Reparations Owed to the Survivors of the Global War on Terror


Azadeh Shahshahani & Divya Babbula

I. Introduction

“Empire means never having to say you’re sorry.” – Azeezah Kanji 1

The Global War on Terror 2 continues the U.S. legacy of war-making.3 As used in this article, the Global War on Terror describes the ongoing aggression, dehumanization of Muslim communities, expansion of carceral powers, and additional tactics of state repression deployed by the U.S. and other governments in the two decades following the September 11 attacks. Rendition, torture, and unlawful and indefinite imprisonment of individuals at the Guantánamo Bay prison,4 increased surveillance at home and abroad,5 and other human rights abuses6 have been and continue to be committed by the U.S. in the name of fighting “terror” – an ever-elusive target.7 The military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 are only two of several military operations that the U.S. initiated or engaged in over the last two decades. In 2007, the U.S. established African Command (“AFRICOM”) to expand military presence and “western colonial control over the region, its people, and their resources” under the guise of fighting “terror.”8 Each subsequent administration has expanded the reach of the Global War on Terror such that the U.S. maintains counter-terrorism operations in 85 countries today.9 Over the last two decades, the U.S. has spent more than $8 trillion on the Global War on Terror, which includes $5.8 trillion spent or requested by the military as well as future medical expenses and disability payments to veterans.10 The costs of war in Iraq and Syria alone amount to $1.79 trillion between 2003 and 2023.11 Overall, the Global War on Terror has caused lasting harm to individuals, communities, natural resources, infrastructure, and the economies of targeted countries. This article focuses on the United States but claims for reparations should also be brought against other governments that facilitated and fostered violence and continue to do so. Holding countries accountable for the harms caused would help to overturn decades of impunity for white supremacist violence.12

Scholars and journalists have urged that the U.S. can and should take actions to support justice for people of countries it has invaded, occupied, and exploited.13 However, prior legal scholarship has focused on reparations owed to specific groups, such as people formerly detained at Guantánamo.14 This article expands on such existing scholarship by arguing that potential beneficiaries for reparations should also include all those who have endured various human rights abuses at home and abroad, military occupations and the resulting humanitarian crises, or forced displacement, as well as the descendants of those killed by direct violence. Reparations for a broader recipient group would help acknowledge and compensate for the full economic, human, and moral costs of the Global War on Terror, and are also mandated by the legal obligations of the U.S.

III. Accountability for the Global War on Terror

This Part describes how reparations would address specific examples of violence, torture, and displacement in the Global War on Terror. Reconstruction, refuge, and monetary damages are all potential forms of reparations. These remedies together would constitute “full reparation” as defined by international law.45

Reconstruction entails rebuilding the infrastructure, environment, and homes destroyed by the military occupation, including the removal of explosives.46 Much of the $60 billion spent by the U.S. between 2003 and 2012 for Iraqi “relief and reconstruction” was used to bolster the Iraqi security forces and not to rebuild infrastructure.47 The U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction found that $8 billion allocated to construction projects was wasted and a significant portion of the remaining funds were unaccounted for.48 The war against ISIS in 2014 destroyed much of the remaining infrastructure.49

Refuge includes hosting the millions of displaced persons in the U.S. or facilitating resettlement to other countries in a safe and welcoming atmosphere. The “Costs of War” project estimates that over 929,000 people have died from direct war violence, and over 38 million people have become displaced by the Global War on Terror.50 More than 9.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since the 2003 invasion, yet the U.S. Department of State “Direct Access” refugee program has resettled around only 47,750 Iraqis to date.51 The United Nations estimates that over 550,000 Afghans have been internally displaced since January 2021 in addition to three million people who were displaced prior to this year, and approximately nine million since the beginning of the crisis.52 These are numbers from two of the many countries impacted by the Global War on Terror. The U.S. resettled around 600 Afghan refugees in fiscal year 2020.53 This number has since slightly increased to around 1,600 in fiscal year 2022.54 The total annual refugee resettlement ceiling for fiscal year 2023 is 125,000 – an increase from the low of 18,000 under the Trump administration,55 but still a fraction of the total number of persons displaced by the Global War on Terror. The U.S. accepts less than 1% of the world’s displaced population “contrary to the myth of being overburdened by generosity.”56 Forcing the U.S. government to provide reparations because of human rights violations it committed during the Global War on Terror would deter other states from initiating or continuing their own violent counter-terrorism operations abroad.

