The (Re)Collection of Memory after Mass Atrocity and the Dilemma for Transitional Justice

55 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2014 Last revised: 18 Aug 2018

See all articles by Rachel López

Rachel López

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law

Date Written: March 7, 2014


When a government engages in the mass killing of its own citizens, how can the nation ever recover? These atrocities destroy the moral fabric which binds a nation. To recover, this fabric must be remade. Many social scientists and legal scholars believe that developing collective memory – an enduring and shared memory of the events that help to heal the wounds of a tattered national conscience and prevent the recurrence of mass atrocities – is essential to such reconstruction. However, the preservation of collective memory is in tension with another impulse after mass atrocity: the desire for justice. Because notions of individualism and autonomy heavily influence legal institutions worldwide, they risk the destruction of collective memory. This friction constitutes a central dilemma in facilitating transitional justice. In this article, I urge a fundamental reconceptualization of the law’s preference for individual memory in the context of transitional justice. I argue that the inclusion of collective memory will facilitate a better understanding of the collective harms that characterize mass atrocities and will serve the distinct goals of transitional justice, including reconciliation, the creation of a historical record, nation-building, and legal reform. I further argue that human rights lawyers should act as preservers and promoters of collective memory. In doing so, they may be able to help heal wounds outside traditional justice tribunals – while at the same time providing essential assistance to these tribunals if and when legal proceedings do finally occur.

Keywords: collective memory, mass atrocity, human rights, international law, public international law, transitional justice

Suggested Citation

López, Rachel, The (Re)Collection of Memory after Mass Atrocity and the Dilemma for Transitional Justice (March 7, 2014). 48 N.Y.U. J. Int’l L. & Pol. 799 (2015), Available at SSRN: or

Rachel López (Contact Author)

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law ( email )

3320 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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