On Holocaust Remembrance Day, gratitude for archives preserving histories of post-WWII war crimes trials


LOS ANGELES – On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am honored to be spending this month at the USC Shoah Foundation, reviewing testimonies of persons who did their part to set right one of history’s terrible wrongs.

Seventy-three years ago today, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp located about 45 miles west of Kraków, Poland. Liberations of other camps by other Allied forces soon followed; among them, the U.S. liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, and the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen 4 days later.

Sixty years later, a 2005 U.N. General Assembly resolution set this date aside for commemoration of World War II atrocities; to quote the resolution, of

“… the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities …”

The resolution further:

  • honored “the courage and dedication shown by the soldiers who liberated the concentration camps”;
  • rejected “any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event”;
  • envisaged the Holocaust as “a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”;
  • denounced “all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur”; and
  • encouraged initiatives designed to “inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.”

Among the many such initiatives are memorial centers and foundations throughout the world – 2 of which have helped me in my own research into the roles that women played during postwar international criminal trials at Nuremberg.

In December, the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, located in Glen Cove, New York, opened its archives to me. Special thanks to Helen  Turner, archivist and Director of Youth Education, for her assistance.

This month, as the inaugural Breslauer, Rutman and Anderson Research Fellow, I am in residence at the University of Southern California, examining documents in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. It has been a fruitful and moving scholarly experience, and I look forward to sharing my research at a public lecture on campus at 4 p.m. this Tuesday, Jan. 30 (as I was honored to do last week at UCLA Law’s Promise Institute for Human Rights; video here). Special thanks to all at the foundation’s Center for Advanced Research – Wolf Gruner, Martha Stroud, Badema Pitic, Isabella Evalynn Lloyd-Damnjanovic, and Marika Stanford-Moore – and to the donors who endowed the research fellowship. (Fellowship info here.)

As reflected in the 2005 General Assembly resolution, the work of such institutions helps to entrench – and to prevent backsliding from – states’ promises to ensure and respect human rights and dignity norms, set out in instruments like the 1945 Charter of the United Nations, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To this list I would add the many documents establishing international criminal fora to prosecute persons charge with violating such norms – from  the Nuremberg-era tribunals through to today’s International Criminal Court.

(Cross-posted from Diane Marie Amann; image credit)

“Vietnam/War/Memory/Justice: A Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen,” Feb. 14 at Georgia Law

nguyenGeorgia Law’s Dean Rusk International Law Center, for which I serve as director, will host a roundtable on the legacies of the U.S.-Vietnam War as part of next week’s visit here by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a University of Southern California professor whose first novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

nothingEntitled “Vietnam/War/Memory/Justice: A Conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen,” our roundtable will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. this Tuesday, February 14, in the Larry Walker Room on the 4th floor of the law school’s Dean Rusk Hall.

The topic of the roundtable is drawn from Nguyen’s 2016 work, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which itself was nominated for the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. (Nguyen’s newest book, a short-story collection titled The Refugees, was published yesterday.) In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen writes:

“Memory, like war, is often asymmetrical.”

The same may be said of justice; in particular, of efforts to right the wrongs done during armed conflict and similar extreme violence. These issues of transitional justice, memory, and war will be explored in the roundtable, at which Nguyen will be joined by:

tiana-mTiana S. Mykkeltvedt, Georgia Law alumna, member of the Dean Rusk International Law Center Council, and partner at the Atlanta law firm Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, who was flown out of Vietnam as an orphan in April 1975 in what came to be known as Operation Babylift; and

amann► Yours truly, Diane Marie Amann, Associate Dean for International Programs & Strategic Initiatives and Emily & Ernest Woodruff Chair in International Law at Georgia Law, who also serves as the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Special Adviser on Children in & affected by Armed Conflict.

Roundtable space is limited, and registration, available here, is recommended. For more information, contact ruskintlaw@uga.edu.

