As in any discussion, whether purely theoretical or—as in this case—practical in implication, the first task is to make sure that the correct questions are being asked. When we say that a State may be obligated in certain circumstances, following certain events, to make reparations to other States and the people who belong to those States, what claim are we making about the nature of a State?
.I would suggest that we are saying, by making such a claim, that a State is a person. We are accustomed to speaking only of individual human beings as persons, but such persons are not the only kind of persons. Many types of legal person exist, one of which is the corporate person of the State: like an individual person, the State has agency, can operate as a single unified whole, can be commended, and can be blamed, even punished.
By thinking of the State as a person, we can think of actions by or towards a given State as in some way analogous to that of an individual person. In the case of an individual, for example, we can ask: is retributive or restorative justice always and in every circumstance appropriate, despite the passing of time and the changes of relations that have taken place? If such justice were always and, in every circumstance, appropriate, for what purpose have we developed the legal mechanism of ‘pardoning’? Pardoning is clearly distinct from ‘forgiving’. A man may forgive another man, but still require that he practically make amends to the best of his ability—and there is nothing in this that contradicts the act of forgiveness. A man may, however, in the act of forgiveness, also waive any requirement imposed by justice, and this we call pardoning.
If the requirements of justice are in some circumstances not waived because doing so would be itself a great injustice, say, to the citizenry belonging to the transgressed State, are these requirements nonetheless time-dependent? In other words, how much time can pass before injustices ought to have no practical consequences in regard to retributive justice? It may be, for example, reasonable for a State to demand reparations from an aggressor-State decades after a conflict, but what about centuries after a conflict? For example, may England demand reparations from the Scandinavian countries for the Viking raids in the 8th-10th centuries? If not, why not?
To what degree, also, are such reparations demanded on account of an imbalanced understanding of history? Perhaps Germany and Russia should be required to make reparations to the allied and transgressed nations for the events of World War II, but should the allied nations be required to make reparations for their own horrendous violations of international law and the execution of titanic war crimes, such as the deliberate targeting of non-combatant, civilian populations, like those of Dresden, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima? Indeed, what is it about the popular understanding of 20th century history that accounts for the fact that such war crimes are seldom even mentioned in discussions of the life of Churchill or Truman?
Take another example: that of the frequent demand by people of colour in the U.S. for reparations for slavery. The transatlantic slave-trade was deeply evil, and few will disagree with that. Nonetheless, the Europeans who organised it and profited from it were taking advantage of an already very well-established African slave-trade run by Africans. Why, then, are the African States, who represent the African people, many of whom may be descended from African slave-traders, not required to make reparations to people of colour in the U.S.—especially since there is nothing to indicate that they wouldn’t have continued to enable the transatlantic slave-trade had the Royal Navy not put an end to it?
.Any particular and practical answers that can be given to the questions I have raised—which are certainly not exhaustive—are not for philosophers to offer, but for heads of governments and for parliaments to determine in negotiations with their counterparts in other countries, as they seek to develop workable foreign policies. A part of such foreign policy, however, will always be sincere attention paid to grievances. Such attention warrants rational and practical weighing-up, so to speak, of the reasonableness of such grievances. This ‘weighing-up’ begins with asking the right questions.