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?

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Memory is Essential to Illuminate and Transform

Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez
Director, National Center for Historical Memory of Colombia

There are situations that compel us to rethink individual and collective experiences and to question the social or cultural frameworks on which we base our criteria for action and vision for the future. We are currently living in such a situation in Colombia, which beckons the imagination and demands flexibility of our speech and positions, long frozen by the demands or consequences of war.

Generally, in the delicate balance struck between truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition in a peace process like Colombia’s, it is possible to assume that the concessions granted to the perpetrators in terms of criminal justice must be compensated through a committed and rigorous memory exercise.

In circumstances such as ours, memory becomes an exercise in rewriting history and building the future, and it should influence the creation of new languages and forms of social and political relationships that enable us to see our archenemies of yesterday as fellow citizens today. What is required, therefore, is a memory exercise that continues to perform the dual task of illuminating and transforming.

Reconciliation is a polysemic term that is not without controversy, especially when it is invoked in a scenario of political violence. In Argentina, for example, sons and daughters of the victims of the military dictatorship are emphatic in asserting: we do not forget, we do not forgive, we do not reconcile. In Colombia, with its long history of accumulated atrocities, it would be useful to think about what reconciliation means, what we believe should be reconciled, and why it would be desirable, when it is strongly associated with overcoming injustices and exclusions long rooted in our society.

We should also ask ourselves about the community processes that began more than a decade ago. These processes seek to move beyond retributive justice and work instead toward restorative justice and coexistence. The comprehensive system that has emerged from them seeks to simultaneously address the claims of truth and the needs of reconciliation in a contentious context in which collaboration is still difficult to imagine. As these systems move forward, the transition from enemies to neighbors needs to be carefully processed.

Reconciliation entails thinking about various scenarios, all of which require memory work.

First, the armed conflict has taken a painful toll on the physical and emotional integrity of the victims. The perpetrators have tried to blame them, shame them, and plunge them into helplessness and hopelessness. In the exercise of rebuilding and giving meaning, memory seeks to enable victims to challenge the truth that the 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.

If we human beings are what we are able to tell about ourselves, we need a memory that allows us to construct dignified stories. Memory is expressed first as a personal experience, as a therapeutic exercise, which then has a powerful communicative force.

Second, memory can help build conditions that would encourage (but do not guarantee) reconciliation between victim and perpetrator.

In this regard, memory work is needed to collect accounts from the perpetrators, not only to explain and illuminate, but above all as interpellated accounts that enable society at large and victims specifically to unhesitatingly determine the ethical distances between them and the perpetrators.

This is a memory that reveals responsibilities, and that should encourage victims to free themselves from uncertainty. Individually, victimizers have a role in reconciliation if they dismantle their self-righteous and justifying speeches, recognize the harm caused, and collaborate with the elucidation and the work of justice. Victimizers in their collective sense (armed groups, political organizations) must abandon their exculpatory speeches and commit themselves to reparations and non-repetition, creating favorable conditions so that they, too, can find a place in the territorial processes for rebuilding social coexistence.

Third, the violence suffered by victims has not occurred without the involvement of the state; rather, it is derived from the injustice that the state has tolerated or even promoted. Memory exercises reveal the omissions, complicity and structures that allowed human rights violations to occur. Memory denounces and exposes the fragility of institutions and the precariousness of democracy.

Given that what is at stake here is a reconciliation of violated citizens with institutions, governments and officials that not only did not protect them, but even assaulted them or allied themselves with others to do so, those in power must develop new mechanisms capable of offering guarantees of non-repetition. The interaction of institutions with society through the assumption of responsibilities is one of the minimum requirements of reconciliation.

Reconciliation would take the form of a new pact: one of rebuilding the institutions and the rules of democracy. A pact in which state institutions are obligated to generate trust and legitimacy. A state committed to plurality and diversity as an organic expression of its cultural and political wealth, and of its break with patterns of stigmatization and demonization of political adversaries or opponents.

The injuries and harm to victims have also been caused by society’s apathetic or justifying response to their tragedy. From this perspective, memory has to serve as a mirror in which the society that feels alien to the conflict recognizes itself as part of it. Professor Jesús Martín Barbero points out that “when we speak of the duty of memory, it is not in any way about the duty of the victims, but rather the duty of others, the duty that we owe to them. For it is others’ duty to the victims that produces the debt that obligates us not to forget.”

The task of memory in this sense is to have members of society make the cause of victims their own and to become responsible for their fate, not from the stance of welfare and charity, but by assuming their duties as citizens. As Kant would say, the pain of one victim is also the pain of humanity. In other words: there is an ethical link, in contexts of war, between the public sphere and the individual. Harm to one member of the community concerns the entire community. Victim and citizen meet and meet again in the experience of suffering. We move from personal pain to collective grieving.

In conflict contexts, while it is difficult to arrive at a version of the past in which armed actors and political organizations can agree without continuing to react in a defensive and accusatory manner, the experience of victims converted to memory has the capacity to challenge them to lay down their arms and give up their coercive politics, and to adhere to the rules required by a democratic order. One of the most complex tasks in the post-conflict era will be reconciliation between the communities themselves, often confronted and divided by the war. But make no mistake, a politically reconciled society is not a harmonious society, but rather a society that is militantly diverse.

Illuminating and moving beyond the silence and the neglect of the human rights violations that have occurred in our country is a challenge that will surely engage the purposeful work of several generations of Colombians, and that will be resolved not with episodic events or rituals, but rather with long-term processes that involve the communities as protagonists.

We need memory to free us from the nightmares of the past; to be able to make the leap in the political arena from confrontation between archenemies to debate between adversaries. But we also need it now so that it does not reappear as a nightmare in the future. Societies that have renounced memory in order to reassure their present rarely escape the reappearance of a perverse form of memory: revenge.

Political processes transform the meaning or content of concepts and language in general. To speak of reconciliation in the midst of the conflict is not the same as doing so in a context of political negotiation or post-conflict agreements, when the concepts of peace and reconciliation are close at hand. In Colombia, we are in times of memory, but the reconstruction and pending tasks of the democratization of society and politics are just beginning.

Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez is the Director of the National Center for Historical Memory in Colombia. He previously worked at Universidad Nacional, where he directed the Department of History and the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations (IEPRI). He has also served as the director of the Historical Memory Group, a research group linked to the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR) which has published a number of reports on memory and conflict in Colombia.

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