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Colombia-FARC peace talks: evaluating the transitional justice agreement

By Amaury A. Reyes-Torres

After years of conflict and failed attempts to reach a peace agreement, there was a significant breakthrough in the latest round of negotiations, which began in 2010, between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group.

On Sept. 23, Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, and Rodrigo Londoño Echeveri, FARC’s high commander who is also known as “Timochenko,” released a joint declaration outlining an agreement on transitional justice, victims’ rights and reparations, the most contentious negotiation point of the ongoing peace process. This step brings Colombia closer to a comprehensive peace agreement, which would mean the end of one of the longest-lasting conflicts in the region.

Despite this significant progress, there have been mixed feelings about transitional justice agreement reached between the government of Colombia and FARC. On one side, people are supportive and hopeful about what a peace deal may actually bring to Colombia; but on the other side, critics of the agreement have been skeptical about the content and practical challenges of the transitional justice deal. Nonetheless, the outline is a step towards legal accountability, reparations and reconciliation. But two questions remain unanswered: will FARC comply with the final peace agreement? And will this recent breakthrough truly serve the principles of transitional justice?


According to the United Nations Guidelines on Transitional Justice, transitional justice is a conglomerate of judicial and extrajudicial mechanisms that help societies come to terms with widespread rights violations. These tools serve to facilitate the prevention of future conflicts or repressive rule through the promotion peace, reconciliation and rule of law. Transitional justice seeks to understand the roots of conflict, to adopt the necessary measures to prevent new ones and to pursue accountability.

Any process of transitional justice should be carried out in accordance with the principles of truth, justice and reparation, including institutional reforms, effectively addressing the need of the victims and the reconstruction of a country’s social fabric. Furthermore, the victim’s right to know the truth should carry great weight in this process. According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, states have an obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights to guarantee the right to know the truth. This may entail the creation of a truth commission to preserve historical memory and ensure accountability. After all, justice can only be served and due reparations awarded if the truth is uncovered.

Recently, a new principle has emerged that was arguably already implicit in the other three principles: the principle of non-recurrence. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, a “general commitment to adhere to a right involves making efforts to ensure that its violation ceases and is not repeated.” Thus, ensuring non-recurrence should be part of a comprehensive transitional justice strategy. This may require substantial institutional transformations to prevent new recurrence of future conflicts and with them, new human rights violations. While truth, justice and reparations serve a contributive function, the guarantee of non-recurrence serves a preventive function.

Transitions take quite some time and the peace process in Colombia is a good example of this. The Colombian conflict has been ongoing for more than 60 years. Although there have been several failed attempts to reach a peace agreement, it has only been in the last few years that substantial progress has been made, and peace may finally be a reality.


The latest agreement on transitional justice places victims at the forefront of the peace agreement. Both parties believe that the victims should be compensated and by no means left out of the peace deal that is being negotiated. The agreement would establish a special jurisdiction for peace within Colombia’s justice system. Adopting the form of an international mixed tribunal, the jurisdiction will be integrated with Colombian and international judges in order to ensure its independence and impartiality. It will serve three main functions: 1) to end impunity for crimes committed during the conflict or in connection with the conflict; 2) to uncover the truth; and 3) to investigate, judge and sanction those responsible for the gravest crimes committed during the conflict, including those who participated directly and indirectly in the commission of gross human rights violations, regardless of whether they are FARC combatants or state agents. The sanctions system must satisfy the rights of victims, help consolidate peace and have an effective reparative and restorative effect

The special jurisdiction for peace will follow two different procedures depending on who will be tried within it. One procedure will apply to those who recognize and admit to their actions. The other procedure will apply to those individuals who would claim that they have not perpetrated any crimes, and will be subject to a full trial before the tribunal. The legal consequences will vary as well. Those who recognized and admit their actions will face a sentence between five and eight years in “special conditions” that restrict their liberty, but will not be sent to regular jail. However, those who deny their responsibility, but are found guilty, will face a sentence up to 20 years in prison.

Furthermore, amnesty will be granted for political and other related crimes. However, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other related crimes, as defined under Colombia’s national law, are not eligible for amnesty. The tribunals created under the special jurisdiction for peace will hear these cases.

