By Louise Hogan
The history of man is the history of crimes, and history can repeat. So information is a defence. Through this we can build, we must build, a defence against repetition.
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
The urge to remember and memorialise victims of mass atrocities is complex. In many post conflict societies, there are those who believe the priority should be to move on and allow society to forget it’s past; but a society which does not acknowledge its victims, remember their suffering and learn from their stories, cannot move on. Instead, its future generations will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes and a vicious cycle of repressed hatred and secrecy will prevail. Memorialising victims is not just an outlet for artists and architects; it is a way of reconciling a society’s difficult past with a peaceful future, an opportunity for communities to come together after conflict and a chance to educate future generations about past atrocities so that they may not occur again.
Memorialisation is not however, an easy process. It is usually rife with controversy and can inflame passions, and by extension hostility, within communities. Despite the difficulties which may be encountered however, the overall process can be incredibly cathartic and an important step for transitional justice.
Much of the debate over memorialising human rights abuses centres around concerns for the future; critics of memorialisation find it difficult to accept that remembrance serves to honour the past and avoid being bound by it. Memorialisation however is not about vengeance or blame, but about remembrance and recognition. As Ellie Wiesel, one of the Holocaust’s most famous chroniclers put it, those who refuse to remember the victims of atrocities “. . . are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another: telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.”
Others argue that a permanent, visible reminder of human rights atrocities causes only pain; that it’s very presence can be confrontational. But a society must confront its difficult past to move forward. As Simon Wiesenthal commented on the bleakness of the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna “This monument shouldn’t be beautiful. It must hurt,”
Holocaust survivor Eva Szirtes pays respect at a Holocaust Memorial Wall, Budapest Hungary, 2012.
Often memorials provide the only outlet of justice for victims. When dealing with mass atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide or Apartheid in South Africa, the perpetrators are many. Crimes may have been so widespread, as in Rwanda, or abusive practices so entrenched in society, as in South Africa, that to effectively prosecute every perpetrator simply may not be possible. In cases where those responsible for the abuse, ill-treatment or even deaths of others cannot or are not held accountable for their actions, the creation of a memorial may be the only effective remedy. It can not fully replace transitional justice but may serve as a satisfying accompaniment to initiatives such as tribunals and truth commissions. Designing and erecting a memorial can be an important step of the process of rebuilding communities and societies following mass atrocities.
Images from Srebrenica, Bosnia; a woman mourns before the reburial of victims & roses laid on the wall of names
It is beyond the remit of the Africa Union to provide justice for victims of atrocities such as those memorialised by the African Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM). Indeed, the sheer number of those affected by atrocities commemorated by the AUHRM is too large to even contemplate. But the creation of the AUHRM is an important step towards recognising past failures and making a public commitment to ensure they are not repeated. As well as honouring the dead, a permanent memorial is an acceptance of responsibility to prevent history repeating itself; an acknowledgment of the duty to protect. The Organisation of African States (OAU), predecessor to the African Union, was criticised for its failure to intervene during the Rwandan Genocide. The AUHRM is an acknowledgement that the OAU lacked the capacity to halt the mass atrocity and resolves the AU’s commitment to stopping future atrocities.
Inscription on the AUHRM foundation stone, unveiled January 28th 2012
A memorial, though important, is of course no substitute for increasing the capacity and ability of the African Union to respond quickly to future atrocities as they unfold. The AUHRM should be viewed therefore as an important step in this process, an indication that the African Union is committed to protecting citizens across the continent and a promise that the abuse of human rights on such a scale will not be allowed to occur.
Though often difficult, the process of creating a permanent memorial to victims of atrocities and human rights abuses is a worthy and constructive endeavour. To quote Winston Churchill, “
The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see,”
The Author is pursuing her studies in Human Rights and Politics at the Irish Centre for Human Rights