Memory Laws: Criminalizing Historical Narratives

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On the weekend of October 27 and 28, Columbia University Seminars hosted a two-day conference on Historical Narratives and Memory Laws. The conference was scheduled as part of a University Seminar titled “History, Redress and Reconciliation,” chaired by Elazar Barkan, director of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

The seminar’s self-proclaimed objective is to “forge a more structured exchange among scholars and practitioners who engage a set of issues that are yet to self-identify as an academic field, and is addressed in different disciplinary spaces.” The content-heavy weekend proved to serve that objective. Memory laws embody state-approved understandings of historical events, with the criminalization of historical narratives becoming more commonplace. The conference dealt with issues of memory legislation in countries from East Europe to Africa, where governments and parliaments have been tackling the problem of historical narrative, memory and redress over the last few decades as they try to shape contemporary politics vis a vis past atrocities.

The first day of the conference introduced two very different panels. The first one, chaired by Agi Legutko of Columbia University, dealt with the politics of history in East Europe, specifically in former Soviet republics and Poland. Jan Gross of Princeton University taught conference goers of the Polish government’s attempts at re-writing history, all part of constructing a new national narrative with nationalistic undertones. Eva Clarita Pettai of Jena University and Niklolay Koposov of Emory University introduced attendees to the different approaches of Baltic and other Eastern European states toward communist and Nazi crimes. Lastly, the audience discovered, in a lecture by Tarik Amar of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, about Ukraine’s attempts at redress and reshaping of WWII, its causes and effects, again all a part of a nationalistic legislative processes.

An underlying theme of this first panel was the distinction between two very different sets of memory laws: Those that serve a cosmopolitan, universal attempt at redress, such as laws pertaining to the holocaust or other atrocities, and those that serve a nationalistic, victimized narrative of a state seeking to re-establish its own place. This second set of memory laws are usually much more forgiving toward the state’s own past wrong-doing, while harsher on any enemy that has caused it harm. Under such laws, for instance, Ukraine has seen past Nazi collaborators become heroes after they fought against the USSR’s advances in the East.

The second panel of the day saw legal-oriented experts discuss the comparative legal perspectives on issues of human rights, memory laws and free speech. Robert Kahn of the University of St. Thomas School of Law and Jonathan Bush of Columbia Law School discussed the place of memory laws in American society and the influences of social media on free speech and hate speech, offering a cautious view of the role of classic law in contemporary American politics.

The conference dealt with criminalizing remembrance in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Japan. // Gil Serpereau // Flickr

The second day of the conference, which took place on Columbia’s East Campus, focused on the ways different states cope with past atrocities and use them to construct more nationalistic narratives. This is often done via the utilization of memory laws as key features in a government’s tool box. The first session of the day dealt with criminalizing remembrance in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Japan. Lars Waldorf of York Law School, Victoria Sanford of CUNY, and Yukiko Koga of Hunter College discussed the ways in which law is used to rebuild, reclaim and sometimes completely tear down historical memory in an attempt to reconstruct societal values and narratives after past atrocities have ended.

The second session, chaired by Barkan, discussed history and denialism in the Middle East. It featured Ben Gurion University’s Yifat Gutman, who discussed the Israeli Nakba Law, the University of Michigan’s Müge Göçek, who expanded on Turkey’s silencing of criticism, and Brown’s Omer Bartov, who elaborated on the triangle of historical redress by Israel, Poland and Ukraine.

Historical violence and contemporary legal narratives were the focus of the day’s final session. It featured discussion of Spain’s “memory wars” and the issue of “eruptions of memory,” where past memory resurfaces due to contemporary events to create a shakedown of a state’s entire societal structure. Henry Rousso of the French National Center for Scientific Research touched on French memory laws and “the crisis of the republican model,” while Dubravka Stojanović of the University of Belgrade elaborated on the continuation of Yugoslavian wars through historical redress that persists despite the wars being long over.

The conference demonstrated the different ways in which countries from all around the world are trying to silence, ignore or simply erase history in order to rebuild a state or to solidify a dominant group’s position within it. Thus, a case can be made that Rwanda, a nation that saw genocide run amuck across the land, is now trying to create a whole new narrative that completely re-tells the story of racial relations and balance, for example. On the other hand, in Israel or Spain (and many other states), the state is fully engaged in trying to rewrite history in such a way that it does not include past atrocities – the Palestinian Nakba or the Republican defeat, respectively.

In an interview with RightsViews after the conference, Barkan explained that there is currently a greater understanding by national governments of historical narrative as a creator and designer of national identity. He explained that, while he does not personally believe in memory laws as a way to allow progress, “the point of the conference was to take stock of this kind of cascade of laws that cover various countries around the world. Otherwise, we tend to turn the papers from it to an edited volume that would lay out a spectrum of memory laws around the globe.”

Ultimately, Barkan noted that the relationship between human rights and history is a very close one. “The legacy of past atrocities is continuous, and as such has great relevancy to human rights in the present – and the future,” he said. “Upholding or oppression of human rights is very much shaped by historical memory, in the sense that incitement is bound to lead to further violations of human rights. So, the whole project of historical dialogue is embedded in the perception that human rights are predicated on redress, which is closely related to the value and manifestation of human rights in contemporary society. Discussion of memory laws then is primarily important due to the challenge they present to human rights.”

Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a current student of the History, Redress and Reconciliation seminar and a blog writer for RightsViews. 



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