Another interesting point in the joint declaration is how special treatment within the special jurisdiction for peace is regulated. Any special treatment will be afforded as long as the offender tells the truth, compensates the victims and guarantees non-recurrence.

Finally, the agreement imposes an obligation on FARC. If they want to pursue any political aim of their own in Colombia, they must lay down their arms as soon as the peace agreement is signed. If they adhere to this, FARC will be transformed into a political movement that the government will support.


Though the transitional justice agreement is a monumental step forward for peace negotiations, it is not without its own set of issues. For instance, only a 10 point outline of the agreement was publicly released. The formal agreement covering all the aspects of the new special jurisdiction, are undisclosed, unknown to the Colombian people.

The secrecy surrounding the final draft of the agreement has brought about public opposition. The Colombian Attorney General, Alejandro Ordonez, and the President of the Council of State, Luis Rafael Vergara, have called for the full disclosure of the text. To calm public dissatisfaction, Ivan Marquez, the Chief of the Peace delegation for FARC, recently stated that the agreement is a document of 75 points that includes restorative sanctions. Though this was a step in the right direction, it does not make the peace process fully transparent.

Furthermore, some fear that FARC’s potential transition from guerilla group to political party may foster impunity and social divides. Under the agreement, there will be no extraditions to the U.S., and former fighters will be allowed to run for political office. The former President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, now a Senator, worries that Timochenko, the leader of FARC, might be able to run for president, exacerbating social tensions and divides. Similarly, others fear that those who committed crimes may be able to hold political power and sway, an affront to the victims of abuses. According to the Joint Declaration, the possibility that the FARC may be allowed to pursue their goals through the political system will be detailed in the final peace agreement.

Another important question is whether the accountability and amnesty provisions as proposed in the agreement will deepen impunity. José Miguel Vivanco, the Director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, stated that the agreement may allow those most responsible for human rights atrocities to escape accountability. By allowing those who committed human rights abuses to avoid time in prison, this agreement fails to administer proportionate punishments to the perpetrators of human rights abuses. Furthermore, the amnesty provision, which is meant to be broad, will extend to crimes connected to rebelling against the state, potentially including extortion, narco-trafficking and kidnapping. This, too, could contribute impunity and lack of justice.


The recent agreement on transitional justice constitutes a breakthrough that might close a complicated chapter in Colombian history. However, how both parties conduct their relations during the rest of the peace process and the implementation of the agreement itself will be crucial for justice to be ensured. Moreover, it remains to be seen if the final peace agreement will put a permanent end to conflict and paramilitary violence in Colombia, or if only FARC will be covered, among all the other paramilitary groups.

Camilo Sánchez, research coordinator of DeJusticia, said that this is not a perfect agreement but it is an agreement that will keep Colombia away from the perfect war. The agreement, however, must be as comprehensive as possible in terms of securing the rights of victims and holding those responsible of gross violation accountable. Only by doing this, Sánchez argues, can the two sides truly guarantee non-recurrence.

Time will tell if both sides are committed to truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. It is up to the public to demand a just and transparent peace process. Although peace is a complicated goal to achieve, it is a worthy one. However, peace without justice and accountability means nothing for the reconciliation process in the heart of any transitional justice paradigm.

Amaury A. Reyes-Torres is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Pedro Szekely/Creative Commons

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Colombia: the peace talks hit a bump, but move forward

By Guillermo Farias

On April 15, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked a group of Colombian army soldiers in the department of Cauca, in the southwest of the country. 11 soldiers died and another 20 suffered injuries, according to official reports. The attack broke the unilateral truce implemented by the FARC since last December.

At first glance, it would be easy to interpret this development as catastrophic or even fatal to the peace process. That is not the case. While the attack by FARC and the government’s subsequent decision to restart airstrikes against the rebels will have serious consequences and might change the dynamics in Havana, Cuba, where peace talks are taking place, the talks will go on. In fact, the government will likely be in a stronger negotiating position going forward.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, both sides sought to frame the events in a favorable way by using the language of human rights and the laws of war. So far, the government’s version of events seems to have gained more traction with public opinion in Colombia and the international community.

FARC attempted to frame the events as a defensive action, and were quick to point out that the government has continued offensive actions even after the guerilla group declared a unilateral ceasefire. FARC negotiator Félix Antonio Muñoz, who goes by the nom de guerre Pastor Alape and is in Havana for the negotiations, repeated FARC’s claim that the flare-up showed the need for a bilateral ceasefire.

