Academic journal article Borderlands

Visibility, Atrocity and the Subject of Postcolonial Justice

Academic journal article Borderlands

Visibility, Atrocity and the Subject of Postcolonial Justice

Article excerpt

In an article in the London Review of Books, Mahmood Mamdani identifies George Washington Williams, the first black member of the Ohio State legislature, and also a lawyer and Baptist Minister, with formulating the concept of 'crimes against humanity' to describe the atrocities committed by Belgium in the Congo Free State in the late nineteenth century (Mamdani 2013, p. 33). Williams, Mamdani observes, provided the prototype for the form of justice, initiated at the Nuremberg trials, that came to be known as victims' justice. The Nuremberg process, underwritten by the United States and administered in the name of the victorious allies, was understood at the time as inaugurating a new model of justice, one in which a liberal geopolitical order of states would be seen to administer a transparent and transnational justice in the name of the victims or, as they came to termed in post-Holocaust literature, the survivors (Mamdani 2013, p. 33). Mamdani doesn't mention whether any of the Nuremberg prosecutors invoked George Washington Williams, or the tortured, raped and murdered Congolese in whose name he had first called, unsuccessfully, for an 'International Commission of Inquiry' (Mamdani 2013, p. 33). Their figures, it would seem, only enter the story of international justice at a distance, as shadowy precursors.

George Washington Williams's eloquent and meticulously detailed Open letter indicting King Leopold for the atrocities of the Congo is one of the founding documents for international law, as well as a key document of anti-colonialism, although it remains relatively unfamiliar among postcolonial scholars. It was more than a half century later, at Nuremberg, that Williams' call for an international judicial commission was to be taken up. That foundational international judicial commission was, however, not convened to acknowledge or redress the forms of colonial atrocity Williams had decried in the Congo; rather, it was in the service of what was understood by the allies as the imperative to restore justice within the clearly delineated boundaries of a European order, an order from which the subject of the colonial had to be excluded, for both victors and vanquished. One of the underlying tensions between the U.S. and the British and French allies after their success in WW2 was precisely around the topic of imperialism, as the latter fought to stave off decolonization in India, Africa and Southeast Asia. And it is only the exclusion of the colonial violence from the space of a racially and geographically bounded European justice that makes intelligible the logic of reparation initiated at Nuremberg: a logic that lead to establishment of the state of Israel as a settler colony on seemingly unpeopled ground, terra nullius. This was the international order's act of restitution, outside its own limits, for the victims of Nuremberg, a restitution which continues to be exacted upon Palestinian bodies and lands (Mamdani 2013). Operations such as the 2014 'Protective Edge' offensive in Gaza instantiate this logic. At the same time, this authority to implement justice outside its own limits, in the name of specific victims of war, must be seen as the corollary of the authority to declare 'just wars' in the name of freedom outside its own territories that, as Denise da Silva writes, has 'been deployed to mark the ethical boundaries of post-Enlightenment Europe' (Silva, 2005, p. 122).

To remember George Washington Williams' call for justice for the Congo is to signal the exclusions and limits that constitute the order of international justice in the era initiated by the Nuremberg process, a little over half a century ago today. Nuremberg stands as inaugurating the contemporary order of international justice, both in its symbolic and performative dimensions and in the procedural and juridical precedents it set for the punishment of genocidal state violence and crimes against humanity. This new order of justice, as one dispensed or underwritten by an ethical, united international order in the name of the victims, is one that has ramified in various forms, extending from formal tribunals and inquiries of retributive justice to transitional justice mechanisms, truth commissions, official apologies, measures of restitution, reparations, and so on. …

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