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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Remembrance: An Ally of Justice, but No Friend to Peace

David Rieff
Journalist and Writer

The American philosopher George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. His words are now widely seen as a truth so self-evident as to require little elaboration. Within the contemporary human rights movement in particular it has become an article of faith — and the human rights movement, as not only its critics, such as myself and John Gray, but many of its most distinguished intellectual supporters, such as Nadine Gordimer and Michael Ignatieff, have written, is in many ways the premier secular moral code of our age.

To put it starkly, memory and conscience are seen as indivisible. For example, the museum erected in Santiago de Chile to the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship is called The Museum of Memory and Human Rights. And many scholars of human rights believe that keeping alive memories of historical events like the Holocaust have played a key role in the internationalization of human rights.

In my book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, I have tried to make the case that, bluntly put, the argument that it is always both an ethical and a political imperative to remember does not actually hold water either ethically or politically.

As this is a claim that I suspect most readers and participants in this debate will disagree with (and that many will be deeply offended by), and to avoid as much as possible what the French call “a dialogue of the deaf,” I want to make clear at the outset what I am not saying. And the most important thing I am not trying to do is turn Santayana's contention on its head and claim that it is in fact those who remember the past who are condemned to repeat it. That would be an absurdity. To the contrary, there are unquestionably many cases in which an emphasis on historical memory has played a role in securing all the aims that human rights activists claim it helps to do, above all in securing both the truth that both societies in general and victims and their loved ones have every right to know about what really happened, and in securing a measure of justice.

What am I arguing? To begin with, I am arguing that, uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, in the fullness of time eventually everything will be forgotten, and that if this is the case, then remembrance is better seen as a strategy than as a moral imperative. It is purely the hubris of the living that makes us think that 1,000 or more years from now, decent people will remember very much (if anything at all) about the crimes and horrors of our era, any more than we do about events that took place a 1,000 or more years ago.

To put it another way, memories live longer than individuals do, but they are not immortal. That was why one of the purposes of In Praise of Forgetting is to “desacralize” memory.

My second goal was to counter the view that to remember serves the interests of peace and helps in the creation of an atrocity- and torture-rejecting public culture. Again, I am confident there are conflicts and societies when memory can do just that. But there are also conflicts and societies where memory does not mitigate but rather serves as a goad to horror.

An obvious example of this, and one that I lived through on the ground as a correspondent, are the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which in many ways were wars fueled by memory, as in the belief among the Serbs that in fighting and slaughtering Bosnian Muslims they were avenging Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 at the hands of the Ottomans.

But examples abound: think of the use of historical remembrance by both sides in the Arab-Israeli Conflict to this day or of Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the Irish case, the great Northern Irish critic and essayist Edna Longley once wrote that the Irish should erect a statue to amnesia and then forget where they put it! And however whimsically she put it, Longley was pointing to the undeniable fact that memories of past wrongs, of martyrs to either the Republican or the Loyalist cause, had fueled the conflict.

What I am getting at here (and I could just as easily have used Middle Eastern examples) is that if the justification for remembrance is an empirical one, then the fact that there are so many examples of the destructive potential of memory disproves the usual blanket political claims for its usefulness. To be sure, a partisan of the moral imperative of memory might say that these are abuses of it and thus do not undermine their ethical case.

The problem is that who is to say who will determine when a community is abusing memory and when it is rightly appealing to it? Just as one person's terrorist may well be another person's fighter for liberation, so one person's right remembering may well be another's abuse of it.

I also want to strongly challenge the claim, frequently made by human rights activists, that trying to keep alive the memory of the Shoah has not only been morally important (a claim I do not disagree with) but has also demonstrated the wisdom of Santayana's axiom. My own view is that history teaches the opposite lesson, which is that we learn little if anything from the past, no matter how well we remember it (and as the late Tony Judt pointed out, it is ever more difficult in Europe today to keep the memory of the Shoah alive among the young — a separate increasingly serious problem and not an inconsequential one).

What did the memory of the murder of European Jewry do to prevent the mass slaughter in what was then East Pakistan in 1971, or the holocaust that the Khmer Rouge unleashed in Cambodia after their victory, or the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994? The answer, of course, is nothing at all.

And when I look around the world, and when I see what it certainly seems legitimate to call a re-barbarization of many parts of it (and not just by the Daesh!), a world in which many of the undoubted accomplishments of the human rights movement over the course of the past half century halted in their tracks or are being reversed, it seems to me one has every right to ask whether either the enormous moral or sociological political claims for memory are warranted? My answer, of course, is that they most emphatically are not.

David Rieff is a New York-based journalist and author. During the nineteen-nineties, he covered conflicts in Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Liberia), the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), and Central Asia. Rieff has written extensively about Iraq, and, more recently, about Latin America. He is the author of eight books, including Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West and A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. He has published numerous articles in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, The New Republic, World Affairs, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, and other publications. His book The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the 21st century was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2015. Rieff’s latest book In Praise of Forgetting: the Irony of Historical Memory will be published this month by Yale University Press.

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