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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On Vacuums, Ends, and Methods

Pablo de Greiff
UN Special Rapporteur

There is much to learn from reminders of the limits of the policies one defends and the possible perils involved in their implementation. David Rieff’s work clarifies and illustrates some of the challenges faced by those interested in dealing with the past.

Our exchange, however, also illustrates how certain concepts gloss over differences that turn out to be fundamental. In my first contribution to this debate I pointed out that acts of collective remembrance and other cognate terms like historical memory are vague and general terms that rarely help. Both Rieff and I agree that, strictly speaking, there are only personal memories; we both agree that all accounts of the past involve selection; and that all political projects tend to put the past at their service. Elizabeth Oglesby adds that other terms in the debate ought to be interrogated, reconciliation and peace, for example, and I take it that Rieff will disagree with that just as little as I would.

One could expand the list of points of convergence if one increases even further the level of argumentative generality; that there are no coercive means that are completely “pure;” that, a fortiori, law as a project is never fully neutral; that the exercise of power always involves winners and losers, etc. But the route to agreement by the elision of differences also involves some costs, and of those we should also be aware (and not because the general statements turn out to be false).

So, let me retreat from that brink and reassert some basic points that I take to be important without denying the most general statements, that is, without pretending that there can be a complete and final account of the past, one that would be totally immune from being put to bad uses, that could ground a totally transparent, neutral, political project, which would not impose a cost to anyone or that would lead to a society with no disagreements. (These, I take it, are not feasible in a finite world, and in that sense I am not sure that they are the right ideals to pursue.)

The contexts in which dealing with the past is urgent are contexts in which there have been huge asymmetries in the distribution of the costs of maintaining a political project. These costs manifest themselves in great atrocities such that it is unreasonable to expect the victims or their descendants to forget. The expectation that they will forget involves the deployment of state and social power to that end, and such deployment generate new grievances that belie any claim to equality or inclusiveness.

While it is true that nothing guarantees absolute transparency, accurateness, completeness, inclusiveness, or finality in the construction of accounts of the past, certain methods have been shown to approximate for practical purposes these ideals better than others. Procedural safeguards of a certain kind serve these purposes. And so, we can and do praise and criticize certain efforts to clarify the past by observing whether they have followed these procedures or not. We observe their degree of independence from partisan projects of the bodies entrusted to articulate these accounts; we pay attention to their methods for selecting who can give testimony to them and the way they treat evidence; the troubles they go to corroborate claims made to them; and the sources they appeal to, among other factors. And we praise or criticize those who make use of such accounts and distinguish between efforts to vindicate a past that has gone unacknowledged so that victims’ standing as rights holders in a common political project can be expanded and generalized from those that are meant as one more tool in a zero-sum game.

Rieff can reasonably criticize the use of the past in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and Israel/Palestine—countries in which truth seeking and truth telling about the past has never involved systematic, organized efforts on a collective scale—and Oglesby can talk about the “counterhegemonic” struggles for memory in Spain and Latin America, and distinguish it from others.

None of this is easy. But still, we do establish these differences, and while we do not do so while floating totally above the fray, from an angelic perspective (an oxymoron), relinquishing the possibility to draw relevant differences would involve giving up on the possibility of making the little (but significant) progress that we can make in correcting our often-burdensome course and in preventing the recurrence of grievous violations. The human rights enterprise is of a piece with our ability to establish these distinctions.

We know for a fact that there are certain things that constitute (far from perfect but preferable) redress. Similarly, we know for a fact that there are conditions that enable the commission of abuses. Unchecked power; weak, corrupt institutions; persistent, abiding forms of inequality and marginalization; a long, persistent history of impunity are only some of the items in such a list. We know generally that unredressed human rights violations tend to foster resentments and exclusions, and that they constitute violations in their own right, that injustice comes in many forms, not only as denials of freedom and physical integrity, but also in the many ways in which, fundamentally, the standing of a rights holder is denied, and that these rights include a proper acknowledgment of one’s past and the past of one’s community at the hands of others. And we know, as a consequence, that the past is powerful—otherwise, we would not be having this debate.

I would like at this point to shift focus (but only slightly) by sharing a concern. Human rights activists (transitional justice promoters included) are excellent at describing desirable end states but generally not so good at thinking in terms of policies that would take us from here to there. The reasons why this is so are complicated, some of them being better than others. They include, in my mind, a mistaken inference from nonconsequentialist grounds for the justification of principle preferred by many in the field, the fact that human rights and the measures that are meant to express them can be justified, on some accounts, independently of their good consequences, to indifference towards everything that has to do with the (messy) application of the principles in real contexts. Such indifference may be excused in academic circles (I actually think that they help to explain why academic work is of decreasing importance in policy circles), but it proves to be fatal in the domain of practice (which, given the professionalization of human rights work, is increasingly populated by people who have gone through intense and worldview-shaping academic training).

In the domain of practice, where making choices is inevitable and where the options are finite and always constrained, perfection is rarely a relevant criterion. In practice, there are better and worse methods for constructing accounts of the past. Part of what makes some of these methods better than others I have already listed in this and my previous interventions in this debate (independence, ways of assessing and confronting evidence and selecting participants in the relevant procedures, and generally, trying to secure impartiality with respect to the violations and the actors of the violations that are deemed relevant).

The issue is not whether there is a method that would lead to completeness and that would offer perfect assurances that the resulting accounts of the past can only be put to perfect uses. The challenge is “simpler,” in fact: can we improve on methods of fact finding and truth seeking that would accomplish the following “basic” tasks: a) systematize existing information about abuses; b) draw orderly plans for subsequent investigations; c) establish uniform and reliable investigatory methodologies; d) resolve issues concerning the fragmentation and dispersion of information; e) facilitate the participation of victims and their families under conditions of safety, dignity, and respect; f) allocate the material and technical resources that are necessary to carry out exhumations, sometimes on a massive scale; g) contribute to establishing archives that would guarantee preservation and access (compatible with requirements of privacy and confidentiality); h) provide the necessary degree of “official” recognition to the events that emerge from the investigation, consistent with the old distinction drawn by Thomas Nagle between knowledge and acknowledgment.

These are only some of the immediate needs that truth-seeking measures, on the basis of which public acts of remembrance can reasonably take place, should satisfy. Victims do care about such things (so should we) because they are entitled to the degree of accuracy and veracity that such (acknowledgedly far from perfect) methods afford. So are we.

People, all of us involved in this debate, will always have an account of the past, for the social world hates vacuums just as much as the natural world does. No one needs a perfect account of the past. We just need the most reliable one we can get.

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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