Today is Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Each year, it falls at a time when we’re also reminded of a litany of other horrors. Dates scattered throughout April and May mark the anniversaries of atrocities against Rwandans, Cambodians, Armenians, Ethiopians, and Sri Lankan Tamils.
For many, remembering the dead on these anniversaries is a ritual observance. Sometimes, it is public and state-sanctioned. News outlets around the world reported the striking images of Rwanda’s official reenactment of the genocide on the 20th anniversary in 2014. Elsewhere, commemoration is secretive and illicit. In the seven years since Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended, Tamils in the north have been forced to remember their dead quietly, in private, or risk arrest.
The very different circumstances surrounding remembrance in Rwanda and Sri Lanka are a reminder of the political stakes of commemorating past violence, particularly in deeply divided societies. Memorialization can signal a break with the past, legitimize a new regime, and provide comfort to the victims. But it can also reinscribe trauma, obscure history’s complexity, and polarize communities.
Over at the International Center for Transitional Justice’s website, some heavy hitters are debating this very issue. ICTJ asks: “Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?”
Repping Team “Yup, It Totally Does” is superstar writer and questioner-of-stuff-we-just-sort-of-assumed-was-good David Rieff. And for Team “No, Burying the Past Is Not an Option”, human rights lawyer and actual-for-reals UN Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff.
In his opening argument, Rieff, who has a new book out called “In Praise of Forgetting“, suggests that commemoration’s “destructive potential” outweighs its usefulness. He sees more evidence that historical memory is cynically deployed to fuel violence, or simply ignored, than that it helps societies avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. (He also argues very convincingly in a recent Foreign Policy essay that memorialization can operate as a kind of kitsch, a stand-in for genuinely grappling with the horrors of history.)
De Greiff responds with a nuanced defense of transitional justice orthodoxy. Memory, he points out, isn’t optional. For the survivors of human rights abuses, the past is always present. And failing to acknowledge it “is an invitation to instrumentalize the past or leave us at the mercy of the fear”. He argues that the question should not be whether to remember, but how to ensure a full and fair accounting that will be resistant to exploitation. The challenge of course, is that the sort of capital “T” Truth that de Greiff envisages is often elusive in post-conflict societies, where everything is contested.
For my money, remembrance is necessary, but never wholly benign. And both of these arguments underscore the political work that historical memory performs in societies emerging from violence. Stay tuned for the rest of the debate…