Rebuilding the Vanquished: Memorialisation as meaningful Restorative Justice

Dr. Christopher Mitchell, a renowned historian and voice of influence in the scholarship on reconciliation, in our session on reconciliation warned us that no one says that this is going to be easy. He soberly and impactfully regaled us with long and painful tales of unimaginable horror, before prompting us to think about substantial efforts to reconcile. This led us down many dark corridors in theories on how to rebuild societies and polities in the wake of intense violence and hatred. For two days straight the participants of the Summer Peacebuilding Program wrestled with various notions of reconciliation, and the meanings within the term.

Dr. Mitchell’s sessions provokes deep thought and emotive debate. This is not only owing to his teaching style or our various interdisciplinary backgrounds, but because reconciliation is a loaded term. Reconciliation takes almost countless forms, and meaningful reconciliation is something that is highly subjective; highly dependent upon the situation and the affected population. Indeed, volumes of journals and books could be produced on the issue of how best to reconcile and under what conditions, but in an attempt to provide meaningful analysis, this post will only confront one issue with reconciliation: the issue of restoration¬†for those who have lost what they cannot regain.

Dr. Mitchell pointed out to us that in any reconciliation effort, restorative justice included, victims certainly need to be cared for, but that perpetrators of violence need to be accounted for. I reckon that with our human instincts and justice-oriented viewpoints in mind, few of us would disagree. Indeed, restoration doesn’t always have to be taxing for perpetrators and authorities to acknowledge. Properties can be restored, artwork can be restored, and so on. But when the physically intangible is vanquished, how can restoration be meaningful? That is, when human existence is damaged, impaired or lost altogether, what can be done to restore it? To but it crudely, landmine victims cannot grow their original limbs back, rape victims can’t be unraped, and victims of bloody massacres cannot be resurrected, and trauma cannot be forgotten. Yet while peacebuilders and apologetic perpetrators alike cannot replace the irreplaceable, there is room to repair damage and heal wounds.

Financial compensation has been said to be insulting, and apologies can be seen as insincere, but there is much to be said within the field of restorative justice for memorialisation, and it certainly goes a long way. Whether it takes the form of physical memorials, days of remembrance, bursaries and scholarships or honours for victims, there are many purported benefits of the memorialisation approach. The establishment of any form of memorialisation can be comforting to victims in that they can be reassured that their plight will not be forgotten and some fear that violence may recur can be quelled, for memorialisation often represents lessons learned from violence. It is also an important form of acknowledgement by figures of authority that wrongs were committed and can be more tangible than a verbal apology. It also permits a physical space to grieve, and promotes an idea of collective memory and collective mourning, not only for lives lost, but for the suffering caused by violence.

Memorialisation is a deeply humane effort at restorative justice, but it is effective memorialisation too often faces obstacles, namely from perpetrators of violence. When there is insufficient acknowledgement¬†of past wrongs, memory becomes not collective but contested, and memorialisation becomes not unifying but political. A good example of this is the Serbian government’s continuing refusal to recognise the genocide of Bosniak Muslims at Srebrenica, and the impact that has had on what are intended to be peaceful memorial ceremonies, but as recently as this year, have been interrupted by disturbances. The memorialisation of the Srebrenica genocide is a good example of how when memorialisation becomes politicised, conflicted parties do not become reconciled meaningfully, as those who establish such memorials would intend, but rather conflict itself becomes encouraged, and the goalposts tighten in the pursuit for peace.

This explains why there should be a role for the perpetrators of violence in the memorialisation process. This is in the interest of the perpetrator if the perpetrator has retained a position of power either domestically or internationally, (as is the case with the Serbian government, to employ the Srebrenica example once more), for when a perpetrator does not acknowledge a wrongdoing of any nature for which it is widely deemed responsible, it damages its own legitimacy.

Much more can be said about the establishment of meaningful restorative justice through memorialisation, but I argue that prior to, or perhaps coupled with restorative justice must come independent truth commissions. This is because memorials are deeply meaningful to their victims, and that meaning may be compromised if the horrors that brought about the need to remember are not brought to light. Hence, the truth is needed, and it needs to be presented to the public in a way that is not only thorough, but irrefutable. What we have learned from Dr. Mitchell is that truth commissions need to satisfy victims and expose perpetrators, in a dignified manner, but that when a harsh light is shed upon the truth, it exposes more for us to remember, and enhances the credibility of memorials, and firmly establishes an objective and virtuous collective memory, offering more tools for a meaningful restorative justice. After all, reconciliation cannot be built on mysteries and falsehood.