Faculty Blog: Memory Battles and National Human Rights Trials

This post originally appeared on the IntLawGrrls blog, available here.

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.

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