The government, on the other hand, has presented some evidence that the soldiers were ambushed. Relying primarily on forensic reports, the government claims that the soldiers were attacked with explosives and high velocity rounds fired from various angles, all of which point towards offensive action on the part of the guerillas. The Attorney General, Alejandro Montealegre, said that the soldiers were attacked while they were resting and that the attack qualifies as a war crime due to the use of unconventional weapons.

So far, it seems like the government has succeeded in discrediting FARC’s claims that its fighters were defending themselves from offensive action by the military. As a result, FARC has fallen back to claiming that its high command, which has representatives in Havana, did not play a role in planning the attack.

The attacks complicate life for both sides. FARC must address the uncomfortable reality that it is not in complete control of its forces. Further, with the government going on the offensive and restarting air-strikes, the rebel group does not have time on its side.

The government, for its part, once again finds itself having to defend its decision to negotiate with FARC in the face of a public whose patience was running low even before the attack. The political opposition, including former President Alvaro Uribe, lost no time accusing the government of being soft on the guerrillas and falling into a trap by negotiating with them. However, President Santos seems to have found a way to turn the situation in his favor.

On April 18, three days after the attack and immediately after attending a ceremony for the fallen soldiers, President Santos gave an impassioned speech in which he made clear that he understood the rage Colombians felt towards FARC and put pressure on the guerrilla group to speed up the peace process. President Santos also called for the imposition of a clear time frame on the negotiations.

The implications of a demand for a time frame are clear. The government is not willing to remain at the negotiating table indefinitely, and FARC needs to seize the moment and end the conflict now, while it still has a chance to gain concessions from the government.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: n.karim/Creative Commons


BRIEFING: Everything you need to know about Colombia’s peace process


Memorial to the victims of FARC violence.

By Guillermo Farias

The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest and most-organized rebel group, started holding peace talks with the government in November 2012 in Havana, Cuba. The talks have the potential to end the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere.

In the past few weeks, the talks have entered a crucial stage and gathered momentum. In late February, the United States appointed a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, to the peace talks. Prior to Aronson’s appointment, the United States had only been peripherally involved in the talks. Adding to the momentum, on March 2, President Santos announced that five Colombian army generals would join the negotiations in Havana. While the generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, their arrival marks the first time that active duty members of the military attend talks. At this stage, the generals’ role is to develop a framework for discussion on a permanent and verifiable cease-fire that would go into effect if the talks succeed. Most recently, the two parties agreed on a joint-program to clear landmines. Colombia is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Over the past 15 years, 11,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines. Unarmed guerilla fighters will work side by side with the Colombian military and Norwegian advisors will oversee the mine-clearing program. These developments indicate that an agreement, while far from certain, is within grasp.


Territorial disputes among the Colombian military, leftwing guerrilla groups, and rightwing paramilitary groups have left more 220,000 dead and 5.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) over the past fifty years. According to the latest annual report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only Syria has more IDPs than Colombia.

FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN), the two main rebel groups operating in Colombia, were founded shortly after a period of civil unrest and war known as La Violencia. The civil war, in which the Liberal and Conservative parties battled for control of the country, lasted from 1948 to 1958. La Violencia ended with a power-sharing agreement. However, both the FARC and ELN were excluded from the deal and took up arms against the new government.

The FARC and the ELN share some broad aims but draw support from different sectors of society. The ELN was made up primarily of Catholic radicals inspired by the Vatican II Conference, students and intellectuals inspired by the Cuban Revolution. FARC, on the other hand, draws support from rural areas and is composed of peasant self-defense groups and communist militants. Despite their different support bases, both the ELN and FARC oppose the privatization of natural resources, American influence in Colombia, right-wing paramilitary groups and claim to represent the oppressed rural population in its struggle against the wealthy elite.

Both FARC and ELN have lost significant strength over the last decade. Former President Alvaro Uribe, in office from 2002 to 2010, took an aggressive stance against the rebel groups. Uribe’s aggressive efforts to weaken FARC were supported by the United States, which trained, equipped and provided covert support to the Colombian armed forces. The aggressive military strategy, despite carrying high costs, succeeded in weakening the rebel groups.

