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Sultanahmet, Istanbul by Maistora

Memory and impunity

Ellen Lammers | 09 August 2011

What is more important to people and societies that have gone through war - justice or peace? 

What is more important to people and societies that have gone through war - justice or peace? This thorny question is central to some of the criticism of the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Criminal prosecution can hinder attempts to broker a political or diplomatic solution that will end the violence, Freek Landmeter writes in his blog Today’s dictators: off to university or off to jail?

There is a variation to this same question: what is more important for people to help them let go of the past - justice or truth? Since the field of Transitional Justice gathered pace since the late 1980s, the importance of ‘speaking and hearing the truth’ for reconciliation and for the non-recurrence of violence has been widely acknowledged. For the survivors of gross human rights violations, truth-finding is perhaps even more important than fact-finding – but it is more complex too. Because ‘truth’, especially in the aftermath of violence, is rarely singular. Or as David Taylor writes, ‘As is so often the case after violence, one person’s truth is another’s fiction...’.

Taylor works for Impunity Watch, a research-for-policy NGO that has just published an interesting report about memory initiatives. The authors conducted research on the role that memory initiatives can play in combating impunity in post-conflict countries. The role of memorialisation is gaining traction as part of a comprehensive package of transitional justice. Memory initiatives – building on an age-old human instinct for commemoration – have a value for symbolic justice, reconciliation and dialogue.

But it is no done deal, so the report warns. Memory is as fraught with ambiguity as truth is. And thus making memory initiatives part of traditional justice should not be taken lightly. Because there is always the risk that “memory initiatives can be instrumentalised to cement division after the perpetration of gross human rights violations and manipulated in a way that far from moving communities beyond their past instead ensures that that past becomes the prevailing social factor in the present” (p.11).

For researchers of forced migration it was Liisa Malkki who with her book (that soon became classic) Purity and Exile, already fifteen years ago showed how memories of violence (in this case, among Hutu refugees in Tanzania) play an important role in creating categorical identities of us and them - with ‘them’ being the enemy.

In my research I found that in the aftermath of war, memory is also a practical tool for living. Rather than being only interested in ‘the truth’, the young men in my study were concerned with: which perspective on my current reality, which reading of the past, is practical and useful? Useful in terms of helping me get to terms with why I am in exile, reducing my present feelings of insecurity and confusion, serving my future ambitions. Anthropologists have always stressed the dependence of people on stories that convey meaning and significance. The memory that helps construct these stories is plastic and changeable.

That’s how it is. But it makes that the task facing civil society and practitioners engaged in memorialisation is fraught with difficulties. A critical analysis and some recommendations for a positive role for memory initiatives, laid down in Understanding the role of memory initiatives in communities struggling with impunityare worth reading.

Photo credit main picture: Sultanahmet, Istanbul by Maistora