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Compensation for an injury; redress for a wrong inflicted.

The losing countries in a war often must pay damages to the victors for the economic harm that the losing countries inflicted during wartime. These damages are commonly called military reparations. The term reparation may also be applied to other situations where one party must pay for damages inflicted upon another party.

In the twentieth century, military reparations have been extracted from Germany twice. After Germany's defeat in World War I, the Allies conducted a peace conference in Paris at which they drafted the Treaty of Versailles (225 Consol. T. S. 188 [June 28, 1919]) which was extremely harsh toward Germany. Germany was compelled to deliver to the Allies one-eighth of its livestock and provide ships, railroad cars, locomotives, and other materials to replace those it had destroyed during the war. Germany also had to provide France with large quantities of coal as reparations.

The treaty required Germany to pay large yearly sums of money to the Allies, but it did not set the total amount due. A reparations commission, which was created to determine the amount, decided in 1921 to set total cash reparations at about $33 billion.

Efforts to collect the reparations failed, primarily because the German economy was in dire straits in the 1920s. U.S. financier Charles G. Dawes presided over a committee of experts to deal with this problem. In 1924 the Allies and Germany adopted the Dawes Plan, which reorganized the German national bank, placed stringent economic controls on Germany, and provided for loans to Germany, all to improve the German economy so that the country could make reparations. In 1929 Germany renegotiated its reparations requirements with the Allies. A committee headed by U.S. representative Owen D. Young reduced the amount Germany owed and ended foreign controls over the German economy. Even this reduced amount of reparations was not paid. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and the reparations provisions.

In the twentieth century, the term reparation has come to imply fault. However, in some circumstances nations may pay for damages inflicted by their armed forces without admitting fault or legal liability, by offering compensation ex gratia, which is Latin for "out of grace." Such payments are usually made for humanitarian or political reasons.

For example, the United States paid Switzerland $4 million for the accidental bombing of the town of Schaffhausen during World War II and paid Japan $2 million in the mid-1950s after an atomic bomb test that the United States conducted in the Pacific showered a Japanese fishing boat and its crew with radiation.

In recent years the governments of Switzerland and Germany have made efforts to provide reparations to victims of the Nazi Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. Swiss banks had frozen the assets of Holocaust survivors and their families after World War II and for many years they denied that those assets existed. With pressure from the international community and the United States mounting, the banks finally acknowledged in 1997 that they were holding thousands of dormant accounts and set up a restitution fund of some $1.25 billion for account holders and their survivors. An instrumental figure in the fight for Swiss reparations was U.S. Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York, who was then chair of the Senate Banking Committee.

The U.S. government has granted reparations to the Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II as a result of Executive Order No. 9066 signed by President franklin d. roosevelt in February 1942. The order led to the incarceration of approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry; 77,000 were U.S. citizens and the rest legal and illegal resident Aliens. The president was reacting to wartime hysteria that gripped the West Coast immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As U.S. citizens began to fear a Japanese invasion of the mainland, rumors abounded about treasonous Japanese residents either communicating vital war secrets to the Japanese government or actively aiding the enemy. Though these rumors proved false, Japanese Americans suffered because of their nationality. Those interned were forced to sell their homes, furnishings, and businesses at low, distressed prices because they were only allowed to take what they could carry. Families were uprooted and spent time in relocation camps. These camps were located in inhospitable places with severe weather conditions, and they were poorly outfitted to shelter the prisoners who suffered, became ill, and in many cases died. The last of these camps did not close until 1946, six months after the end of the war.

During the war Japanese Americans sought restoration of their rights through the courts, but to no avail. In 1942 Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu was convicted for failing to report for relocation. In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court, in korematsu v. united states, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194, upheld the constitutionality of the relocation orders.

For 40 years Japanese Americans sought reparations for their wartime imprisonment and loss of property. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (50 App. U.S.C.A. § 1989b) amounted to an apology from the U.S. government for the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. The act established a $1.25 billion trust fund for paying reparations. Each of the approximately 60,000 surviving internees received $20,000 tax free.

Reparations are also awarded to some crime victims. Several states have enacted the Uniform Crime Victims Reparation Act, which awards reparations to persons who have been victims of crimes involving physical violence. Reparations may be granted for medical and hospital costs not covered by medical insurance, lost wages, and other costs associated with a crime.In addition, some federal statutes provide for reparations for violations of law. For example, persons suffering losses because of violations of the Commodity Futures Trading Act (7 U.S.C.A. § 18) may use the act to seek reparation against the violator.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a growing interest in the idea of providing reparations to the descendants of black slaves in the United States. After the U.S. Civil War, freed black slaves were promised a new start with "40 acres and a mule" to start their own farms. That promise never materialized, and blacks remained victims of racial discrimination.

The argument for slave reparations is that the United States owes its prosperity in no small part to the millions of slaves who were brought to the United States between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of those slaves were never compensated for their efforts. The effects of Slavery and the racial prejudice that went hand in hand with it, even after slavery was outlawed, put blacks at a significant socioeconomic disadvantage: fewer opportunities to get a good education, to get good jobs, and to acquire economic security. Proponents of slave reparations maintain that the U.S. government owes the descendants of slaves a formal acknowledgement and apology for the inhumanity of slavery. They also believe that the government should seek ways to provide some form of tangible restitution to slave descendants.

Opponents of reparations claim that those who seek them are merely trying to exploit national guilt and provide easy money for the descendants of slaves. Many blacks oppose reparations for that reason: they do not wish to carry the stigma of being helpless victims of their circumstances in a country known for individual achievement against daunting odds. Some opponents feel that bringing the issue to the forefront will only open old wounds and in fact increase racial tensions. Others feel that if reparations were granted, it would weaken programs such as Affirmative Action because people would believe that the reparations had at last leveled the playing field for blacks and whites.

Part of what makes the issue so challenging is its logistics. Among the proponents of reparations there exists disagreement as to what form they should take. Some people think that a cash settlement is sufficient, while others want to see the creation of programs that, for instance, would provide education and healthcare funding for those in need. Moreover, there is the question of who would receive precisely which form of reparations. Not all blacks in the United States are descendants of slaves, and in some cases their slave ancestors were freed in the eighteenth century.

Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, recognizing the complexity and sensitivity of this issue, has introduced legislation each year since 1989 that would establish a commission to study reparations proposals. This commission would study the long-term economic effects of slavery on freed slaves and their descendants and determine a means of providing fair and equitable redress.

Further readings

Bryan, Chad W. 2003. "Precedent for Reparations? A Look at Historical Movements for Redress and Where Awarding Reparations for Slavery Might Fit." Alabama Law Review 54 (winter).

Ogletree, Charles J., Jr. 2003. "Repairing the Past: New Efforts in the Reparations Debate." Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 38 (summer).

Posner, Erica A., and Adrian Vermeule. 2003. "Reparations for Slavery and Other Historical Injustices." Columbia Law Review 103 (April).

Robinson, Randall N. 2001. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Plume.

Smith, Heather. 2003. "The Last Battle: Japanese Reparations." American Lawyer 25 (July).


Japanese American Evacuation Cases; Slavery; Victims of Crime.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

REPARATION. The redress of an injury; amends for a tort inflicted. Vide Remedy; Redress.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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