According to Colombian government statistics, the FARC had around 7,000 members in 2013, which is a steep drop from 16,000 in 2001. And the ELN is has approximately 1,400 members, significantly less than its membership in the 1990s when it was at its peak. Despite their diminished ranks, both FARC and ELN continue to attack civilians on a routine basis and continue to use antipersonnel landmines. Both groups are also involved in drug-trafficking and other organized crime activities.

The conflict in Colombia also triggered the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups. Most of these groups were demobilized in 2003, when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the largest group, entered a peace deal with the government. Under the deal, paramilitary leaders surrendered in exchange for reduced jail terms and guarantees that they would not be extradited. The framework for demobilizing paramilitary fighters has so far, over 10 years after it came into effect, allowed those responsible for atrocities to escape prosecution and punishment. Only 37 out of the more than 30,000 members of paramilitary groups who demobilized have been convicted of crimes under the framework as of September 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. Further, many members of demobilized paramilitary groups reorganized into new, less cohesive groups that routinely commit serious abuses, including disappearances, sexual violence, and killings.


The current peace negotiations began in secret in 2010 and were made public in 2012. This is not the first time that the government and FARC have sat at the negotiating table. Several previous efforts at peace have failed. However, this round of peace talks has gathered more momentum than previous efforts.

Who are the participants?

Humberto de la Calle, a former Vice-President, leads the government’s negotiating team. The government’s team also includes retired generals from the armed forces and former police officers. The FARC party is led by Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC secretariat, and includes other high-ranking members of the guerilla group.

Cuba is hosting the talks. Norway, Chile and Venezuela are acting mediators and observers.

The recently arrived active-duty generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, as they are in Havana in an advisory capacity. Bernard Aronson, the United States’ special envoy, will also play a behind-the-scenes role.

How are the talks structured?

In 2012, at around the time the talks were made public, the two sides agreed to a five-point negotiating agenda that covers:

  • Land reform
  • Political participation
  • Drug trafficking
  • Victims rights and reparations
  • Disarmament and implementation of the peace deal

The talks have two key structural features. First, the government has refused to agree to a bilateral cease-fire until the agreement is finalized. Allowing for a cease-fire before then, it argues, would incentivize the rebels to extend the talks. In December 2014, FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire. Second, there will be no partial implementation of the agreements. If the sides fail to agree to a resolution on all the agenda points, no part of the agreement will not go into effect. President Santos believes that unless the agreement completely ends the conflict, voters will think that the government made unnecessary concessions to the guerrilla.

After both sides reach an agreement on all five agenda items, they will review and finalize the agreement. The final agreement would be ratified by in a popular referendum.

What has been agreed so far?

The two sides have so far reached agreement on the first three points of the negotiating agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebel groups and drug trafficking.

The land reform agreement focuses on improving the economic and social conditions of Colombia’s beleaguered countryside and on providing land to poor farmers. The agreement on counter-narcotics policy is centered on a promise to eliminate drug production, the rebel group’s main source of resources. The partial accord on political participation provides FARC with an opportunity to enter into formal politics. The rebel group aspires to become a political party after the deal is signed.

Details of the agreements have not been released and the two sides have not been widely available to the media. This is likely an effort to limit posturing and the pitfalls that have doomed previous peace efforts.

What remains to be negotiated?

Transitional justice, the fourth agenda point, is extremely sensitive and the two sides appear to have found little common ground. The FARC has so far insisted that its members serve no time in jail. The government, on other hand, has publicly stated that it will not guarantee impunity as a condition for peace.

Former President Cesar Gaviria, who was in office from 1990 to 1994 and later served as Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has issued a proposal that centers on a transitional justice model. Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from prosecution if they confessed their involvement in human rights abuses. Lower-ranking officers of the Colombian military and those that committed crimes by “omission” would also avoid prosecution and jail time.

While Gaviria’s proposal is worthwhile and has attracted significant attention in Colombia, it has also raised some thorny and difficult issues as analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) points out. For example, why should all non-combatants avoid jail time? Many civilians were extensively involved in the conflict and likely bear responsibility for serious abuses. Should crimes of “omission” go unpunished? Many massacres committed by paramilitary forces appear to have been enabled by military inaction. Finally, lower ranking soldiers acting on their own are likely responsible for serious crimes, why should they avoid jail time simply because of their rank?

