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?

Need to catch up? View Opening Remarks
Closing Remarks Invite Further Discussion of The Implications of Remembrance
Marcie Mersky
ICTJ Director of Programs

On behalf of ICTJ, I want to begin by expressing our gratitude to David Rieff and Pablo de Greiff, our principal debaters, as well as our invited contributors Sihem Bensedrine, Elizabeth Oglesby and Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez, and all of you who posted comments.

The gratitude is, of course, for the richness of the contributions. What stands out in all of them is the depth of reflection that in many cases comes from years of having engaged and struggled with these issues as practitioners, public intellectuals or both.

David Rieff
Journalist and Writer

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.

Pablo de Greiff
UN Special Rapporteur

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.

Ruti Teitel
Professor and Author

From downtown Buenos Aires through Havana and the shores of Hiroshima, in recent weeks and months US President Obama has flown around the world, engaging in a distinct kind of memory politics which I would like to explore here and defend. These are transitional politics, politics of remembrance. As President Obama put it in Hiroshima: “The memory of the morning of August 6, 1945” must never fade. The message was deployed to underscore nuclear prevention and, more fundamentally, every person’s humanity.

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