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Products of Memorialisation

A Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, Polybius wrote in his work The Histories (V,11) “... the finality of war is not to punish the guilty but to re-establish law…. a noble custom forbade the erecting of stone or bronze trophies on a battlefield; only wooden trophies were allowed – so that there should be no perpetual symbol of enmity” (Fitzmaurice, 1957). From this UNIFORM NOVEMBER'S perspective, Polybius’s quote is helpfully thought-provoking in two compelling ways. Firstly, it suggests the dramatic change yet a faintly familiar approach to peace-building after war, its context and the purpose of post-conflict[1] memorials and reconciliation[2]. Secondly, the quote or its reinterpretation, “In ancient Greek city states, battlefields memorials were deliberately constructed of wood to enable erosion opening possibilities for reconciliation between former enemies” (Shaheed, 2014), has surfaced, giving purchase to a report addressing, “memorialization processes of past events in post conflict and divided societies” (A/HRC/25/49), the report was commissioned by the General Assembly of the United Nations[3]. The quote was used to ‘compare and contrast’ the current complexities of contemporary post-conflict memorialization, whilst acknowledging the urgent need for a contemporary code of ethics and approach to memory after conflict. Shaheed’s final recommendation in her 2014 report[4] was, “that a compendium be prepared on good memorialization practices, highlighting difficulties encountered and results achieved.”

In many ways, prior to the 2014 report, the idea of managing memory as a means to supporting reconciliation began to form in earnest during the 1980s with the combination of controversial concepts such as the “Duty to Remember” (Goldberg, 2000) and the public memorialisation of past crimes in order to establish or redefine national unity, thus helping to prevent further violence whilst recognising the growing demand for recognition, from victims and society at large.

After the cold war ended in 1991 war and the management of memory changed, organisations such as the United Nations which evolved rapidly from an institution with a mainly peacekeeping role, to the biggest and most powerful intergovernmental organization in the world, founded on the belief in liberal democracy and responsible for “maintaining international peace and security, promoting human rights, fostering social and economic development, protecting the environment, and providing humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict” (QCWA, 2018).

The 1990s conflicts were different, civilians were bearing the brunt of atrocities, the term ‘New War’ (Kaldor, 2013) was being used and with-it memorialization was evolving and becoming a political and socio-cultural imperative in the subsequent reconciliation processes. With the re-use of the World War I watchword ‘Never again’ came a reframing of the UN’s transitional justice and reconciliation model.

Products of Memorialisation became popular contemporary means of combating injustice and promoting peace and reconciliation although despite the appearance of organisations such as the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in1984 and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (the Coalition) in 1999, the research and design behind these new tools for post-conflict reconciliation appears to have remained in the 1940’s.

One could even argue, that the ideas behind memorialisation haven’t evovled much since Polybious wrote of the reconciliatory theory behind the ancient Greek battlefield monuments made from wood. In so much as they were designed and erected to honour the brave dead combatants by the elites on one side or the other, with little or no mention of how one might address and recognise the spolia, slavery or the social impact suffered by societies as they wrestle with the everyday memories of during and after these brutal battles.


[1] For the purpose of this paper, I refer to post-conflict as a term to describe the period immediately after a conflict is over. It is important to explain that that the term ‘post-conflict’ is however, highly politicized due to the consequences that it entails for the state and the society, which is labelled post-conflict. The phase also implies that conflict has ended. However, it is important to acknowledge that even though direct violence may have reduced there are other forms of violence that still remain (Galtung, 1969). Brown, Langer and Stewart suggest, “taking a process-oriented approach means that “post-conflict” countries should be seen as lying along a transition continuum (in which they sometimes move backwards), rather than placed in more or less arbitrary boxes, of being “in conflict” or “at peace” (Brown, Langer and Stewart, 2011).

[2] For the purpose of this paper, I refer to reconciliation as a multilevel process that involves national-level responsibility but also requires coordination and holistic approaches to promote social reconstruction

at many levels of society. Various processes—legal, social, political, and economic (Barsalou and Baxter 2007)

need to be at work if reconciliation is to be achieved. I recognise that there are some who are uncomfortable with the term ‘reconciliation’ and prefer the terms “social reconstruction” and “reclamation,” which are usually associated with an array of interventions to promote economic, political, and social progress, as well as identity transformation, with less emphasis on legal accountability and truth-telling.

[3] Farida Shaheed’s opening statement was the reiteration of the quote used by Miguel A. Marin, a member of The Secretariat of the United Nations, in his contribution to literature supporting, The Hague Academy of International Law, Recueil Des Cours, Collected Courses 1957, Volume 92 (Marin, 1957).

[4] The ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights,’ was written in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 19/6 (A/HRC/25/49).

[5] The name "United Nations", coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt was first used in the “Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their Governments to continue fighting together against the Axis Powers” (Charter of the United Nations, 1945).

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