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United Nations


General Assembly

Distr.: General

23 January 2014

Original: English
Human Rights Council

Twenty-fifth session

Agenda item 3

Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil,
political, economic, social and cultural rights,
including the right to development

Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field
of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed

Memorialization processes*


The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, submits the present report in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 19/6.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur addresses memorialization processes of the events of the past in post-conflict and divided societies, with a specific focus on memorials and museums of history/memory.

States exiting conflicts or periods of repression are increasingly propelled to engage in active memorial policies as a means of ensuring recognition for the victims, as reparation for mass or grave violations of human rights and as a guarantee of non-recurrence. The Special Rapporteur stresses the significance of actions in the cultural field for achieving the overall societal goals of transitional justice, while noting that entire cultural and symbolic landscapes are designed through memorials and museums, which both reflect and shape, negatively or positively, social interactions and people’s cognition of identities – their own as well as that of others.

Addressing some difficult challenges encountered in memorializing the past, the Special Rapporteur makes a number of recommendations grounded in the principle that memorialization should be understood as a process that provides to those affected by human rights violations the spaces necessary to articulate their narratives. Memorial practices should stimulate and promote civic engagement, critical thinking and discussion regarding the representation of the past, but equally the contemporary challenges of exclusion and violence.


Paragraphs Page

I. Introduction 1–4 3

II. Processes of memorialization: goals and challenges 5–24 3

A. An evolution of expectations regarding memorialization 8–14 4

B. Critically assessing memorialization policies and practices 15–17 5

C. Political agendas in the battlefield of memory 18–24 6

III. A normative framework: the emergence of memorialization standards 25–48 7

A. The Joinet-Orentlicher and the Van Boven-Bassiouni Principles 27–32 7

B. Diplomatic conferences 33–35 8

C. Rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights 36–38 9

D. Recommendations of truth and reconciliation commissions 39–44 9

E. The cultural rights angle 45–48 10

IV. Memorialization practices: specific challenges 49–97 11

A. Victims, perpetrators and heroes 50–56 11

B. The issue of temporality 57–58 12

C. “Illegal” memorials 59–60 13

D. Monuments and sites of past oppressive regimes 61–63 13

E. Promoting critical thinking and civic engagement 64–65 13

F. The role of artists 66–73 14

G. Museums of history/memory 74–79 16

H. Managing the remains 80–82 16

I. Memorialization of slave trades 83–85 17

J. Memorializing the histories of indigenous peoples 86–89 17

K. The role of external actors 90–92 18

L. The recipients of memorial initiatives 93–97 18

V. Conclusions and recommendations 98–109 19


List of participants in the expert meeting (Geneva, 7 and 8 October 2013) 23

I. Introduction

  1. This report is the second of two consecutive studies by the Special Rapporteur on historical and memorial narratives in divided and post-conflict societies. The first report, dealing with the issue of the writing and teaching of history, with a particular focus on history textbooks was submitted to the General Assembly in 2013 (A/68/296) and sought to identify the circumstances in which historical narratives promoted by States in schools may become problematic from a human rights perspective. This second report addresses memorialization processes, with a specific focus on memorials and museums, and tackles the wider processes of collective memorialization undertaken by various actors, both governmental and non-governmental.

  2. Cultural rights have an important role to play in transitional justice and reconciliation strategies: “To be successful, criminal and restorative justice must be integrated into a larger process”, including in particular cultural rights1 that can help to transform institutions and stimulate changes in both cultural practices and individual outlooks.2 Collective reparations for mass or grave violations of human rights can take the form of legal but also non-legal measures, the latter entering the field of symbolism and memory, which is too often overlooked. The ways in which narratives are memorialized have consequences far beyond the sole issue of reparations. Entire cultural and symbolic landscapes are designed through memorials and museums reflecting, but also shaping negatively or positively, social interactions and people’s self-identities, as well as their perception of other social groups. Sometimes, the past defines people rather than informs them.

