Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

About this blog series

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. FriEnt's previous Radical-Critical blog series addressed the question if its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? The follow-up series goes further and asks if its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices are still valid against the backdrop of historic legacies like slavery or colonialism.

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"Non-repetition” means understanding the ongoing legacies

The inequality of land ownership in Kenya created the conditions for the Mau Mau uprising
16. Mai 2022

How should societies deal with the legacies of massive injustice and violence committed in the historical past? How can these strategies lead to “non-repetition”, in the future, of crimes committed in the past? In a conversation with Faith Alubbe recently, the author Louis Bickford got an interesting answer.

Currently the Executive Director of the Kenya Land Alliance, Faith previously worked at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) where she led the legal case for justice and reparations from the British for the Mau-Mau massacres of the 1950s. As a result, in October, 2012, the British government settled an extraordinary international legal claim that may have precedent-setting implications for movements worldwide that seek to confront violence committed in the past. By recognizing human rights abuse committed in Kenya during Colonial Rule by British authorities, the case may help to break new ground in the global movement for reparations and justice. The British government issued a formal apology for human rights abuse and covered the costs of memorials to commemorate these injustices.

But for Faith, this legal victory was partial, at best. The entire case had revolved around a legal question that was, from her perspective, too narrow. The case that Faith helped lead to a settlement was, in one key sense, the wrong case to begin with. In terms of non-repetition, the case might help guarantee that the British will never again massacre Kenyans who are oppressed by Colonial Rule. But is that enough? After all, in 2021, the British are no longer the direct Colonial administrators of Kenya and generally do not use brute violence against Kenyan Citizens. The likelihood of “repetition” has already been reduced or even eliminated as a result of major world-historical shifts and geopolitical change.

This all raises a basic question: in seeking non-repetition through transitional justice measures, societies, like Kenya, are seeking non repetition of what?

In an earlier essay, I argued that there are two different perspectives about “non-repetition”. The first focuses on a violently aberrant event (like a massacre) or extraordinary situation (like a period of Martial Law) and asks how to avoid the worst elements of that event or situation in the future. The British Mau Mau Settlement falls into this perspective. But the second perspective provides a different framework by looking at the broader historical trajectory and asking whether patterns established long ago are continuing today. From this second perspective, we would examine the larger context of crimes and atrocities committed in Kenya starting in 1913, when the British Land Act created a new historical trajectory resulting in massive inequality of land ownership. This, in turn, created the conditions for the Mau Mau uprising. To this day, Kenya is characterized by inequitable land distribution. Because this pattern has become normalized, it can be seen as a daily form of “repetition”. Seen from this perspective, “non-repetition” would mean addressing land distribution.This second perspective is admittedly far more difficult. Inequitable land distribution has become normalized in Kenya (as result of this historical trajectory) and significantly changing it sounds revolutionary. But taking “non-repetition” seriously as a concept and a desired goal means understanding and addressing pernicious and ongoing legacies.

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