Reparations – a deeper look

I have written several blog posts, articles and advocacy statements about reparations for psychiatric violence. This has a personal meaning to me that describes my journey as a survivor – first bearing witness, then seeking healing and justice, which are intertwined. The personal and political (or simply collective and interpersonal) dimensions of these are intertwined as well – for me, bearing witness, healing and justice are for the purpose of stopping the atrocities for me and everyone, repairing what has been torn in the social fabric by people choosing to ask the state to incarcerate their loved ones or by workers in a healing profession to become part of a machine that harms and kills. My own healing becomes this justice in the world, and gives back to me possibilities of a new world that is also one with more ancient values stemming from wholeness that is originally female and that sings in the stars, stones, water and trees, in me and in my connections with belly laughing women and women with whom I can share soul-meaning in my life.

Reparations has meaning in my professional work as a human rights lawyer that both carries forward this vision – is its primary instrument – and is irrevocably at odds with it. Reparations in international law is a holistic call to repair harms attributable to a state, focusing on state responsibility to right wrongs towards individuals, groups of individuals, and communities. Yet what is the state in our lives, but a source of alienation from our original meanings and knowledge, our capacity for mutual responsibility? If the state is a means of coordinating large-scale projects (as it can be, at its best, subject to democratic processes and human rights norms which are mutually recursive), it is also the organization of power to control, suppress, punish and kill. For women especially the state can never be ours.

Reparative justice is a concept some of us have used to invoke a ‘whole society process’ that goes beyond what states can do. In reality this already is part of what any social justice movement that seeks reparation is pursuing. Think of the movement for reparations for slavery, which has seen some institutions and descendants of individuals who profited from enslavement make concrete economic and social reparations to those they harmed (descendants of enslaved Africans who still suffer from the long-term consequences to themselves and to American society). Think of the #landback movement and the rematriation of cultural objects, human remains and burial grounds to their indigenous communities.

In contributing to the Guidelines on Deinstitutionalization of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I was able to advocate successfully, together with other survivors and allies, for inclusion of a substantive section on reparations for institutionalization in the draft issued earlier this year (it is expected the Guidelines will be finalized by October). Institutionalization is a broad concept that takes many forms, including psychiatric violence. (I argue that it encompasses forced psychiatric drugging outside institutions as well as any instance of psychiatric incarceration and the forced drugging and other violence that takes place there – as even forced drugging outside institutions is backed by threat of institutionalization for noncompliance and is part of a ‘logic of institutionalization’ that substitutes coercion and control for support and medicalizes and suppresses human diversity.) I expect to write more about the Guidelines when the final draft is issued.

For survivors of psychiatric institutionalization, the actors who harmed us are not only the psychiatrists, nurses, and institutional staff who turned themselves into machines to abuse us with their exercise of dominance, not only the shock manufacturers and drug companies who turned instruments of torture into a huge profit-making industry. Our family members – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses and partners, grown children, and others – and our friends, lovers, neighbors, bosses, co-workers, teachers; our therapists and our family members’ therapists – those we trusted and those we didn’t trust but were in complicated relationships with that were not of our own choosing – any of these may have collaborated with the state’s repressive machinery to take away our freedom, our sense of safety, our last remaining ground of refuge. When they weren’t safe ever, but we thought we had figured out our work-arounds, they one-upped us with lies, deceptions, and the willingness of the state and the evil industries of medicalized repression to believe anything that feeds their machinery, their egos and their pockets.

We need reparative justice to work on this level and to have an interfacing relationship with the work of reparations mechanisms that states create in collaboration with survivors. This should, as CHRUSP advocated in our submission to the second phase of consultation on the Guidelines, be fully acknowledged in the Guidelines so that both deinstitutionalization and the reparations mechanisms of states will actually be reparative in nature. Justice requires true and full confrontation with the harms, and those who have caused harms cannot control the process or require carve-outs that exempt them. They do have a right to have their say on justice needs of their own – reparative justice has to be complete in all directions and dimensions.

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Please see also the webinar that CHRUSP convened on Remedy and Reparation for Institutionalization as a side event to the 2022 CRPD Conference of States Parties, where I bring together survivors and allies with whom I have been thinking about the significance of reparations for psychiatric institutionalization.

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