  3. The present report tries to elucidate the responsibilities of States and other stakeholders in the field of memorialization, in view of the fact that memory, like history, is never immune from political influence and debate. The rising trend of memorialization processes today makes discussing these issues both urgent and necessary.

  4. In 2013, the Special Rapporteur convened two meetings on these issues. The first was held from 1 to 3 July 2013 in Derry/Londonderry, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (see A/68/296, paragraph 8, and annex). A second expert meeting was organized on 7 and 8 October 2013 in Geneva, in cooperation with the research team PIMPA (Politics of Memory and Art Practices) of the Geneva University of Art and Design. On 5 July 2013, the Special Rapporteur convened open consultations in Geneva in order to offer an opportunity to States, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations to present their views. The Special Rapporteur thanks all participants for their valuable contributions.

II. Processes of memorialization: goals and challenges

  1. For the purpose of this report, the Special Rapporteur refers to memorials, understood as physical representation or commemorative activities, located in public spaces, that concern specific events regardless of the period of occurrence (wars and conflicts, mass or grave human rights violations), or the persons involved (soldiers, combatants, victims, political leaders or activists for example).3

  2. Memorial expressions are extremely diverse. Major forms include authentic sites (for example concentration camps, former torture and detention centres, sites of mass killings and graves and emblematic monuments of repressive regimes); symbolic sites (such as permanent or ephemeral constructed monuments carrying the names of victims, renamed streets, buildings or infrastructure, virtual memorials on the Internet and museums of history/memory); and activities (such as public apologies, reburials, walking tours, parades and temporary exhibits). In addition, although outside the scope of this report, various cultural expressions (artworks, films, documentaries, literature and sound and light shows addressing a tourist audience, etc.) also contribute to memorialization processes.

  3. Memorials thus encompass all kinds of engagements specifically designed to remember the wrongs of the past. This allows for diversity in approaches, as constructed monuments do not always correspond to the wishes or culture of the communities concerned.

A. An evolution of expectations regarding memorialization

  1. The purpose of memorials has changed dramatically over time. In ancient Greek city states, battlefield memorials were deliberately constructed of wood to enable erosion, opening possibilities for reconciliation between former enemies.4

  2. With the passage of time, memorials have shifted from honouring soldiers dying in the line of duty to a victims’ perspective and new visions of reconciliation. Starting in the 1980s, the creation of memorials has become linked to the idea that ensuring public recognition of past crimes is indispensable to the victims, essential for preventing further violence and necessary for redefining national unity. Memorialization is often a demand of victims and society at large5 and the path to national reconciliation is seen to pass through not only legal reparations, but also symbolic reparations such as memorials.

  3. The memorial injunction “Never again”, born after the First World War, was framed in the late 1990s through the transitional justice paradigm, whereby the rule of law and promoting democratic cultures are societal guarantees to protect against further tragedies. With the recognition that civilians bear the main brunt of atrocities, memorialization has become a political and sociocultural imperative in reconciliation processes.

  4. Contributing to the rise of memorialization was the emergence in the 1980s of the controversial concept of the “duty of remembrance”6 of mass crimes, such as the destruction of European Jews by the Nazis, the slave trade and the violence perpetrated against indigenous peoples. This concept asserts the legitimacy of seeking reparation and drawing lessons even centuries after the actual events.

  5. The understanding that memorialization should be a means of combating injustice and promoting reconciliation was expressed in the Durban Declaration of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, in which States emphasized “that remembering the crimes or wrongs of the past, wherever and whenever they occurred, unequivocally condemning its racist tragedies and telling the truth about history are essential elements for international reconciliation and the creation of societies based on justice, equality and solidarity”.

  6. The goals assigned to memorialization processes are thus multi-faceted and, regardless of diversity in form and shape, memorials have both private/reflective and public/educative purposes.7 They are geared not only towards the past (recalling events, recognizing and honouring victims and enabling stories to be related), but equally to the present (healing processes and rebuilding of trust between communities) and the future (preventing further violence through education and awareness-raising). Memorialization processes can promote a culture of democratic engagement by stimulating discussion regarding the representation of the past and contemporary challenges of exclusion and violence.

