Practices of Memorialization & the Process of Social Reconstruction after large-scale Human Rights Abuses and Violations

10 May to 11 May

Coordinators: Martin J.M. Hoondert (Tilburg University), Gemma Varona Martínez (Basque Institute of Criminology)

Description of the meeting

Over the last century, Europe and the world have witnessed civil wars, terrorist attacks, and abuse of power both by dictatorial regimes and in various institutional settings, all leading to serious violations of human rights. To avoid secondary victimization due to top-down approaches of victims on the one hand and to enhance the experiences of justice which involves acknowledgment of distress and giving a voice to the victims themselves on the other, the criminal justice system has given victims a more active role. However, the criminal justice responses alone - and defined many times merely as punitivism - do not offer a sufficiently adequate or comprehensive answer to do justice to victims and to enhance social reconstruction in a post-conflict society. In the experience of justice practices of memorialization which involve interpretations of the atrocious past (as stated by among others Jan and Aleida Assmann), play a pivotal role. Practices of memorialization generally constitute a public validation of the wrongs committed and of the resulting victimisation. Their materialisation is often a result of negotiated outcomes involving a number of actors, legislation and institutions. The formal adoption of specific practices of memorialization relating to victimhood, such as national days of remembrance or the erection of memorials, are often preceded or accompanied by official decrees of recognition and institutionalisation. Once the practices are adopted, they may generate or support legal consequences for victims’ agency that reinforce the rights and claims of the victims. Nevertheless, the construction of victimhood by practices of memorialization is characterized by complexities: in some cases there seems to be a hierarchy of victims and different victims’ parties may have competitive claims. There is a real danger of practices being conceived in a pre-defined, one-sided way, and imposed top-down.

Practices of memorialization contribute to the construction of victimhood and the perception of justice. Memorial culture does not, in the first place, refer to the past, but to the current processes of memorialization in the present and comprises social, material and mental or cognitive dimensions. A crucial dimension of these processes is the actual realization of a memorial, a museum, a documentary etc. Materialisation of memory urges questions of agency and power: top-down or bottom-up, serving to legitimize power or as a binding agent? There is also room for conflict here: practices of memorialization can be ‘contested’, there can be tensions between those commissioning the memorials, the backers and the victims. They may have a healing effect through constructions of shared memories or generate conflicting memories that embody new sources of conflicts.

Practices of memorialization involve a polyphony of narratives: narratives of (various groups of) victims and perpetrators, institutions, nations and the international community. ‘Truth’ depends on power relations and possibilities to communicate ‘truth’. Social reconstruction of a group (an ethnic group, an abused community, a nation, a region) demands negotiations to reach agreement on partial truth that all parties involved agree on or find acceptable. Here we see a lack of agency on the side of vulnerable groups, such as children, women and minorities, who are often overlooked or neglected in processes of social reconstruction. There is also a debate on the relationship between personal, political and historical truth which is highlighted by the so-called post-truth era.

Practices of memorialization can positively or negatively affect such processes of social reconstruction. At whose behest do practices of memorialization occur and how do these practices actually change public awareness from one-sided perceptions of the past to a more dialogic sense regarding the violent or atrocious past? Duncan Bell notes: ‘Memory is capable of being yoked to state power, in the name of nationalism, or employed in opposition, as a challenge to dominant narratives’ (Bell 2010, 15). Practices of memorialization can support processes of vindication, voicing, participation and validation of victims, processes which are considered as elements of victims’ sense of justice, besides their need for reparation and offender accountability. While practices of memorialization may offer vindication and validation to some victims, the issue of their wider effects on for instance perpetrators, bystanders, neglected or forgotten victims and the larger community needs to be studied to enhance processes of social reconstruction which go beyond legal mechanisms on the one hand and top-down imposed unity and reconciliation on the other.

Aims of the workshop: In this workshop we will study (the construction of) victimhood and (the perception of) justice in relation to processes of social construction through practices of memorialization. By presenting and comparing case studies related to different kinds of atrocities, civil wars and human rights’ abuses, the participants to the workshop will be able to discuss on ‘best practices’ regarding practices of memorialization in the context of social reconstruction. The workshop will give the opportunity to build relations between academics and practitioners to collect expertise which is now fragmented, and to determine and subsequently learn from best practices, taken into account the need of local contextualization from a critical socio-legal perspective.

For more information: 

Malen Gordoa Mendizabal

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