Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guest blog #24 (continued): Claire Whitlinger on amnesty and ecological justice

Yesterday, I ended the post with a few questions that we must grapple with given the critiques of amnesties that have surfaced over the past decades. How might amnesties function when pursuing ecological justice within a (largely) functioning democracy? Furthermore, what can truth commissions teach us about the possibility of granting amnesty for ecological injustice? Here are some initial thoughts on these questions.

First, one must contend with the general public’s distrust of amnesties. Any efforts to pursue amnesties for ecological injustice would have to pursue a massive media campaign to convince the public that allowing an individual or corporation “off the hook” for ecological wrongdoing has some social utility that could not be achieved otherwise.

Second, one must recognize as Martha Minnow does in her book, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness (1999), that “an amnesty is credible only as a humane means to remember, not as a legislation of forgetfulness.” The challenge would be to design an amnesty program that both honors victims, and holds perpetrators morally accountable.

And third, one must take seriously the difference between individual perpetrators of human rights violations and corporate perpetrators of ecological injustice. The greatest difficulty I foresee in applying amnesties towards ecological injustice is getting representatives of corporations to come forward. Even if corporations were protected from repercussions in a court of law, they could still be held accountable in the court of public opinion. Without the legal or political power to compel confessions on the part of corporations, or the ability to protect them from reputational trauma, the potential financial ramifications of confessing seem unlikely.

All this being said, in my research I find that the truth alone – without financial reparations or legal justice – can be restorative for some. For example, when I was in Mississippi studying the attempt to establish a statewide truth commission, I listened to a woman speak about what justice would mean for her family. Her grandfather had been murdered in 1961, shot by a state legislator who falsely claimed self-defense and was never arrested. Despite eyewitness accounts that the victim had not provoked the legislator, this woman’s grandfather was found at fault for his own death. Forty years after the fact, the family merely asked that the state of Mississippi recognize the cause of death as murder and that that be reflected on the death certificate. In my opinion, this seemed a modest request, and one that could bring healing to this particular family.

So, rather than pursuing a uniform program of amnesties or even an ecological “court of justice,” I think it would be most advantageous to work with victims and victims groups individually to figure out what justice would be for them.

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