The debate over transitional justice has just begun and is likely to prove extremely complex.


The Colombian peace process has made significant progress. Peace, long outside the realm of the possible, is now within the grasp of both parties. Not only is a negotiated peace the best solution to Colombia’s deep structural problems, many of which were at the core of the conflict. It is also the best way to avoid renewed violence. If the peace talks were to collapse at this stage, the Colombian government would likely embark in a new all-out offensive to defeat FARC. That would inevitably bring new bloodshed and suffering to a country has already been through more than enough.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Natalia Diaz/Creative Commons

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Genocide memory and commemoration in Rwanda and Cambodia: combating government sanctioned and silenced memory (part 2 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

Collective memory is critical to the way society shapes its perceptions of the world and the way it enforces certain value systems. However, according to Katherine Conway, a scholar on transitional justice, “The government and social institutions control much of the collective memory, limiting discussions of ethnicity and events that took place outside of the specific time frame considered in the official memory.” When governments construct and control collective memory, they may simultaneously hinder the process of healing. As seen in the trajectory of Holocaust memory, the suppression of certain narratives will only allow dominant narratives space in public discourse and in the process of reconciliation. Governments must play active roles in embracing all narratives of survival in order to facilitate the healing process in post-conflict regions. Stifling forms of memory will not only inhibit justice and reconciliation, but it may also serve alternative governmental goals. What tools are available to survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia to shift the focus of their respective memory narratives?


Modern day Rwanda represents a complicated memory narrative. On the one hand, since the genocide, a Tutsi-controlled government has been in power and has worked to create perceived forms of reconciliation. On the other hand, Rwanda “experienced failed memory through the experience of chosen amnesia, whereby not only was the society encouraged by the government to forget but forgetting was also employed by the general population as a strategy to cope with their daily lives,” writes scholar Tamara Hinan in an article on collective memory and reconciliation. The government has both promoted a narrative of forgetting ethnic differences in an effort to unite a fragmented country and deemphasized ethnicity in order to legitimize Tutsi minority control. Thus, the government has actively engaged in memory work in order to promote certain narratives over others.

As a result of this, communities within Rwanda are suspicious of efforts to recreate or highlight new collective narratives and restore social balance. Even with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the gacaca court system, efforts to expand narratives have been met with limited success. Restorative justice is essential for societies to move past the events of conflict and towards peace. However, justice initiatives must be domestic if they are to be successful because the population will more likely accept bottom-up changes rather than top-down impositions. In the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan judicial system was in shambles, with only 20 judges in the entire country (previously, there were 785 judges). In 2001, a new initiative called gacaca began. Gacaca (meaning grass) was a court system at the local community level that allowed perpetrators and victims to present their cases in court before the entire community. Despite being hailed as a success, the system had significant problems including: fear of judicial bias, fear of coerced apologies by perpetrators and hesitancy by the victims to tell their narratives in front of the entire community.

Although there have been a variety of legal frameworks working to promote justice and reconciliation in Rwanda, a number of concerns remain, especially since the gacaca courts ended in 2012 and the ICTR is coming to a close: (1) local communities should take more active roles in promoting healing and openness; (2) the government must move past the narrative of deemphasizing ethnicity and embrace all narratives; and (3) each of these levels must work together, or at least simultaneously.


One issue Cambodia faces today concerning healing and reconciliation stems from the nature of cultural memory itself. Cambodian culture focuses much less on interrogating and memorializing the past than Western culture does. As such, Cambodians living abroad in Western countries like the United States and Canada play a large and prominent role in memory narrative construction along with their counterparts inside Cambodia. While many push for memorialization of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, some forces in Cambodia continue to attempt to suppress the memory. According to Prime Minister Hun Sen, “Cambodia must dig a hole and bury the past.” The Prime Minister is a Khmer Rouge defector and has both personal as well as political reasons for hoping the past can be buried.

