The (Re)Collection of Memory after Mass Atrocity and the Dilemma for Transitional Justice
55 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2014 Last revised: 13 Nov 2015
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
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