Book Review: The Performance of Memory as Transitional Justice

The Performance of Memory as Transitional Justice. Eds. S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli. Intersentia, 2015.

This edited collection examines memory and memorialization in transitional justice processes, formal and informal, across several countries. The breadth of the book’s scope and the challenges it faces in maintaining focus are apparent in the title. While some chapters address the performance of memory, others cover the limitations of formal transitional justice mechanisms, different forms of transitional justice, the various roles narratives and conceptions of history play in these, and what can be achieved by informal and non-institutional forms of memorialization. Two central themes run through these quite disparate essays: first, the tension between individual and collective memory, and the difficulties institutions face in recovering and respecting both of these. The second theme concerns the challenge institutional processes face in achieving national aims of unity and reconciliation after injustice, while at the same time recognizing the complexity and diversity of memory among individuals affected by atrocities?

The chapters are divided into three sections: the first, and most clearly focused, deals with the potential and limits of formal transitional justice mechanisms. Margaret Urban Walker offers a useful summary account of truth commissions in general, pointing out that they tend to focus on technical, practical, methodological and organizational issues raised by investigations and hearings, rather than on moral and political questions. The fundamental question for her is: can truth commissions give a full structural and political account of abuse through telling individual stories? Moreover, the testimony of survivors who do not conform to the overall narrative tends, inevitably, to be excluded. Truth commissions, she concludes, are important but limited institutions, that must operate within a broader – and longer – process of moral and political truth telling. The question of individual testimony in a broader context is taken up by Rachel López, who examines the tension between individual and collective memory in formal legal processes. As she points out, court cases focus on individual experience, leaving little space for the expression of collective memory, which is necessary to reconciliation and nation-building after historical injustice. While individual testimony of suffering – and the guilt of individual perpetrators – must remain a key focus of judicial enquiries, López suggests that provision be made for a collective voice as well, through collective victim participation and collective impact statements. The last chapter in this section, by Stephanie Wolfe and one of three on Rwanda in this book, assesses different forms of redress in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. As Walker observed of truth commissions, Wolfe shows that the official narrative excludes some survivors – in this case, those Hutu who suffered reprisal violence, and also those of Rwandans from ethnically-mixed families.

The second section of the collection examines the role played by narrative in revising national memory. These chapters present individual country cases: Danielle Celermajer discusses the impact of the Human Rights Commission in Australia’s national enquiry into the forced removal of indigenous children from their families. Hundreds of survivors of state-sponsored forcible child removal gave testimony, which was collected in the Enquiry’s report, Bringing Them Home. As Celermajer points out, these individual stories have forced the revision of Australia’s national narrative as an egalitarian society – thus achieving what she terms ‘narrative justice.’ The competing narratives are more complex in Rwanda, the subject of Annelisa Lindsay’s chapter. Lindsay shows that a narrative of socio-economic difference in Rwanda was racialized under Belgian colonialism, and then deployed to incite violence. In the wake of the genocide, the official Rwandan narrative explicitly excludes ethnic difference. Lindsay argues, however, that this prohibition on the discussion of ethnic difference does not correspond with the experience of ordinary Rwandans. She reiterates that reprisal violence suffered by Hutu is not recognized, although the relationship between this and the official promotion of a united national identity is not explored.

Olga Martin-Ortega and Rosa Ana Alija-Fernánde explore the limitations of official reckoning and reparation for the violence and injustices in Spain during the Civil War and Francoist regime. Here the problem is less one of competing narratives; rather, a revisionist national narrative acknowledging human rights violations and suffering has not developed. The authors conclude that the Historical Memory Law of 2007 emphasized the recognition of individual and family memory, rather than collective memory – although state recognition and admission appear to be required. While they do not explicitly point this out, this and the previous chapter on Rwanda demonstrate that collective memory and state policy do not necessarily map on to one another. The final chapter in this section takes a different approach to the issue of narrative, by looking to the perpetrators. Rafi Nets-Zehngut reports on changes in the ways in which Israeli soldier veterans of the 1948 War of Independence report on the Palestinian Exodus. While early narratives overwhelmingly took the Zionist view that Palestinians left willingly, since the late 1970s, more memoirs admit that Palestinians were forcibly expelled by Israeli troops. The author argues that this shift has helped to legitimize political sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause, and thus functions as a transitional justice mechanism. This seems to me to be a difficult claim to support: it is not clear whether this shift in veteran narratives has led to political attitude changes, or rather reflects them.

The least cohesive section of the book, is the last: ‘Memory work as transitional justice.’ Some chapters focus on community, rather than state-sponsored memory: S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli discuss local projects for memorialization of a massacre in the Nigerian village of Asaba, which occurred during the Civil War in 1967, and the role that their research may play in allowing the full complexities of villagers’ experiences to be told. In a third chapter on Rwanda, and an unusually positive assessment of memorialization in this volume, Jessica Auchter argues that rather than exercising control over the official narrative of the genocide, the government has allowed local communities to determine what form memorials should take. These have been subject to contestation and negotiation in communities, and as a result, they represent some of the diversity of survivor and victim experience, which might otherwise be excluded. In a chapter perhaps better suited to the second section of the book, Brigittine M. French argues that the testimonies of victims of the civil war in Guatemala circulated in the West where they were misrecognized as ‘highly individualized experiences’ that naturalized and depoliticized the violence of the region.

Finally, Oscar Hemer suggests that literature can play a unique role as ‘truth teller’ and ‘witness bearer’ in revealing the complex and full story behind historical injustices. He comments that literary works cannot compete with contemporary eye-witness accounts, where they exist, but this distinction is dismantled in the poem by Hunt Hawkins that constitutes the last chapter of this book. The speaker in the poem recounts his experience of visiting Majdenek, as a witness after the fact, to the physical traces of the Holocaust.
The organization of these essays is not always obvious – perhaps a reflection of the fact that the scope of the book is not clearly defined. Moreover, while some chapters engage with underlying questions in transitional justice around collective, individual and official memory, several are primarily descriptive. And the fact that the chapters are quite short means that some consist largely in setting out the details of the case under review. Nevertheless, this collection will be a useful first reference for students and scholars who wish to explore the complexities and challenges involved in transitional justice and the uses and complexities of historical memory.

Katherine Smits,
University of Auckland