Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Past Can’t Heal Us. The Double Edge Sword of the Human Rights Memorialization Agenda

Lea David

The world is, and has always been, very short on justice. The recent Black Lives Matter movement is just another example in a long line of collective appeals to repair historical injustices. In my book “The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights”, newly published with CUP, I show how we have come to think of historical injustice in terms of massive human rights abuses. This book brings into question one of the most basic, deeply-embedded assumptions in human rights and transitional justice: that ‘proper’ memorialization is a crucial step in establishing moral responsibility for past atrocities and, consequently, human rights values in conflict and post-conflict settings.

The way we understand historical injustice today around the globe is shaped predominately by human rights memorialization standards – termed here ‘Moral Remembrance’ – that have, over the years, adopted three main principles: 1) the necessity to collectively face a troubled past; 2) a collective duty to remember human rights abuses; and 3) a victim-centred approach that puts victims at the heart of memorialization efforts. Though all three of these principles have very different sociological-historical trajectories and are rooted in distinct ethical and philosophical ideals, they merged and became pillars of the human rights memorialization agenda. In fact, the emergence of moral remembrance, and its extensive promotion via human rights bodies and advocates, has shaped our current understanding of how the ‘proper’ way to remember past atrocities and massive human rights abuses should look.

The rise of a moral remembrance model at the world polity level, and its alleged ability to transform values, is best tested, I argue, if we apply theoretical knowledge about ideologies when assessing how values get embedded and accepted on the ground. I use the Malešević (2010; 2017) model which shows that an ideology needs three conditions to successfully implement ideological messaging and values. There must be proper infrastructure in place that can effectively promote certain ideological content which is promoted through institutions, practices and discourses. But all that is insufficient if the experience of attachment and solidarity in small group encounters does not lead to the ideological values being adopted and acted upon. Four major claims are presented in the book: 1) moral remembrance clashes with the nation state-sponsored memorialization agenda; 2) moral remembrance strengthens the categories of nation and ethnicity; 3) moral remembrance produces new social inequalities; and 4) moral remembrance does not make people more appreciative of human rights values. Based on accounts from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Israel, and Palestine, I demonstrate that the outcome of this external mandating of memorialization standards has quite disturbing results – it rarely has transformative power on the ground. Following the Interaction Ritual Chain model in terms of the dynamics involved in face-to-face encounters, as developed by Randall Collins (2004), I show that, contrary to expectations, very often, the forging of feelings of solidarity in small groups – key to the ideological implementation of human rights – is in fact harvested back by the nation-state in order to promote nationalist, ethnically-based agendas.

Hence, despite the good intentions to prescribe moral standards to mand historical injustice, moral remembrance, as a standardized technocratic-like toolkit of policies and practices, while ambitiously aiming to advance a human rights vision of memorialization processes for the sake of promoting democratic human rights values across the globe, ends up not only achieving justice for only a few, (while many others are silenced and pushed into darkness) but, tragically, it does not make people more appreciative of human rights values. In the end, some historical injustice movements and victims of human rights abuses might get their injustice recognized and, if they are lucky, even repaired. But it is very doubtful, to say the least, that such a victory will transform their world view and make them believe in human rights.

The Past Can't Heal Us By Lea David
The Past Can’t Heal Us By Lea David

About The Author

Lea David

Lea David is Assistant Professor and Ad Astra Fellow at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin. She has held the prestigious Fulbright, Jonathan Shapira and Marie Curie...

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