Current May 04, 2016 - Present

Does Collective Remembrance of a Troubled Past Impede Reconciliation?

When a society is torn apart by years of conflict or under the rule of a repressive regime, one of the challenges it faces is achieving reconciliation. How it collectively narrates and commemorates that painful past will play an essential role in the society’s path towards a peaceful and inclusive future –or the recurrence of confrontation and violence.

Victims of human rights abuses cannot forget. Memorials and acts of collective remembrance can demonstrate that a community is honestly and thoroughly reckoning with the past. These perennial reminders aim to restore the dignity of the victims who suffered serious violations and prevent atrocities from happening again. On the other hand, after periods of war or repression, many countries opt to bury the past for the sake of peace, arguing that remembering would only reopen old wounds.

When manipulated for political purposes, collective remembrance can deepen divisions rather than help bridge them. When a society has been through violent confrontation, collective historical memory can in fact entrench narratives of victimhood and domination, breed distrust and sow seeds of revenge. In those cases, is it actually better to forget?

These issues continue to play out in numerous post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies where ICTJ works, prompting us to address the issue squarely by asking: Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?

Need to catch up? View Opening Remarks

Closing Remarks Invite Further Discussion of The Implications of Remembrance

Marcie Mersky
ICTJ Director of Programs

On behalf of ICTJ, I want to begin by expressing our gratitude to David Rieff and Pablo de Greiff, our principal debaters, as well as our invited contributors Sihem Bensedrine, Elizabeth Oglesby and Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez, and all of you who posted comments.

The gratitude is, of course, for the richness of the contributions. What stands out in all of them is the depth of reflection that in many cases comes from years of having engaged and struggled with these issues as practitioners, public intellectuals or both.

It has been an excellent debate, one that has sparked a lively discussion that will continue next week with guest contributions from Yasmin Sooka and Ruti Teitel. Comment will remain open as the debate continues beyond my closing remarks, and we welcome your continued thoughts on this important issue.

The debate has ranged wide across experiences from different continents and traveled over difficult terrain. It began with the two divergent views of de Greiff and Rieff regarding the potential for the collective memory of atrocity either to fuel wars or facilitate reconciliation, and progressed in their rebuttals and final statements to an even stronger divergence between them on the role and value of the human rights framework in our world today.

Rieff makes a clear challenge to “the argument that it is always both an ethical and a political imperative to remember,” an “article of faith” of the human rights movement, which he posits represents the “premier secular moral code of our age.” He argues that “one must judge the moral, political and societal value of remembrance and commemoration on a case-by-case basis and that this means that, yes, it is sometimes better to forget because in those cases collective memory is a goad to violence and resentment.”

Rieff is on his strongest ground when questioning an absolutist position that holds that it is an imperative in all circumstance to remember, that “memory and conscience are seen as indivisible.” In fact, a number of commentators and to a significant extent de Greiff express agreement with this critique.

What is more difficult to understand, however, is who exactly would make the decision for the society that forgetting would be a better option. Rieff provides us with scant guidance on that point. Oglesby draws attention in her comments to the Latin American context, where repressive elites have long held that forgetting is the path to peace; there, she writes that “memory work” is one form of counter-hegemonic struggle and remembrance “is about restoring minimal dignity to victims, while perhaps making a dent in an ‘official story’ that conceals mass repression as victory.” Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez lays out a similar view when he writes that “memory seeks to enable victims to challenge the truth that perpetrators wanted to impose on them, and to defeat the perpetrators (symbolically) by strengthening what they wanted to exterminate and silence: the victims’ dignity, integrity, projects or beliefs.”

Perhaps then, forgetting is no less neutral, or charged with power relations and political implications, than remembering.

In his arguments, de Greiff places a very strong emphasis on method, on how: “… a serious questioning of whether acts of remembrance help or hinder social reconciliation would have to interrogate the methods by which those acts of memory are produced and the intentions behind them.” And he quickly shifts the focus of his comments from the difficult-to-define term of “collective memory” to “truth” and the fundamental role of truth as one of the “proper responses to atrocity,” as a foundation for “public acknowledgement of great violations of rights.” He argues that a “refusal to acknowledge them … in our public space, involves a value judgement that there is no way to spin without demeaning the value of the victims or the importance of rights – not just their rights, but rights in general for the value of the notion that these days rests to a large extent on their generalizability.” The failure to acknowledge grave abuse effectively excludes victims from recognition as “fellow citizens of a community of rights.”

Bensedrine places a similar emphasis on public recognition as “part of the process of accountability,” and an essential way to address the “minefield of pain, tears, humiliations, deep scars and accumulated hatred” that dictatorships leave as their legacy.

De Greiff lays out some aspects of methods used to construct truth that can “fend off partiality,” and ensure the greatest impartiality especially “with respect to the violations and the actors of the violations that are deemed relevant;” in other words, truths that recognize violations committed by all sides and victims on all sides. His comments in this regard refer primarily to the work of official bodies like truth commissions.

Rieff differs on this point, and challenges the idea that “there is any practical means of establishing some set of objective criteria that can differentiate, in a way that will seem legitimate to both sides of a conflict a ‘right and moral way of remembering’ that contributes to social reconciliation from a ‘wrong remembering’ that undermines the possibility of … reconciliation.” Oglesby lays out a somewhat different cautionary note on the issue of impartiality when she writes: “Every memory project in one way or another has an element of instrumentalization, of defining a ’usable’ past, even truth commissions…” And she suggests that perhaps truth commissions provide not so much “an unassailable endpoint for memory work, but an opening for ongoing critical reflection.”

Yet the deepest divergence that emerged in the debate is not strictly about the role of memory or truth in social reconciliation (or wars), but rather about the role and validity of the international human rights framework. In very clear terms de Greiff’s stance – and the work of ICTJ for that matter – is built to a very large degree on that framework. Rieff takes strong issue with de Greiff’s reference to and assumption that there exists such a thing as “fellow citizens of a community of rights,” asserting that he does not “believe the evidence for the existence of such a community of rights is anywhere near as compelling as de Greiff…” He goes on to affirm that “… the international law on which de Greiff’s community of rights is based is suffering from both a profound crisis of political legitimacy and, more fundamentally, is quite simply no longer fit for the purpose.” He closes by asking a question: “Can a fundamentally ideological construct [referring to human rights] lay serious claim to being impartial?” and answers: “… I think it is highly unlikely.”

That seems to me to be the topic of a separate debate, one I hope that we can host in the future. I am sure that de Greiff and many others will have a ready reply. I will only say for now that while “human rights” may well indeed represent a historically conditioned, ideological construct, it is very difficult to identify a better instrument right now, despite its imperfections, to challenge grave injustice and confront atrocity.

With that, I turn the floor over to our remaining guests and to you, our readers. I look forward to hearing your perspectives on the many issues raised in the debate.

Marcie Mersky is currently Director of Programs at the International Center for Transitional Justice. Before coming to ICTJ, Mersky worked as a senior political officer in several UN operations, including with the Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (2009-2010), the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (2002 – 2004), UNOPS/Guatemala (1999-2002) and the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission (1997 – 1999), Guatemala’s truth commission. She has spoken and written on transitional justice issues in numerous international venues.

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