Casas de la Memoria to Conviction?

From “casas de la memoria” in Guatemala, Peru, and El Salvador to an upcoming international colloquium in Spain entitled “From Past to Future: Memory and the Process of Transition,” the development of collective memory – an enduring and shared memory of events – is taking center stage as one path toward healing the wounds of a tattered national conscience and preventing the recurrence of mass atrocities. But to what extent is collective memory compatible with judicial systems, which tend to be very individual-centered?

An annual online symposium co-hosted by Opinio Juris and NYU Journal of International Law and Politics (JILP) that went live this morning is exploring this very question. The focus of the symposium is The (Re)collection of Memory After Mass Atrocity and the Dilemma for Transnational Justice, my article that was recently published in Volume 47, Number 4, of NYU JILP.

The impetus for this article arises from the challenges I encountered in working with survivors of mass atrocity. The indivisibility of their memory struck me, as did the healing and bonds it generated. As I began to examine the literature on collective memory, I realized that I was not alone in this observation. Scholars from disciplines ranging from sociology to clinical psychology have written about and documented collective memory and its cathartic effects.

My article explores the tension between the preservation of collective memory and another impulse that follows mass atrocity: the desire for justice. Because many judicial systems are heavily influenced by notions of individualism, they are by design ill equipped to accommodate collective memory. Traditional rules of evidence and professional conduct often exhibit a single-minded focus on individual representation by replicating models that assume one client who autonomously makes legal decisions without consulting his or her community. Bound by these rules, attorneys must disrupt or even dismantle collective memory, thereby retraumatizing their clients.

In this article, I offer an alternative. I believe that human rights attorneys should instead endeavor to preserve and promote collective memory. For that reason, I urge a fundamental rethinking of the law’s preference for individual memory in the context of transitional justice. I believe that the inclusion of collective memory would better serve the goals of transitional justice by facilitating a more complete understanding of the collective harms of mass atrocity and possibly advancing reconciliation.

Today and tomorrow, Opinio Juris will feature comments on my article from four distinguished scholars:

Mark A. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Law Institute at Washington & Lee University.
Naomi Roht-Arriaza is Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Hastings College of Law (and a fellow IntLawGrrl!Ed.).
Ruti Teitel is Ernst C. Stiefel Professor of Comparative Law at New York Law School.
Johan D. van der Vyver is the I.T. Cohen Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Emory University School of Law.

Tomorrow, I will respond to their comments. I welcome you to join the conversation by posting your thoughts here.

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