  7. The multiplicity of memorial entrepreneurs means that memorialization may focus more on one goal rather than another, in some cases heightening or leading to tensions and mutual suspicion. Other goals may also be pursued, more or less openly, such as nation-building and constructing national identities, or, worryingly, as a tool to affirm predominance over a territory, gather people around one emphasized identity and justify various political agendas.

B. Critically assessing memorialization policies and practices

  1. The question is whether memorials do and can fulfil the purposes assigned to them as described in paragraph 13 above and, if so, under which conditions?8 In the last 20 years, more memorials and museums (of history/memory) were established than in the previous two centuries, suggesting the need to undertake a broader, more detailed analysis of the issue.

  2. While memorialization processes mark the recognition of victims, the will to ensure reparation for mass or grave violations of human rights and non-recurrence, they can also amount to memorial tyrannies. This occurs when continuously multiplying memorials do not take into account alternative voices or suffer questions, enclose people within their past and leave little space for the remembrance of other events and relations between groups of people.9

  3. On the whole, the worldwide trend of greater memorialization can be seen as positive. However, too much memory, especially if presented in the form of irreconcilable versions of the past, might hurt rather than help a society.10 All post-conflict and divided societies confront the need to establish a delicate balance between forgetting and remembering. It is crucial that memorialization processes do not function as empty rhetoric commemorating the dead, while losing sight of the reasons and the context for past tragedies and obscuring contemporary challenges.

C. Political agendas in the battlefield of memory

  1. The commemoration of tragic events, during or following conflict, including long afterwards, involving public art and the mobilization of collective memory, can convey messages of peace, recognition, reconciliation and community solidarity, but also in too many cases self-victimization, thirst for revenge and martyrdom. The political, educational and even aesthetics challenges are significant.

  2. Memorials address issues that can be very divisive. States and other stakeholders must decide which particular narrative to promote (specific/exclusive or inclusive of plural narratives); at which point in time (immediately following events or after several generations) and for how long; where exactly (an authentic site, a public place visible to all on a daily basis or in a less central area requiring a proactive decision to pay a visit); and for which purpose and following which process (who should be consulted and on what exactly, who funds the project, how much autonomy should designers enjoy). Such issues may be particularly controversial in societies which have seen international or internal conflicts; post-colonial societies, including those which have experienced slavery; societies challenged by divisions based on ethnic, national or linguistic backgrounds, religion or political ideology; and societies in which indigenous peoples, minorities or other groups have been excluded from the memorialization processes.

  3. These matters can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. From a human rights perspective, what counts is creating conditions that allow a “broadly located, mobile, multi-layered and interactive dialogical truth”11 to emerge, meaning a debate on past events and actions that enables society to overcome “completely separate and unrecognized accounts of what happened”12 so as to move forward and develop more peaceful relationships. Narratives, whether historical or memorial, are always a viewpoint and communities are never monolithic blocs. The central issue is how to ensure that people hear the story of others and learn to recognize their common humanity.

  4. In memorialization processes, some actors may use the battlefield of memory to further their own agendas, imposing definitions of perpetrators and heroes and establishing categories of victims. This often leaves some victims in the shadow; it can create victim hierarchies, carries the risk of generating a competition in victimhood and may also provide some contemporary groups with “an endless line of credit”.13

  5. Memorials may be deployed to mobilize against the enemies of today and of the future, for example nationalist propaganda that manipulates symbols and revitalizes emotions from the past in which “memories of humiliation inspire the desire for revenge and are used to justify further aggression based on any historical or ancestral right.”14 Examples of such political manipulation around memorialization abound. In many regions, memory has become an intense battlefield, with opposing sides investing heavily in memorialization to justify their moral, legal and ideological superiority.

  6. Memorials may also serve as places of pride and celebration of past crimes for radical groups. This can be the case, for example, of burial sites of war criminals, in particular when no reference, explanation or historical perspective is provided in relation to the crimes committed, through a plaque or nearby museum. Such cemeteries become further politicized by visits of high-ranking governmental officials.

  7. Positive initiatives exist, however, such as Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, or President Nelson Mandela visiting the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria – often seen as embodying the policy of apartheid – in 2002. Integrated into a broader political strategy, memorialization can help to transform political realities, catalysing needed social debate on past crimes or events.

III. A normative framework: the emergence of memorialization standards

  1. The increasing trend in memorialization became institutionalized between 1997 and 2005, involving many actors in different forums and propelling States exiting conflicts or periods of repression to engage in active memorial policies, using increasingly similar modalities. Western memorial models commemorating the victims of Nazism, while not always the most adequate or appropriate, have become a template or at least a political and aesthetic inspiration for the representation of past tragedies or mass crimes.

  2. Alongside official, usually top-down, memorials are initiatives driven from below by artists, political groups or communities determined to publicly recall the memory of victims overlooked or denied by State policies. For example, this bottom-up trend led to the creation of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in 1999. There are countless grassroots and civil society memorial initiatives on all continents that may complement, react to, or even directly oppose representations of official historiography.

A. The Joinet-Orentlicher and the Van Boven-Bassiouni Principles

  1. At the international level, two sets of basic principles have been developed in the area of reparations and the fight against impunity, which must be taken into consideration.

  2. First, Louis Joinet, the former Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, listed a Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through actions to combat impunity, focused on four pillars of transitional justice: the rights to know, to justice and to reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/20/Rev.1). The right to know is defined not only as the right of individual victims or close relatives to know what happened (the right to truth), but also as a “collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future” (Ibid., para. 17). According to Principle No. 2, “A people’s knowledge of the history of its oppression is part of its heritage and, as such, must be preserved by appropriate measures in fulfilment of the State’s duty to remember. Such measures shall be aimed at preserving the collective memory from extinction and, in particular, at guarding against the development of revisionist and negationist arguments.”

  3. Mr. Joinet affirmed the need for actions based on memorialization: “On a collective basis, symbolic measures intended to provide moral reparation, such as formal public recognition by the State of its responsibility, or official declarations aimed at restoring victims’ dignity, commemorative ceremonies, naming of public thoroughfares or the erection of monuments, help to discharge the duty of remembrance” (Ibid., para. 42). Mr. Joinet’s Set of Principles was expanded upon by Diane Orentlicher, the independent expert appointed to update the Set of Principles, to become the Updated Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity, with similar elements on the duty to preserve memory (E/CN.4/2005/102 and Add.1).

  4. Principles developed in other reports by the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission, Theo van Boven (E/CN.4/1997/104), and the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, Cherif Bassiouni (E/CN.4/2000/62), formed the basis for the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, adopted by the General Assembly in resolution 60/147.

  5. In that resolution, the General Assembly reiterated that memorial processes are part of the broader issue of reparations and recognized that satisfaction should include, where applicable and amongst other important elements such as verification of the facts and full and public disclosure of the truth, an official declaration or a judicial decision restoring the dignity, the reputation and the rights of the victim and of persons closely connected with the victim; a public apology, including acknowledgement of the facts and acceptance of responsibility; commemorations and tributes to the victims and inclusion of an accurate account of the violations that occurred in international human rights law and international humanitarian law training and in educational material at all levels.

  6. United Nations mechanisms have not yet undertaken a global study to examine memorial practices in the light of these principles. However, some United Nations reports relating to specific country contexts usefully draw attention to this subject. For example, the mapping report of 2010 on human rights abuses committed between 1993 and 2003 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo forcefully stresses the need to preserve the memory of the violations and, examining concrete examples, points out the danger of memorialization inciting revenge.15 Similarly, the report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on its mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina concluded that the issue of memorials had caused much controversy and unhappiness in the country (A/HRC/16/48/Add.1, para. 48). The Working Group also carefully considered the implementation of the recommendations of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission of Morocco regarding community reparations, including the conversion of former detention centres into memorials (A/HRC/13/31/Add.1, paras. 56-66).

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