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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Unacknowledged Past Breeds Manipulation and Fear

Pablo de Greiff
UN Special Rapporteur

Failing to acknowledge violations of the past, far from fostering reconciliation, is an invitation to instrumentalize the past or leave us at the mercy of the fear that unacknowledged abuses almost inevitably generates, with the attendant predisposition to preemptive defensive action and the closing of groups. This is one of the reasons why “we have the obligation to remember everything that we cannot reasonably expect our fellow citizens to forget.”

Discussions about whether memory or remembrance contributes to or undermines social reconciliation seem to me to be usually afflicted by one or more of the following problems:

First, they usually have a voluntaristic streak that fits awkwardly with the fact that unlike a limb, which we can decide to move or not, memory we cannot either switch on or off or transform in content at will. Sometimes the discussions seem to present a dilemmatic choice — to remember past abuses or not — as if it that were open to decision. Individuals affected by past abuses have no such choice. The discussion, therefore, cannot be about whether they will remember, but about whether the abuses will receive public recognition or not.

Second, the discussions often try to generalize on the basis of atypical cases, with both supporters and opponents of memory (whatever that means) deriving guidance for all other cases from cases that are insufficiently analyzed.

Third, and most seriously, most of the discussions turn on undifferentiated references to “memory” or “recollection,” ignoring that these are overly broad categories that need closer analysis.

At this excessively broad level of generality, one would have to say that plainly there can be acts of collective remembrance that impede social reconciliation. Nazism and communism deployed the past for the sake of political ends. In the Balkans the “memory” of the losses to the Ottoman Empire (itself long gone and without any present day “claimants” in the region!) were used to fan “retaliatory” attitudes that laid the ground for war. Extremist violence in the Muslim world appeals to “memories” of the Crusades put to instrumental ends. Israel and Palestine are rife with pasts to suit political expedience. The list does not end there.

Having said this, however, it would have to be conceded that those with dubious political intentions do not have a monopoly on the strategic deployment of the past, but that, indeed, this is part and parcel of the project of nation building everywhere and at all times.

Similarly, both sides would at some point have to concede that all acts of remembrance involve some degree of selectivity, that neither memory, nor history for that matter, are complete records of everything that went on before, but a selection of events that for some reason or another are deemed to be salient and relevant.

These conclusions show the limitations of an undifferentiated appeal to memory or to remembrance. However, in discussions about ways of dealing with the past, what is crucial is not recollection itself (the mental states that people find themselves having no matter what), but rather public acts of remembrance that may seem to be unprovoked but are not. For instance, the frequent admonition in the Balkans not to forget 1389, and not just as a date, or a single event, but as a placeholder for a more complex story of subsequent decline and victimization. Or constructions about what Tutsis and Hutus have done to one another in the Great Lakes region, and what that may mean under present circumstances.

So, 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 that underlie the choice of methods. Given that the question does not depend in most cases on individual memories but on the transmission of far more elaborate constructs that depend on a certain logic, the question of whether acts of remembrance help or hinder social reconciliation depends on examining the method for “producing” them.

The concept of “collective acts of remembrance” suggests a certain type of “spontaneity” that is deceptive in all cases, but particularly in those at issue in these discussions, in which part of the problem is that these acts are one-sided both in focus and in what they purportedly justify and in which there is a method to their production — but one which differs radically from the well-known methods designed to lead to impartial accounts and in which any careful genealogy would indeed discover interests, except that they are not such that they can be generalized.

Transitional justice measures are means of redressing past massive violations. They are indeed part of a method and this method produces (constructed) accounts on the basis of which different types of redress is offered in order to satisfy rights to truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence.

A less legalistic way of framing the point is to say that these measures are meant to provide recognition to victims (not merely as victims, but primarily as rights-holders), in order to foster civic trust, to strengthen the rule of law, and to promote reconciliation.

It goes without saying that the implementation of the measures does not guarantee that these aims will be achieved, both because there are many ways of getting things wrong and because the final aims are ambitious and, especially after mass atrocities, achieving them will require other forms of intervention, including both socioeconomic transformations and improvements in security, and these are not always forthcoming or at least not in a coordinated fashion.

Because these are the aims of transitional justice, in discussions about proper responses to atrocities the connection with truth is fundamental.

The work that the connection with truth performs in this argument is not primarily to fend off falsity. Not because, after atrocity, truth-seeking mechanisms naively assume that all testimonies based on memory must be true, but because the methods that can be used to construct a veridical account of the past on the basis of memory, and other evidence, are well known and have worked on the whole quite well. (Very few truth commission reports, for example, have come under serious attack in terms of their veracity. Indeed, most criticisms have consisted of claims that the scope of the reports was not broad enough, suggesting that the methods used were reliable enough even to the objector, but that they should have been more extensively applied.)

The work that the connection with truth performs is precisely to fend off partiality. In other words, if dealing with the past can be said to respond to the memory of violations, it cannot consist of a response to the violations of one party to a conflict and not the other. The collective act of remembrance that is relevant to dealing with the past, to transitional justice, is one that has to be comprehensive enough to include all categories of violations that have been determined to need redress, regardless of who were the victims and who were the victimizers.

The question then is now quite different. It can be conceded that partial, one sided, hermetically guarded accounts of the past can, of course, constitute an obstacle to social reconciliation. The answer however, is just the opposite if one inquires about the usefulness of accounts that are produced by methods that have been reliably shown to lead to accounts of violations that are impartial, comprehensive, open to questioning, that take as their main axis the violation of rights, whoever might be responsible for them and that, as such, are harder to put to use for revanchist purposes.

Accounts that have as an aim the recognition not just of victimhood and suffering, but of the importance of (generalized) rights holding and, let me emphasize, that seek to affirm the currency of rights, not just of one group but of all.

The point of transitional justice truth telling, as well as of its other elements of redress, at the national level can be put in terms of the effort to establish the conditions under which different groups can be considered to be equal members of a shared political community. This is what the struggle for memory is about in countries like Spain, where victims of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship have good reasons to feel insufficiently recognized, although there is little risk of conflict.

The aim is not to mechanically reproduce the past. In fact, it is just the opposite, to fill the space which will be filled in any case by some account of the past, deliberately produced or not but more often than not one-sided and incomplete, with accounts that make it more difficult to instrumentalize the past in a way that increases, not decreases, the likelihood of repetition.

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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