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

Expecting ‘Memory Projects’ to Build Peace May Be Asking Too Much

Elizabeth Oglesby
Professor, University of Arizona

This debate on the link between remembrance and reconciliation is central to the concerns of students, scholars, and practitioners of transitional justice. Thank you to ICTJ.

It is important to clarify how we use the concepts of collective remembrance and reconciliation. With respect to remembrance, the participants in this debate seem to agree that collective memory is always contested. Its meanings are not fixed. Indeed, as David Rieff has argued, collective memory, as such, doesn't exist. It is more useful, then, to frame the discussion in terms of collective memory projects, which are always incomplete and shot through with power relations. The work of Argentine sociologist Elizabeth Jelin on "labors of memory" is instructive in this regard. Specific agents (Jelin calls them "memory entrepreneurs") construct memory projects in different conjunctures and contexts.

It is crucial to understand who articulates a collective memory project in a given time and place. What motivates them, and what do they seek? By asking these concrete questions, we can engage in a necessary critique of memory projects, even as we critique forgetting.

Rieff gives us a blanket rebuke of the "contemporary human rights movement," for what he calls an "article of faith" regarding the political and moral imperative of remembrance (he is somewhat more qualified in his longer works). Yet, the idea that it is better to remember is not a truism in many places. It is not a taken-for-granted idea, but a result of social struggle.

Any analysis of memory projects has to be context driven. It's not possible to equate the power of the United States to project its victimhood across the globe after 9-11 (here, I would agree with Rieff on the need for more collective "forgetting") with the counter-hegemonic struggles of victims of dictatorships in Latin America or Spain to gain information and recognition. In those places, remembrance is about restoring minimal dignity to victims, while perhaps making a dent in an "official story" that conceals mass repression as victory.

Reconciliation is also a contested term, and in many contexts, a discredited one. In situations where the aftermath of political violence has not brought about broad institutional change, very often the burden of "reconciling" can fall on victims, who may be asked to pardon, or even "forget" (as if that were possible), in order to preserve a delicate political or community rapprochement. Alternately, collective memory projects forged under the banner of reconciliation may strive too hard for societal consensus. This can produce a shallow, de-historicized conception of reconciliation that may do little to tackle deep-rooted power inequalities.

Pablo de Greiff points out that the issue at hand is not whether individuals will remember traumatic experiences (clearly, they will), but whether there will be a public recognition of the abuses suffered. His discussion of collective memory focuses on "official" projects like truth commissions. As de Greiff asserts, truth commissions can play a key role in transitional contexts in that they often present the most comprehensive account of past atrocities, based on information gleaned from multiple sides of a conflict. By "officializing" this history, truth commissions may provide important moral support to victims and human rights organizations whose voices have been silenced or marginalized.

But I want to push back a bit on de Greiff's argument that truth commissions are the most valid form of collective memory projects because they are impartial and don't "instrumentalize" the past. Every memory project in one way or another has an element of instrumentalization, of defining a "usable" past, even truth commissions linked to transitional contexts of nation building. It is also true that we don't know enough about the life of truth commission reports after their mandates have concluded. Which parts of the reports are repeated, which parts are muted, and who has the power to decide? How are secondary materials, like school curriculums, produced from these reports? Perhaps we should look to truth commissions to provide not an unassailable endpoint for memory work, but an opening for ongoing critical reflection.

We should avoid binaries between "official" and "unofficial" memory projects, as well as between "good" and "bad" memory work. I don't believe the point of memory work should be to produce a unitary narrative that everyone can live with. I am persuaded more by Susan Dwyer's argument that what might realistically be expected from reconciliation processes is tolerance for a broader set of narratives about the past.

Another term we ought to put under a critical lens is "peace." David Rieff argues that remembrance is "no friend to peace" because of its potential to prolong or exacerbate conflict. I think this correlation is overdrawn. Remembrance may lubricate violent conflict, but the causes of such conflict are surely much more complex. Conversely, expecting memory projects to build "cultures of peace" may be asking too much, especially without broader political, economic, or social changes.

In any case, peace should not mean the absence of conflict. In a context of political transition, the important thing is not to aspire to eliminate conflict, but to ensure that conflict no longer leads to bloodshed. To the extent that memory projects may be linked to calls for revanchist violence or militarism, they rightly may be condemned. But "labors of memory" can also expose other, foundational violences that are not always recognized in the immediate moments of a transition, such as the inequities of apartheid in South Africa or the ongoing neocolonial land dispossessions of Mayans in Guatemala.

Erasing, minimizing or invalidating these myriad histories of struggle is not a path to social reconciliation. That sort of forgetting does injustice not only to the past; it can lead to the stigmatization or criminalization of legitimate protest movements in the present. In these instances, it isn't remembrance that should be jettisoned, but rather a notion of peace that looks more like pacification.

The issues raised by ICTJ in this debate are important ones. We need to be constantly critical of the work that memory projects do, by whom, and to what ends. We also need to be critical of calls to "forget."

Elizabeth Oglesby is Associate Professor of Geography and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She was a researcher with the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification in the late 1990s. In the mid 2000s, she was a fellow with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program. In 2013, she testified as an expert witness in Guatemala during the trial of Generals José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. She has written extensively on the aftermath of counterinsurgency in Guatemala, and she is co-editor of The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 2011).

Rules of Conduct

We welcome diverse opinions and invite you to share your thoughts with our online community in an open and respectful way. To be posted, your comments must comply with the following rules of conduct: