The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

Demos21: Towards a Theory of Postcolonial Justice


On Wednesday, November 10, 2021, Demos21, a year-long series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), hosted its third event of the academic year. Guest speaker Professor Jamila Mascat from Utrecht University led a discussion on postcolonial justice. The hybrid event, which saw audience members attend both in person in CCDS’s conference hall in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons and online, formed part of the Contemporary European Democratic Theory section of Demos21, one of three themed sections that make up the convocation. 
Professor Mascat began by introducing the concept of postcolonial justice, arguing that postcolonial studies has more to offer than simply being a site for theoretical exercises in mourning. The idea of postcoloniality, as understood in this talk, draws on the words of Gayatri Spivak and Huguette Bello, and in particular Bello’s phrase “we are not the victims but the children of a crime against humanity,” which asserts the ongoing relationship between colonization and the postcolonial consciousness. Mascat’s paper asks what it means to do postcolonial justice and responds by locating postcolonial justice as in conversation with transitional justice – in particular, reparations projects – as well as distributive justice and global justice. 
In delineating these various manifestations of justice, Mascat notes that transitional justice often encapsulates the following: prosecution of the perpetrators; truth-seeking (via fact-finding); reparations (be they material or symbolic, individual or collective); and reforms as guarantees of nonrecurrence. Postcolonial justice is distinct in several ways, including the fact that the victims are both remote and located in history. In general, Mascat characterizes postcolonial justice as less optimistic than transitional justice, in that it does not seek reconciliation, but instead to reestablish the social contract under fairer terms. Postcolonial justice is also distinct from distributive justice in that it performs the important function of acknowledging historical harm. With regard to global justice, Mascat envisions postcolonial justice as operating in tandem with other forms of justice, particularly anticapitalist justice, as understood broadly in the Marx quote “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” 
Mascat expanded on these ideas by raising examples of postcolonial reparations projects, with a particular focus on postcolonial populations in Europe, noting that the UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durban in 2001 was an important moment in the progression of postcolonial justice. She also briefly addressed detractors of reparations projects, noting that the feasibility of such projects in no way undermines their moral urgency. She went on to note the importance of prioritizing collective rather than individual reparations, so as not to reproduce unjust consequences. She closed with a discussion of postcolonial justice as necessarily both critical and reparative. Following her talk, Mascat took questions from the audience; discussion topics included distinctions between historical crime and historical injustice and reparation in the context of contemporary democratic society. 

You can watch a full recording of Professor Mascat’s talk below.