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Truth, Justice and Memory

“Truth, justice and memory”: over the last thirty years these have been the watchwords of the movement of human rights and families of the victims in Argentina, Chile, Peru, and other Latin American countries. With these words they sought, as Juan Méndez puts it, “the elucidation of events that have been deliberately kept in the dark, the valorization of truth over lies, and the recognition that the victims of the abuse of power deserve that their suffering be remembered.” Truth, justice and memory also refer, in different ways, to moral principles, public institutions and concepts in the social sciences and historical research. We have asked specialists in three disciplines relevant to the study of recent history to situate the importance and significance of these terms in their fields of expertise. They include the philosopher Paul Ricœur (who was still amongst us when his contribution was translated), the sociologist Marie-Claire Lavabre, and the jurist Juan Méndez.

In “History and Memory: The Writing of History and the Representation of the Past” (Spanish version), Paul Ricœur takes up certain premises presented in La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Seuil, 2000), his great penultimate work. History and memory, he points out, are two ways of representing the past – one through scholarly reconstitution and the other through remembrance. How can one be sure that history has been true to what happened? The historian, to be sure, promises the reader a true account. But how can he or she keep the promise? What in fact makes his or her story different from fiction? The historian, Ricœur argues, inherits this problem from memory: “if the remembrance is an image, how is it not confused with fantasy, fiction or hallucination?”

Ricœur addresses the dilemma by turning to the Western philosophical tradition on memory, from Plato and Aristotle to Bergson and Heidegger. Remembrance is not so easily obtained; a multitude of obstacles delay the appearance of “this small miracle, that of happy remembrance,” which lets one say: “that’s him, that’s her, I recognize them!” The recognition of someone or something is the “unique and precarious testimony of the fidelity of memory” that one can rely on. He examines the difficulties that memory must confront before it can pretend to an accurate and truthful image “of something about what is absent.”

These same tribulations await the historian. At several points, from collecting sources to crafting a narrative, he or she is presented with “the alternative of belief or doubt.” Is this witness who assures us that something important happened –“I was there, believe me”– trustworthy? To what degree? “Yet,” as Ricœur notes, “we don’t have anything better than a witness that allows us to say, something happened and someone says he was present.”

The philosopher exhorts historians, despite the odds, to trust their capabilities to adequately represent past reality –to maintain the conviction (inherited from the Enlightenment) that, through reason, one can succeed in knowing the past and not simply produce a discourse about it. We can have trust, says Ricoeur in another part of his work, because we conceive ourselves as “historical beings” – our consciousness of being is consciousness of time lived, and it is this that gives us the certainty that the past did exist: our conviction of “that which once was” is thus based on our personal experience of “having been.”

During the 1970s and 1980s in Western societies, the word “memory” took on a new meaning, beyond mental function and remembrance. In “Maurice Halbwachs and the Sociology of Memory” (Spanish version), Marie-Claire Lavabre begins her analysis by asking why this new notion of memory emerged. Though vague, she argues, memory captures the parts of the past that people find meaningful today but which historical knowledge does not account for.

This recent vogue for memory in this new sense led to the rediscovery of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and his notion of collective memory, developed in the 1920s and following decades. But Halbwachs’ very popularity led to distortions of his incomplete but quite original ideas about the ways that society and social groups give origin to individual memory. Lavabre’s contribution here is a useful corrective. In Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris, 1925) and the subsequent texts gathered together in La Mémoire collective (posthumous first edition, Paris, 1950), Halbwachs points out that individuals are only able to remember by recourse to common markers – dates, places, names, etc. In using them, individuals experience being part of social groups. Because individuals remember as members of social groups, memory and forgetfulness should be understood to be shaped by group imperatives and actions in the present.

Collective memory is no longer a sociological abstraction or a metaphor to get at the idea that a society or a group remembers, commemorates its past, and celebrates its identity. It becomes the fundamental reality. It is not group memory, that is to say, collective memory patterned after the model of individual memory, neither is it the sum of individuals’ memories. It is, rather, the very condition that makes individual remembrances possible. And, as such, it fulfills a social function of integration.
In “The Human Right to the Truth: Lessons Learned From Latin American Experiences with Truth Telling” (Spanish version), Juan E. Méndez examines official truth commissions and their contributions to social peace after periods of massive and systematic violations of human rights. These commissions were created in various countries over the last 20 years (starting with Argentina in 1984) in a larger context of developments in international human rights. Here he is particularly concerned with the emerging principle of a right to the truth as it relates to truth sought by these commissions. Although a “right to truth” is not found explicitly in human rights instruments, it can be perceived, he believes, in authorized interpretations of related norms in other terrains.

Méndez begins his article with a series of questions to define his effort to assess the experience of Latin America’s dozen truth commissions.

Do official truth telling mechanisms contribute to sustainable peace? Why or why not? How do we know? It is difficult to offer a general answer to these questions. First, it seems dangerous to generalize, since societies deal with their pasts in the ways they consider most appropriate to their situations. Some societies may choose to hide the past — or at least refrain from any effort to disclose and debate it (as did Cambodia and Mozambique, or earlier, Uruguay). Even in those cases, however, it should be possible to explore whether the policy in effect contributed to peace or not, and at what cost. Another difficulty is related to the moment at which we attempt an analysis: Is it possible to examine contributions to peace when many of the truth-telling efforts are still occurring? How much time must pass before we can adequately assess such a contribution? Whether truth-telling efforts are essential to peace or not, they are rapidly becoming a staple in peace processes and transitions from dictatorial to democratic rule in many parts of the world. For that reason, perhaps the question should be framed differently: What method of discovering and disclosing the truth about the recent past best serves the interest of peace?
Méndez draws various conclusions about how these experiences of truth-telling have been fruitful. Of particular interest for historians are his observations about the historical narratives commissions produce in their final reports. These relate, for example, to searching for evidence and assessing it soundly in order to establish the truth; to presenting an significant body of new facts about past realities but also to explaining structural causes shaping them; and above all, to produce an interpretation of the process that will stand the test of time and contribute to a “shared history.” All of this reminds us of why a solid truth commission report can constitute a paradigmatic historical narrative of enduring importance to understanding of a violent past.

Translation by Lea Fletcher
Centro de Derechos Humanos, Universidad Alberto Hurtado
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