Our Center is especially pleased to sponsor this event, given that our namesake, the late Dean Rusk, a Georgia Law professor, and served as U.S. Secretary of State during the first years of the Vietnam War. The Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the Vietnamese American Bar Association of Georgia, and Georgia Law’s Asian Law Students Association are cosponsoring the roundtable. It will be the last in a series of Global Georgia events hosted by other university units, most notably the Department of Comparative Literature and the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts:

► 4 p.m. Monday, February 13, in the university Chapel, Nguyen will deliver the 3d Annual Betty Jean Craige Lecture of the Department of Comparative Literature, entitled “Nothing Ever Dies: Ethical Memory and Radical Writing in The Sympathizer.” For information, contact Professor Peter D. O’Neill at pon@uga.edu.

► 6-7 p.m. Sunday, February 12, at Avid Bookshop, 493 Prince Avenue in downtown Athens, a book-signing of The Refugees.

(Cross-posted from Exchange of Notes)

Memory Battles and National Human Rights Trials

I teach transitional justice at New England Law | Boston, and this past week I began the unit on national human rights trials. This topic is one of my favorites due largely to my experience observing national human rights trials like that of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and former Guatemalan leader José Efraín Ríos Montt.
Fujimori is currently serving a twenty-five year sentence in Peru for his role in serious human rights crimes during the 1990s while president; while Ríos Montt has been under house arrest awaiting the resumption of his trial since 2013,  when the Guatemalan Constitutional Court pointed to procedural errors as a reason to annul his conviction for crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in massacres of indigenous communities in 1982-83.

While observing both trials, I was fascinated by the media coverage of these proceedings and how the  local coverage of these historical trials impacted public debates outside of the courtroom.   My own research and writing on this topic seeks to respond to the fact that, generally speaking, we often forget the important role of media in transmitting the content of human rights trials although it can dramatically influence the overall transitional justice process.

In my recent article, “Memory Battles: Guatemala’s Public Debates and the Genocide Trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt“, I conducted a systematic evaluation of news reports and opinion pieces from local news outlets to study the nuances of Guatemala’s debate over whether or not the country had suffered a genocide. What I discovered was a “memory battle” about interpretations of the past war. Based on these findings, I challenge the idea that transitional justice mechanisms will naturally lead to a collective memory that results in a widespread societal condemnation of human rights violations. Instead, I draw from the field of memory studies to debunk the assumption that there is a smooth path towards a national narrative about atrocity. Different societal actors accompany the transitional justice process, actively and purposefully seeking to use judicial and non-judicial justice mechanisms to construct public memories that fit within their own interpretations and political agendas resulting in many contested versions of the past.
This situation presents a paradox for transitional justice advocates: On the one hand, tolerating expression of different interpretations and opinions of the past promotes the ideals of democracy. However, when versions of the past justify or explain away atrocity, they challenge the political project of building a culture of rights and the rule of law. I decided to examine how this paradox plays out when a transitional justice project includes national criminal trials given that most scholarship focuses more directly on the relationship between truth commissions and memory. I found that, up until now, scholars often wrote about memory and trials based on theoretical speculations as opposed to empirical research. This narrow focus can best be explained by the fact that transitional justice evolved as a response to the inability or unwillingness to conduct criminal trials, a trend that has begun to change only in the last decade with a rise in national human rights trials especially in Latin America.

I conclude my article by arguing that a country’s long term interpretation of its past, and its agenda for the future, depends on which camp of memory-makers in a transitional justice setting wins this memory battle. It is my position that a collective memory is the first step towards cultivating its collective consciousness which leads to a conscience that can influence how its members buy into this culture of rights, accountability, equality and other essential attributes to sustainable peace. Importantly, it is often the nature of the memory making process itself, as opposed to a final memory product that predicts the outcome of memory surrounding national human rights trials.

Based on my close study of the media and memory-making in transitional justice settings, I strongly  recommend that any  new  transitional justice project should consciously contemplate the role of memory production in its design and implementation.