Debates

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

The Duty to Remember

No
Pablo de Greiff
UN Special Rapporteur

It is always good to have the opportunity to debate a provocative interlocutor. David Rieff’s opening contribution to this debate, as well as his copious work on this subject, including Against Remembrance (2011) and the forthcoming In Praise of Forgetting, provide perfect opportunities for revisiting mantras of the human rights world in general and of the transitional justice world in particular.

I will not summarize his views in either his contribution to this debate or in his other works, but just list some of the aims of his efforts on the topic of remembrance: first, to “desacralize” memory, by which I take it Rieff means to question whether there is a duty, an obligation, to remember; second, having argued to his satisfaction that there is no such duty and that, therefore, memory can only be defended in terms of its good consequences, to attack the consequentialist argument by arguing that memory is at best a weak “prophylactic” and, in any case, an unreliable one; weak, for if the memory of the Holocaust did not prevent subsequent mass slaughters, no memory could, and unreliable, because even though some may argue it has played a preventive role in some cases, it is still the case, Rieff insists, that “historical memory is rarely as hospitable to peace and reconciliation as it is to grudge-keeping, dueling martyrologies and enduring enmity” (Against Remembrance, pp. 55–56)

Before briefly addressing these points, I would like to reiterate that the discussion in Rieff’s book is not free from the ambiguity I pointed out in my first intervention in this debate, one that frequently affects discussions about memory; references to ”memory” and ”remembrance” are undifferentiated and insufficiently defined. Appeals to these terms can refer both to acts of recollection that have undergone no “filtering,” “processing,” or effort to check for veracity or comprehensiveness as well as to those acts of recollection that have already gone through the sort of examination, contestation, contextualization, and verification characteristic of both historical methodologies and the work of, for example, truth commissions, whose reports are much more than mere records of the memories of those who provided testimonies to them.

Thus, in the Preface to Against Remembrance, Rieff writes:

"People . . . of my class and interests, tend to spend far too much time bemoaning the indifferent ignorance that has become the default position of so many of their fellow citizens, above all the young, toward the past. We should be more careful what we wish for. The wars of the Yugoslav Succession were inflamed by remembrance—above all the Serb remembrance of the defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389. In the hills of Bosnia, I learned to hate but above all to fear collective historical memory. In its appropriation of history, which had been my abiding passion and refuge since childhood, collective memory made history itself seem like nothing so much as an arsenal full of the weapons needed to keep wars going or peace tenuous and cold. What I saw after Bosnia in Rwanda, in Kosovo, in Israel-Palestine, and in Iraq, gave me no basis for changing my mind."

But unless one is ready to concede that there is no difference between different types of remembrance, between, for example, history, on the one hand, and the manipulative use of partial accounts of the past, on the other, there is no reason to take Rieff’s as a general argument against remembrance. There are acts of remembrance, ways of keeping history alive and present, that can not only serve the interests of social reconciliation, but on which social reconciliation arguably rests. (Indeed, the paragraph above, like many discussions on the topic, rests on the possibility of making such a distinction but then moves on to a conflation.)

I argued in my opening statement in this debate that the sort of truth telling that is a part of transitional justice policy, and that can then be the basis of various memorialization activities, is not just any account of the past (even if truthful). That partial accounts of the past can be used to divide people, on this, Rieff is not only correct, but he has provided us in his many works on the topic innumerable compelling examples of both such one-sided accounts of the past and their effects.

This is yet another reiteration of the importance of method in the construction of truth — or to put it in terms that perhaps Rieff might agree with, this is another reason to stress the importance of carrying out these debates, not so much in terms of memory, but of truth, and even, one might say, for dispensing with the incongruous term “historical memory.”

The antidote to the “unreliability” of acts of remembrance, to the fact that memory can be used for divisive purpose, is not to do away with the concern for the past, but to make sure that the accounts of the past that are taken to be authoritative are both veridical and comprehensive. It goes without saying that there is no complete account of the past, one that embodies all and only true facts. What is called for are accounts of the past that are sufficient to set inquiry in directions that have been previously kept hidden and that, as Michael Ignatieff once said, contribute to putting limits to what is deniable.

That acts of remembrance are at best weakly effective is undeniable. Memories of the Holocaust, indeed, “failed” to prevent subsequent slaughters. Leaving aside the question of who has the relevant recollections (were those responsible for the subsequent slaughters exposed to relevant acts of recollection about the Holocaust? The fact that we were does not mean that they were), I do not think that it helps anyone to assume that recollection can offer extraordinary guarantees, even if based on the sort of veridical and comprehensive accounts of the past that distinguishes them from bald efforts to manipulate loyalties. Is this really an objection, however? But to what sort of claim?

It is now commonplace to think about transitional justice as a comprehensive policy that has as core elements not just truth telling but also criminal prosecutions, reparations, and various “guarantees of non-recurrence.” Part of the reason to think about these as elements of a comprehensive whole has to do precisely with the understanding that none of these instruments of redress is sufficient on its own to do justice to violations of a certain type and magnitude. To the extent that we have any reason to trust in quantifiable measurements, that transitional justice measures work better in combination with one another than in isolation we are beginning to get evidence of, evidence that supports an entirely plausible argument about the mutually reinforcing effect of a coherently coordinated set of measures.

Now, that no measure on its own, or, indeed, collectively, offers fail-safe guarantees (not even the awkwardly named “guarantees of non-recurrence”) does not seem to me to be a particularly compelling objection. That door locks, say, do not offer a fail-safe guarantee rarely leads people to leaving their homes unlocked and, more to the point, that reflecting on a tendency to make a certain type of mistake does not eliminate the possibility to repeat it does not counsel against self-reflection.

At the limit, with reference not to mere “mistakes” but to the capacity to inflict indescribable suffering on others, alertness to a historical record showing repeated evidence of such capacity, I would argue, is better than none. And, I would add, the more complex, fine-grained, and many-layered the understanding of that capacity, the better, among other things, because violations on a grand scale call for types of organization (of resources, activities, and even habits and dispositions) that are of a kind with the organization that we make ourselves of and we are parts of in our ordinary lives.

Finally, there is the question of whether there is indeed a “duty to remember.” Rieff, recall, argues that there is none and that the only way to defend remembrance is by appealing to good consequences (these are so insufficient in many ways that he can argue “against remembrance” and “in praise of forgetting,” the titles of two of his books).

I beg to differ. A blog is not the best place to lay the argument in favor of a duty. But let me try. Recalling that what is at stake here is not memory but the public acknowledgment of great violations of rights, a refusal to acknowledge them, to give them a place in our public space, involves a value judgment 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.

Aside from what it says about those who persist in the refusal to acknowledge the pain of others when the subject is the greatest atrocities known to human beings, at the limit, persisting in the refusal to acknowledge great harms in itself generates new harms. Recall, again, that the forms of remembrance at stake in this discussion are not private recollections but public manifestations of recognition.

To the extent that we expect others to be part of a shared political community, we owe them sufficient recognition for them to take the project to be truly shared. This is very clear in the case of our fellow citizens. “Fellow citizens,” however, does not refer to our compatriots only or those with whom we share a nationality. We are today fellow citizens of a community of rights. To the extent that we expect others to trust us in that capacity, we have the duty to remember everything that we cannot reasonably expect our fellow citizens to forget.


Pablo de Greiff is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence. He is currently Senior Fellow and Director of the Transitional Justice Program at NYU. Prior to joining NYU he was the Director of Research at the International Center for Transitional Justice from 2001 to 2014. De Greiff is the editor or co-editor of ten books and has published extensively on transitions to democracy, democratic theory, and the relationship between morality, politics, and law.

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