Online Debate: 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 in our debate : Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?

Our debate participants are Pablo de Greiff, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence; and David Rieff, journalist and author of the book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, set to be published next week. Marcie Mersky, ICTJ's Director of Programs, is the moderator.

David insists collective remembrance does indeed impede reconciliation – remembering is a tool, not an inherent duty. “The argument that it is always both an ethical and a political imperative to remember does not actually hold water either ethically or politically,” he says.

Pablo disagrees: “We have the obligation to remember everything that we cannot reasonably expect our fellow citizens to forget,” he says. According to Pablo, collective remembrance recognizes the victims as rights-holders, fosters civic trust, strengthens the rule of law, and in fact promotes reconciliation.

We want to hear from you too.

*ICTJ's Debate content is no longer available, this is an archived article from 2016.

PHOTO: Peruvians gather every year at the Eye that Cries memorial in Lima to commemorate the victims of the 1980's-1990's armed conflict. (Marta Martinez/ICTJ)