. While the predominant argument held that engaging the past would only provoke further conflict, activists and advocates countered that the radically unequal distribution of territory, population, and power in the present can be understood only in relation to past violence and dispossession. Together, the case studies reveal the material stakes of legal and political assertions of the resolution, distance, reproduction, legacy, afterlives, or erasure of racialized violence and dispossession.

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