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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When Collective Memory is Poisoned, It Is Better to Forget

David Rieff
Journalist and Writer

Pablo de Greiff begins his second contribution to our debate by saying that my discussion of memory is “not free from ambiguity” and, more gravely, that my account is “undifferentiated and insufficiently defined.” I readily plead guilty to his first charge; indeed, for me it is almost a badge of honor, for in my view any discussion free from ambiguity is not going to be free from oversimplification, and if forced to choose between the two I will choose ambiguity every time.

De Greiff's point about my claims being undifferentiated and imprecise I take far more seriously. But I would argue that to insist, as he does, that there is indeed a “duty to remember” is a far more undifferentiated and imprecise claim than any I have made in my work on memory.

Another example of this is de Greiff’s repeated invocation of a “we,” as in the following sentence: “To the extent that we expect others to be part of a shared political community, we owe them sufficient recognition for them to take the project [of this shared community] to be truly shared.” But who makes up this “we?” De Greiff presumably would respond that “we” means all of us. For instance, in the penultimate sentence of his second contribution to our debate he asserts that we are all “fellow citizens of a community of rights.” Elsewhere he writes that the value of the notions of rights in any specific case “these days rests to a large extent on their generalizability.”

Who is failing to differentiate here, de Greiff or me? It is not simply a rhetorical question, for I do not believe the evidence for the existence of such a community of rights is anywhere near as compelling as de Greiff clearly believes it to be, anymore than I believe there is an “international community” of nations. To be sure, there is an international system, dominated by the countries of the Global North and largely administered through the Bretton Woods institutions. But if one takes community to imply shared values, then a system that includes China, Singapore, the United States, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia cannot legitimately be called a community.

De Greiff's international community of rights seems to me to rest on even shakier foundations. Just as many in the global human rights movement seem to believe that the victory of human rights norms over the very long run is inevitable—”The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” and all that — so de Greiff seems to me to far too readily accept that international law, above all human rights law, remains the normative framework of contemporary international relations. This is certainly the way international lawyers see it, and what many decent people throughout the world hope that it remains.

And there is no doubt that such a normative framework exists. But in my view, the international law on which de Grieff’s community of rights is based is suffering from both a profound crisis of political legitimacy and, more fundamentally, is quite simply no longer fit for purpose. An obvious example of this is international humanitarian law, which is grounded in an absolute distinction between combatant and noncombatant. And yet in many (I would argue most) contemporary wars this distinction goes unheeded.

Where global rights regimes are concerned, the situation seems to me almost as unpromising. Here I take my cue from the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has written that if Thomas Hobbes was right then the ideal of global justice without global governance is a chimera, pure and simple.

Historical pessimist that I am, I do indeed think Hobbes was right, and that while the fracturing of the Westphalian order over the past half century is real, global governance is a pipe dream and becomes less and less realizable by the day. The increasing marginalization of the United Nations and the rise of political populism of both the Left and the Right seem to me two emblems of this. But one does not have to agree with Hobbes or with me to accept the weaker version of the Hobbesian claim, namely that there are cases when justice is indeed a chimera and reconciliation a vain hope.

In his very important contribution to this debate, Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez reminds us that the position of the children of those tortured and murdered in Argentina during the military dictatorship is: “We will not forget, we will not forgive, and we will not reconcile.”

What I argue in my book In Praise of Forgetting is that there are cases where no reconciliation is possible and that in those cases, but certainly not in all cases, memory is more likely to be a goad to war than to reconciliation.

To be sure, de Greiff knows as well or better than I do that we do not yet live in a just world. Our difference lies in his thinking the world is headed in that direction and my belief that to the extent that since 1945 we have experienced what Michael Ignatieff has called “a revolution of moral concern,” that revolution is largely over and, far from an international regime of rights continuing to expand and deepen, humanity will be lucky to preserve some of the accomplishments of that revolution.

Obviously, de Greiff rejects my view as being far too pessimistic about the future and also too skeptical of the claim, that, as he reiterates it, “persisting in the refusal to acknowledge great harms in itself [italics mine] generates new harm,” then surely he has an obligation to spell out why he believes this to be a generally applicable principle. For let us be clear, de Greiff and other eloquent and nuanced defenders of humanity’s collective moral duty to persevere in what he calls “public manifestations of recognition” of past horrors are most emphatically not just saying such acts of remembrance are sometimes useful and sometimes counterproductive, depending on the individual case. To the contrary, that is my position—the one they are arguing against.

Instead, they are insisting on an affirmative responsibility to remember in all cases. De Greiff does not think much of my argument that there has been an inappropriate “sacralization” of political and historical memory, but surely claiming that remembering is a moral imperative is the secular iteration of a fundamentally religious category.

This brings me to the last point I want to make here, which concerns the political context in which all these debates about memory take place. One of the reasons that I find the law-based human rights paradigm so unpersuasive is that, just as invoking a categorical moral obligation to remember and commemorate seems to me to put human rights beyond politics, so the law-based human rights paradigm is most often presented, in my experience, as also being outside of politics and ideology, as if the societies that human rights activists want to help transform in the aftermath of war or repression were not based on a political vision of what a good society is.

As Elizabeth Oglesby points out in her very helpful and measured intervention, even de Greiff’s claim that truth commissions are impartial and present examples of right remembering (again, my term, not hers) in that they do not instrumentalize the past is difficult to sustain. My own worry is that here de Greiff falls into the trap of what might be called Fukuyama-ism in the sense that the great historical debates over ideology are over, there is global agreement on what a decent society is and what rights are, and that anyone who does not share this consensus should be treated as a moral and political “spoiler” whose power has to be taken seriously in certain cases but whose ideological and moral views do not. Neither Francis Fukuyama’s iteration of this view, nor the human rights movement’s, seem to me to accurately describe the world we live in.

To end where I began in my initial contribution to this debate, I am not trying to substitute a call of my own for a sacralization of forgetting with what I view as the human rights movement’s (to me) strange combining of the sacralization of memory with a depoliticized view of war crimes and crimes against humanity. To the contrary, I entirely agree with Oglesby that one should be as skeptical of calls to forget as one is of calls to remember. I am simply saying that there will be times when a nation or a community's collective memory is so poisoned, partial, and self-exculpating that the chances of a more humane narrative are so slim as to be virtually nonexistent. It is in those cases when forgetting or at least a radical de-emphasizing of the past in favor of the present and the future seems to me by far the better choice.

Since remembrance and commemoration are not the inexpungible memories of individuals but rather the highly malleable and indeed often unstable narratives societies adopt for themselves to explain and come to terms with the past, whether to glorify or to mourn, in those cases, forgetting is both the wiser course precisely in terms of making it more likely the hours of the past will not recur and an eminently feasible one.

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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