By Marcie Mersky

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?

Who Decides Whether to Remember or Forget?

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.

During this period, in many places after periods of massive human rights violations and atrocity, the demand for truth became much broader, as a call not only to reveal the facts of the violations themselves, but also to explore the root causes of the violations and underlying historical grievances.

In a sense, this can be a call to construct a new collective memory, or historical memory, which acknowledges wrongs and incorporates those who may have been hidden from history. Or it may simply be a call for tolerance and a place at the table for alternative perspectives and visions, often of people on the margins, with memories perhaps at odds with those of people in power.

In any event, the demand for truth is linked to a strong conviction, underpinned by a range of arguments and rights, and guided by diverse objectives, that simply forgetting is not a solution, that the wounds stay open not because they are remembered, but because they are denied or ignored or left without any form of redress

Certainly for transitional justice, which seeks to address and overcome legacies of impunity after mass violations, issues of truth, acknowledgement, and remembrance of victims form a core part of our work towards building rights-respecting societies in the present day.

But not everyone agrees. There are many who argue that it is best to turn the page, that with the end of armed violence or systematic repression, talking about the past and insisting on acknowledgement of crimes and harms runs the risk of a return to violence. This perspective is often a sincere response to years of disruption, exhaustion, and fear, but unfortunately, it is often taken up most vocally by those who wield power and can be understood as a veiled threat in many circumstances. (Certainly this was the case in Chile and Guatemala and perhaps today in Myanmar or Uganda.)

Others argue that narratives of victimhood can evolve or be manipulated into calls for revenge or that collective memories of injustice can be used to justify new wars, even centuries later. This is undoubtedly part of the context we see in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Northern Africa.

So, there are divergent points of view and much to discuss. We think a debate, with reasoned reflections, could enrich our understanding of these complex and compelling issues. We have phrased the question broadly:

Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?

To get the discussion underway, we invited two excellent proponents of quite different, but nuanced, perspectives to lay out their views.

Speaking to the “yes” position is David Rieff, a New York-based journalist and widely published author, who during the 1990s covered conflicts in Africa (Burundi, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda), the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), and Central Asia. His latest book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, will be published this month by Yale University Press. It was his recent article in The Guardian that actually convinced us of the relevance and importance of organizing this debate. There he wrote:

“Today, most societies all but venerate the imperative to remember. We have been taught to believe that the remembering of the past and its corollary, the memorializing of collective historical memory, has become one of humanity’s highest moral obligations. But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancor and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness.”

Speaking to the “no” position is Pablo de Grieff, a Colombia-born academic and transitional justice practitioner, who is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. He is currently Senior Fellow and Director of the Transitional Justice Program at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law. Prior to joining NYU de Grieff was Director of Research at ICTJ from 2001 to 2014.

Pablo has made clear in earlier writing that a duty to remember is not really about the past, but rather reflects the present “obligation to remember whatever our fellow citizens cannot be expected to forget.” Here he goes on to explain that:

[The] ’collective act of remembrance’ that is relevant to dealing with the past — to transitional justice — is one that has to be comprehensive enough to include all categories of violations that have been determined to need redress, regardless of who the victims were and who the victimizers were. It cannot consist of a response to the violations of one party to a conflict and not the other.”

I hope that their reflections here — and yours — also take up some of the many related questions that have also grown out of my own work and observations over the past two decades:

Who decides whether to remember or forget, and does that make a difference? Can forgiveness happen without acknowledgement of wrongdoing? Is there a difference between forgetting and denial — or when does forgetting become denial? What do we mean by reconciliation, anyway?

I look forward to the debate. I hope you will join us!


Marcie Mersky is currently Director of Programs at the International Center for Transitional Justice.


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