Luckily, there are also forces within Cambodia who want to memorialize the past rather than forget. Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia said during an interview in 2010 with the Washington Post, “Confronting the past is just what Cambodia must do to move forward.” He continued, “Reconciliation in Khmer terms is reconnecting the broken pieces. It’s our obligation to put these broken pieces together so that we can understand.” The Documentation Center has taken an active role in promoting narratives and education about the genocide. Along with collecting documents, testimony and video of the genocide, the Center published a textbook in 2008 and has run the Genocide Education Project, a program preparing teachers to teach the genocide, since 2010. Thus, there is a narrative divide within Cambodia as to how to deal with memory of the past and how that relates to shaping the future.

Beyond this, there is a need for a more rights-protective culture as a means of justice in this post-conflict society. Dicklitch and Malik assert that a culture that secures “both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights (as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)” is necessary for any legal process to be truly successful. According Scholar Renee Jeffrey, one of the provisions brought by victims to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCOC) was for “social services, support for agriculture and ‘justice,’ vaguely define[d].” This provision is indicative of a general trend in Cambodia, where people desire more socioeconomic change rather than mere prosecution and punishment for the genocidal crimes.


Both Rwanda and Cambodia are post-conflict nations seeking to rebuild and unify a fragmented population. Both countries have endured the intrusion of foreign powers in the process of restoration and prosecution (Rwanda through the ICTR and Cambodia through the ECCOC). Both are poor countries working hard to revitalize their economies. Finally, both face similar problems concerning memory of the genocide. In Rwanda, the government both controls the narrative and refuses to address ethnicity. In Cambodia, the government wants to bury the past in order to move on. However, in Rwanda, despite the issues it faced, a local form of reconciliation that recently came to a close may have helped push society to embrace all narratives and remember the past. After all, one of the most successful aspects of the gacaca courts is that it forced acceptance of individualized guilt by perpetrators rather than mass generalized guilt amongst the Hutu population. By contrast, Cambodia is generally still enforcing a program of suppression. Cambodia requires a transition to a rights-based society before any form of reconciliation and true healing can begin. For both countries, it is clear that until a diverse memory narrative is accepted, healing will be limited.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Trocaire/Creative Commons


Genocide memory and commemoration: remembering the Holocaust and the effects of the “hierarchy of suffering” 70 years later (part 1 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and marked 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As in the past, world leaders and survivors gathered in Auschwitz for a commemorative ceremony. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to the preservation of the Auschwitz museum, said, “Auschwitz is important because it was ground zero of what the Nazis did.” However, Auschwitz and the camps were merely one example of the many killing methods employed by the Nazis during World War II. Despite this, Auschwitz has come to reside at the epicenter of Holocaust memory and has consequently impacted the transitional justice and legal efforts that followed the liberation of the camps.

Raphael Lemkin invented the concept of “genocide” and pursued the creation of the Genocide Convention in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He hoped his efforts would prevent further genocide. Unfortunately, genocide persists today. Like Auschwitz for the Holocaust, certain memory narratives have become the central story for other genocides. This trend affects reconciliation, healing and even prosecution in the aftermath of genocide. Analyzing the role the concentration camps played in Holocaust memory may prove useful for formulating tools in order to help survivors of other genocides be heard.

The process of national memory formation is critical to the way certain narratives are popularized over others. For example, one of the key scenarios that transmit value systems and beliefs is the Protestant Ethic, which encourages the good Protestant to work hard and through his hard work to can gain access to heaven. This American narrative, which is prominent in everyday life, contains a moral lesson for society. Once contained in the collective memory, the culture then glorifies these values because they reinforce what is deemed important. A society will remember certain things selectively, partially or instrumentally because that culture decides what to commemorate based on a certain value system. These chosen values will then be conserved in sites of memory, which act as containers. To understand sites of memory one must understand the values of the society when these containers were created. These underlying conceptual frameworks create the basis for the way memory is shaped.

One of the main themes of Holocaust memory and commemoration is the concept of “the hierarchy of suffering.” This concept pushed testimony and stories that perpetuated the narratives of those who survived the camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory, thus making it difficult for individuals with alternative narratives to speak and be heard. Anthropologist Carol Kidron documents this idea while observing a ceremony commemorating victims of the Holocaust at a Holocaust-survivor center and museum in Israel. When a discussion with families of survivors opens, Tsipi, the founder of the center, talks about her mother who went into hiding during the war, “thereby positioning her parent and herself on the ‘hierarchy of suffering,’ known at the center as ‘Tsipi’s ladder of suffering’”:

“[…] Children of ‘hard core’ camp survivors heckled her story, screaming, ‘You think that’s suffering, that’s a vacation.’ Another participant introduced himself as a descendant of a ghetto survivor. Again, others screamed, ‘Ghetto, what’s a ghetto—it’s just the third grade [Heb. kita gimmel, G is for ghetto].’ The participant was allowed to recount his mother’s fragmented tale of fear and hunger, again adding his avowal of pride in her ability to start a new life. Another participant told of her parent’s experiences as a partisan. She could not get through her first sentence without being shouted down: ‘No, no, you’re not even on the ladder,’ at which point Tsipi added, ‘Yes, you don’t belong to the sheep.’”

Shortly after this encounter another member of the group circle recounts how his father survived Auschwitz, and suddenly the “mood in the room had shifted smoothly from laughter to serious attention.”

This is merely one story, from one support group, however it is indicative of a general trend. The “hierarchy of suffering” extends beyond the way national memory is created. Survivors who do not fit the collective memory mold are not heard. Those with more traumatic narratives, particularly those from the camps, take center stage. I believe this trend coincides with the way humans rank and compartmentalize trauma and suffering. When the child of an Auschwitz survivor wanted to speak the room immediately fell silent, however, when the child of a partisan wanted to recount her parent’s narrative, she could not even get past her first sentence. This is the problem with the hierarchy of suffering. It devalues personal traumatic events.

Memory is not just created by the prioritization of certain suffering, but also by how history has been chronicled. Oral testimonies from survivors and perpetrators and documents from the government and camps comprised the majority of evidentiary support available after the Holocaust. Additionally, the camps were liberated by Allied forces, whose soldiers bore witness to the effects of camps on survivors. Even before the end of the war, the Allies created commissions to locate and collect the vast of amounts of documents from camps like Dachau and Buchenwald. These documents were then used in the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and were later stored in the Bad Arolsen archive in Germany. However, documents about the death camps, such as Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec, were mostly destroyed before the end of the war and there are no documents available about the Einsatzgruppen murders in the former Soviet Union. The lopsided preservation of documentation helped push the concentration camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory.

National memory trends also affect efforts concerning restitution and reconciliation. From the immediate postwar period on, the hierarchy of suffering impacted monetary compensation. For example, most programs that compensated survivors provided for those in forced labor camps or who were deported, while only a few programs compensated for material losses, those who fled and those who were “hidden children.” For example, the Claims Conference has a highly specified approach and a tiered system, which provides a one time “Hardship Fund” for those who fled Nazism as opposed to a continuous pension service for survivors of the concentration and labor camps.

Beyond this, the Nuremberg Trials, and especially the International Military Tribunal, were focused predominantly on war crimes, not victims. Justice Jackson, the lead prosecutor for the Americans at Nuremberg, wanted aggressive war making to be considered the most heinous crime committed by the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the prosecution at Nuremberg emphasized the crimes committed by military leaders that led to a globalized war and marginalized crimes against humanity. The focus at Nuremberg contrasts strongly to the 1961 Eichmann Trial, where the focus moved from documentary evidence to witness testimony, marking a change in Holocaust memory as victim narratives became more accepted and prominent. The trial gave survivors legitimacy and a space where their stories would not be questioned but would rather be broadcasted around the world.

As survivors aged, and became better situated in their new homes, new forms of restitution arose. In the 1990s, vast movements of class action suits, involving survivors with different narratives, began against various governments and institutions like the German, Austrian and Swiss banks. While some of the litigation arose from survivors of forced labor camps, other claims, particularly looted art and bank account or insurance restitution claims, were brought by a more diverse group of survivors. Litigation can only give a measure of justice for the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators; however, the restitution projects coincided with increased awareness and memorialization of the Holocaust.

Recognition of all Holocaust narratives has allowed many survivors who were once silent to give testimony to projects like the Shoah Foundation and to open up to their children and grandchildren about their experiences. By telling their stories, survivors are able to heal. The inclusivity also marks a change in American culture in recent decades. The rise of “victimhood culture,” in the 1990s has bolstered support for an inclusive narrative from the core of the American value system.

In my next post, I will analyze how these narratives and trends can affect the way we understand memory of other genocides.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit:  Jaime Pérez/Creative Commons