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
The Duty to Remember
Pablo de Greiff
UN Special Rapporteur

It is always good to have the opportunity to debate a provocative interlocutor. David Rieff’s opening contribution to this debate, as well as his copious work on this subject, including Against Remembrance (2011) and the forthcoming In Praise of Forgetting, provide perfect opportunities for revisiting mantras of the human rights world in general and of the transitional justice world in particular.

I will not summarize his views in either his contribution to this debate or in his other works, but just list some of the aims of his efforts on the topic of remembrance: first, to “desacralize” memory, by which I take it Rieff means to question whether there is a duty, an obligation, to remember; second, having argued to his satisfaction that there is no such duty and that, therefore, memory can only be defended in terms of its good consequences, to attack the consequentialist argument by arguing that memory is at best a weak “prophylactic” and, in any case, an unreliable one; weak, for if the memory of the Holocaust did not prevent subsequent mass slaughters, no memory could, and unreliable, because even though some may argue it has played a preventive role in some cases, it is still the case, Rieff insists, that “historical memory is rarely as hospitable to peace and reconciliation as it is to grudge-keeping, dueling martyrologies and enduring enmity” (Against Remembrance, pp. 55–56)

David Rieff
Journalist and Writer

What we are talking about when we invoke collective memory is the consensus about the past that societies develop and that evolve over time. It is that form of collective memory that I am so skeptical of, because, again, of my sense that it can be such a dangerous goad to resentment, hate, and war.

Elizabeth Oglesby
Professor, University of Arizona

This debate on the link between remembrance and reconciliation is central to the concerns of students, scholars, and practitioners of transitional justice. Thank you to ICTJ.

Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez
Director, National Center for Historical Memory of Colombia

In circumstances such as ours, memory becomes an exercise in rewriting history and building the future, and it should influence the creation of new languages and forms of social and political relationships that enable us to see our archenemies of yesterday as fellow citizens today. What is required, therefore, is a memory exercise that continues to perform the dual task of illuminating and transforming.

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