Panel Discussion Examines the Impact of Denial


What happens when a state refuses to acknowledge the suffering of victims of mass atrocities? Or when the public celebrates perpetrators as heroes? Earlier this month, a panel discussion hosted by The International Center for Transitional Justice and New York University’s Center for Global Affairs grappled with the impact of denial on justice.

The April 13th panel, titled “Corroding Reconciliation, Undermining Peace,” examined the implications of denial on transitional justice. Panelists included: Louis Fishman, Assistant Professor of History at Brooklyn College; Margaret Scott, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at NYU; Carlos Dada, journalist and founder of the news website El Faro; and Refik Hodzic, Director of Communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice. They were moderated by Ian Martin of the Security Council Report.

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Fishman began the conversation, talking about the Armenian genocide that occurred a century ago in the Ottoman Empire. After portraying Armenians as a threat to the security of the state, Ottoman officials began arresting and deporting Armenians in April of 1915, which quickly turned into the systematic killing of over a million Armenians.

“On many levels,” Fishman noted, “the denial of Armenian genocide…stands out as a precedent in studying crimes against humanity.” Due to the amount of time that has passed since the genocide occurred, the situation in Turkey provides a model for the phases of denial after atrocities. Fishman explained that as time passed, official denial and false narratives began to take hold in the public sphere. He called Turkey’s denial of Armenian genocide a “geopolitical issue” in that “the U.S. perpetrat[ed] the denial by not recognizing it officially.”

Scott discussed Indonesia’s denial of the killings of thousands of suspected communists. The Indonesian government blamed communists for the killings of seven army officials in Indonesia in September 1965, Scott said, and used this as a justification for the systemic imprisonment and murders of thousands of suspected communists in the following months.

The government’s denial of the 1965 events have led many activists from civil society to attempt to uncover the truth about their country’s history, but Scott says that the state and army in Indonesia are “impenetrable.” She pointed out that the White House briefings for that time period could reveal information about what happened in 1965 and the role of the U.S. government. This would be valuable to Indonesians trying to learn and understand their history.

Dada addressed El Salvador and the aftermath of the atrocities years after the end of the war. “For twenty years,” Dada explained, “the official narrative was, ‘Don’t talk about the past, it reopen[s] wounds.”

Dada pointed out that the truth commission in El Salvador was only partially successful, because “even in the process of investigating war atrocities, they were denied basic information by the warring parties.” Additionally, he noted, amnesty laws have made it impossible to bring war criminals to justice, and there still exist landmarks that honor war officials who carried out killings and massacres during the war. Dada concluded, “Through justice you can restore dignity to the victims, even if you cannot bring back lives.”

Hodzic discussed the former Yugoslavia, where despite the prosecution of many of the perpetrators, the legacy of the genocide continues unabated. In addressing the problem of the legacy of war criminals, he reflected upon the political strategies and narratives that are used to frame violence against the “other” as socially useful work. Included in these strategies, he said, are claims that such violence is necessary for the preservation of one’s own group or the advancement of a group’s goals. He emphasized that transitional justice must not always be concerned with the technical implementation of truth-seeking measures such as trials and reparations, but should also be concerned with changing national narratives.

In the question and answer session that followed, the panelists addressed the audience’s questions regarding memorialization, reparations, education, and social narratives. The discussion ultimately centered on the role of media in atrocity, with Hodzic asking: “Media is a key vehicle that is used to dehumanize the other. So how can we think about any solutions…without media being a key vehicle in humanizing the other?”

Moderator Ian Martin concluded the evening by saying: “What comes through most clearly is that we need to move beyond the technical areas of transitional justice and move toward truth and acknowledgement.” He pointed to the new age of global consciousness as a source of hope, saying, “We have to find ways to make use of that global consciousness to fight for acknowledgement as an aspect for change.”

PHOTO: Panelists from left to right: Ian Martin, Louis Fishman, Margaret Scott, Carlos Dada, and Refik Hodzic. (Marta Martinez/ICTJ)