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Constructing Memory of Victims of Human Rights Abuses


By: Dawit Mesfin

24 Jul 2012

Building a memorial takes time. But one cannot wait forever to build one. Many seem to recognise the fact that building a memorial not only is expensive and time-consuming, it also requires high level of commitment if it is going to be a place worthy of its purpose. A good memorial is a place of reflection and one that helps to restore dignity. It is also a place of learning and a stage where we confront our past demons.

How does one go about making memory of the forgotten individuals who were victimised in past conflicts in Africa? Ideally, one can make memory by building bridges between the real impacts of the human rights abuses on African lives and the sheltered existence of others. This article is just an attempt to give a glimpse into such a life-absorbing task.

Last January I was standing in front of the new AU headquarters as the foundation stone for the memorial was being unveiled. It was then that it became apparent to me that the memorial site will be well suited for a high-profile memorial for it will be sitting adjacent to the new headquarters. Once unveiled, my attention switched to what needs to be done to make the memorial a reality. Considering the novelty of such an endeavour within the continental context, the bureaucracy the project will have to circumnavigate, the goodwill and actions of member states that will need to be harmonised, the foot-dragging that is bound to be prompted by the sheer size of the project and so forth, one cannot help but raise questions on the inevitable hurdles that await the project. At this stage it is hard to imagine how long it will take the AU to meander past the hurdles. Realistically speaking, constructing the memory of victims of human rights abuses will be quite an uphill journey. However, optimistically speaking, a foundation stone has already been erected to herald the formidable but highly important project.

The cornerstone is a promise by the African Union to survivors, families of victims of human rights violations throughout Africa. It is also a ‘Never Again’ promise to current as well as future generations of Africans. More importantly, it is a sign of acknowledgment that Africa will have to change its ways in dealing with human rights abuses throughout the continent. I personally believe it is a message of warning to all member states that the AU has the duty to safeguard people’s rights and, if necessary, to intervene in the affairs of the member state in circumstances of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. To reiterate the point once again, by preserving the memory of the victims, the AU is reminding itself of its duty to guard the rights of Africans.

One of the major aims of the African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM) project is to create means and opportunities to unearth accounts of cruelties right across the spectrum of the African continent with the aim to learn from them. Bringing survivors, families of victims, the silent majority, representatives of major institutions and various leaders to discuss and learn about past conflicts and human rights abuses and events that raise similar issues is important. Furthermore, the aim, even though challenging, is to deploy activists and activities dedicated to teaching about the past and ensuring that such memories remain in public memory - not in terms of slogans and clichés, but in real terms that signify purpose and commitment. Again, outreach programmes that encourage schools, community-based groups, faith organisations, country-based and regional institutions and individuals from the international arena need to be developed to engage in remembering the victims and learning the causes that triggered past atrocities. It is hoped that the memorial project will then stimulate education, research and discourse.

Building Bridges: the Focus Group Approach

Realising that there are various museums, centres and exhibitions throughout Africa, the AUHRM project needs to mobilise and involve as many activists and genocide experts as possible. In turn, human rights organisations around the world need to join forces to complement each other’s efforts in bringing justice to Africa.

The AUHRM project should be genuine in its management of past atrocities, not self-serving. That is why creating a focus group that dwells on the human rights agenda will be necessary if the project is going to make a dent on past practices. As a priority, the focus group’s motivation or moral imperative should come from and should be based on informing the public about Africa’s bloody history. Remaining active in creating memories of the victims as well as defending the rights of the vulnerable by rooting out any form of hatred that leads to violence should be the task, albeit difficult, of the focus group.

The focus group’s functionality will of course depend on meaningful partnerships it will assemble around the project – an aspect that will augment the outcome of the memorial campaign. Human rights abuse is a global issue and the messages as pertinent within the international community as it is in Africa. Therefore, in order to build bridges between the past and present, and to highlight the significance of the memorial project, it will be essential for the focus group to establish a network of civil society organisations, representatives of museums and memorial centres as well as local, regional and international actors. Its group approach can influence policy makers and government officials to remain engaged and to develop practices, although complex and weighty undertaking, that will see accounts of past conflicts and atrocities are not diluted.

Dawit Mesfin is the principal director of Justice Africa. Originally from Eritrea, Dawit is a peace, human rights and democracy activist who has worked for numerous organisations in Diaspora for over a decade. He instituted a number of civil society organisations in Europe, set up and managed Voice of Liberty, a radio station whose primary focus was on people’s rights.

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