The U.S. should make monetary payments to the survivors of the wars and the families of those killed, tortured, disabled, and disappeared. Most individuals impacted by these violations do not receive any monetary payment from the U.S., let alone reparations.57 Congress has taken some action to provide monetary payments to those affected by U.S. military aggression but these are expressly not meant to be reparations.58 Section 8127 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act provides ex gratia payments (i.e., sympathy and condolence payments) to certain civilians killed and injured in combat operations.59 According to a memorandum by the Undersecretary of Defense about these payments, only civilians who are considered “friendly to the United States” and are not residents of countries or territories in armed conflict with the U.S. who suffered “property damage, personal injury, or death” as a result of U.S. military activity are eligible.60 In addition to strict eligibility, these payments made are “not legally required, nor may they be construed or considered as an admission or an acknowledgement of any legal obligation to provide compensation, payment, or reparations for property damage, personal injury, or death.”61 The “principal goal” is to advance U.S. military objectives (“obtain and maintain friendly relations with and the support of local population”) and not to be accountable for human rights violations.62 Such language distances the U.S. from acknowledging its responsibility to repair some of the harms caused even as any payment is a fraction of the total economic and human destruction of the Global War on Terror.

The demand for Western governments to pay reparations for violence, oppression, and other exploitation is not new.63 There is some precedent for Western governments paying reparations to the people of another country they have harmed, as a result of consciousness-raising and sustained public pressure. For example, the U.S. paid reparations to Japanese Americans for internment and violations of their civil rights during World War II with the Japanese American Claims Act of 1948. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided monetary reparations to Japanese American survivors of internment and a congressional apology for the racist policy.64 After the Mau rebellion in the 1950s, the U.K. provided monetary payments to some of the Kenyans tortured and killed in the Kenyan fight for independence against British colonial rule.65

One notable example of the “full reparations” that international law aspires to achieve is the Caribbean Community Secretariat (“CARICOM”) ongoing demand for European countries involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade to pay long overdue reparations.66 Reparations on behalf of survivors of crimes against humanity of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and apartheid is imperative, but still unmet. The movement is gaining traction with the first International Reparations Summit was held in New York City in April 2015.67 Several countries including the United States are setting up reparations committees.68 Another positive development is that, in February 2021, the House Judiciary Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties conducted a hearing on H.R 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.”69 CARICOM makes the urgency clear: “Reparations is the moral imperative of our age and we believe that the struggle for reparations will become the pre-eminent human rights movement of the 21st Century.”70 The movement to ensure reparations for survivors of the Global War on Terror can take inspiration from CARICOM’s zealous and sustained efforts.

Reparations for the War on Terror are not solely an issue of foreign policy. The War on Terror also exacerbated the carceral state within the U.S. with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, expansion of the national security dragnet, militarization of the police, and other punitive government policies.71 In 2021, several American organizations collaborated to prepare a grassroots policy agenda for the Biden-Harris Administration to divest from the Global War on Terror.72 The authors of this article support these organizations’ demands that resources spent on surveillance and violence be reinvested into “structures of community care to protect the future of our people” such as the Movement for Black Lives’ proposed BREATHE Act and the NDN Collective’s LANDBACK Campaign.73

IV. Conclusion

The Global War on Terror is just one example of how the U.S. government has used its hegemonic police and military power for oppressive actions that it justifies using white supremacist ideology. In this way, the movement to end the Global War on Terror is intrinsically linked to efforts to #AbolishICE, #DefundPolice, get indigenous #LandBack, and enact the Red Deal.74 While the terminology and legal framework used to support the Global War on Terror is strategically unique, the “underlying dynamic of differentiation”75 that is used to justify “a one-way license of brutalization and control” 76 remains. This differentiation results in the false and racist notion that tragedy, conflict, and humanitarian crisis in countries targeted by the Global War on Terror is to be expected.77

Communities directly impacted by the war on terror and its infrastructure have condemned the abuses of power and violence committed in the name of fighting terrorism.78 And in response to the unlawful imprisonment of individuals at Guantánamo Bay, there was “extraordinary mobilization of lawyers throughout the world…to defend those beaten down by the U.S. government and the mass media.”79 In this tradition, lawyers around the world have a critical role to challenge the broader erosion of human rights and civil liberties of individuals caused by the Global War on Terror. Movement lawyers must uplift the demands of those impacted80 to first divest from and dismantle the infrastructure of the Global War on Terror and second, invest in “systems to provide care, protection, and repair for communities at home and abroad.”81 Reparations for the tremendous damage of the Global War on Terror is one crucial part of the movement for global justice, in which lawyers should be active participants.82

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