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?

Who Decides Whether to Remember or Forget?
Marcie Mersky
ICTJ Director of Programs

In societies emerging from violent conflict, past events will be denied by some and asserted by others. The narratives and analysis, even the basic facts, about what happened and why — the way they are discussed and remembered by different groups — are always contested. Does this mean that efforts at remembrance or, more specifically, efforts to open a broad platform to discuss the past, including by victims, whose voices may have been silenced, or with groups whose perspectives and concerns do not appear in official histories, will only impede reconciliation or lead to more conflict?

Over the last 40 years or so, truth — as a right of victims and societies — has become an important element in human rights discourse and practice. With its origins in the Geneva Conventions and the obligations of the parties to an armed conflict to provide families with all of the information regarding the fate of missing relatives, the demand for truth was taken up in Latin America in the 1970s by the families of the “forcibly disappeared” — those individuals who repressive regimes considered as enemies, were taken away, and never seen again, their fates denied.

David Rieff
Journalist and Writer

My goal is to counter the view that to remember serves the interests of peace and helps in the creation of an atrocity- and torture-rejecting public culture. Again, I am confident there are conflicts and societies when memory can do just that. But there are also conflicts and societies where memory does not mitigate but rather serves as a goad to horror.

Pablo de Greiff
UN Special Rapporteur

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.

Sihem Bensedrine
President, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission

Amnesia is the best possible way to facilitate the return of the demons of the past. Dictatorship always leaves behind itself a minefield made of pain, tears, humiliations, deep scars and accumulated hatred. It is in these fields of hatred that violence, like a gangrene, attack our societies and handicap their development. The solution lies in the process of remembrance, which can engage the public in a way that offers guarantees of non-recurrence.

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