In my research on the jus post bellum, which at least to some, means ‘justice after war’, I have come across an interesting concept – meionexia.

This Greek word can be translated as ‘not demanding all that one is due’ and it can be traced back to Aristotle’s account of justice.  However, I came across its modern theorization in the work of Larry May.

According to May, after conflict, it is sometimes unjust for the war winner to demand all that it is due, for example in reparations or war crimes trials.  A real-world example he provides is South Africa, where after the apartheid, criminal trials and punishments ‘were not pursued even though the victims had the right to demand them as a matter of strict retributive justice’ (Larry May, Jus Post Bellum, Grotius and Meionexia, in C.Stahn, J. Easterday and J. Iverson (eds.) Jus Post Bellum – Mapping the Normative Foundations, (OUP, New York: 2014), 20).

Further, in post-WWII Germany, the Allies saw the need to invest in Germany and rebuild the nation, rather than simply demand crippling reparations, which would have destroyed the Germany state.  Sometimes, reparations should be paid by those most able to pay, rather than those who have a strict duty to do so.

Obviously, the idea is that if parties to the conflict truly seek a just and lasting peace, then the transition process must require a relaxation in the demands that ‘strict retributive justice’ requires.  A similar dynamic is in view when we consider contemporary practice in relation to amnesties (see the recent decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Case of the Massacre of El Mozote and nearby places v. El Salvador (Merits, reparations and costs) (25 October 2012) IACthHR Series C. No. 252, paras. 283 – 296).

May’s interpretation of the idea of meionexia is also related to well-known standards of equity (in Greek epikeia).  May’s views on debt are worth quoting in full with regard to the present position of the Greek government and its creditors (Germany, France, Italy, Spain  are the primary creditors).

“Even if one is due something it may be that demanding it is not fair in some cases, and hence that it would be unjust to demand all that one is due.  This may be unfair in the sense that it may fail to see that the person who is properly your debtor simply has gotten into this position not by his or her fault.  Or the person who is in your debt may simply not have the means to pay you on demand without undermining his ability to support his family.  The aspect of justice that encompasses fairness seems to be affronted if a person demands all that is one’s due in such situations” (emphasis added) (May, Jus Post Bellum, Grotius and Meionexia, 21.)

Some argue that if Greece is allowed to escape its debts then the principle of equal treatment will be offended.  Why then should not Spain, Ireland, Italy, etc. be allowed to escape paying their debts?  Why should anyone pay their debts?  I believe this form of argument is unhelpful, since the situations in each case are different, crucially, the ability to pay is not the same across the board.  Further, situations where nations start off with unequal shares, i.e. the wealth is unequal will be exacerbated if a strict notion of justice is applied.  If each demands all and only what is due in this case, it will lead to greater inequality since the rich will continue to get richer, while the poor get poorer.  So the point is that demanding strict equal treatment sometimes, perhaps paradoxically, increases inequality.

Finally, justice might also be said to encompass humility and moderation.  There is an arrogance in thinking that you know what you are owed and demanding it all of it.  How can the Germanys know what is fair?  How are they sure?  There seems to be epistemological dangers here.  In situations of crisis, it would be good for creditors and debtors to remain humble, moderate in their demands and prepared to accept less than what they think they are owed in justice.  This strikes me as a fruitful position to take in negotiations.

Finally, these arguments draw on just war theory and conceptions of ‘justice’ which lack a certain ‘scientific’ pedigree.  Of course, the real-world of power politics must put forward state interests, economic arguments, technical charts… It would suffice to remind creditor nations of the debts they have been forgiven in the European interest in the past.  To give May the last word, ‘there is often much more to gain by not demanding all that one is due, and even in aiding those who may not deserve to be aided, so as to further the long-term peace prospects’. (May, 22.)

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