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Beyond Transitional Justice: Memorialisation in Africa

By: Louise Hogan

The history of man is the history of crimes, and history can repeat. So information is a defence. Through this we can build, we must build, a defence against repetition.
Simon Wiesenthal

Memorialisation is the process of creating public memorials. Sites of conscience are more comprehensive, integrated public memorials that make a specific commitment to democratic engagement through programs that stimulate dialogue on pressing social issues today and that provide opportunities for public involvement in those issues.  Sites of conscience have the potential to further the engagement of civil society and the general public in democracy processes in post conflict states. Advocates of memorials claim that “dealing with conflictive pasts is an essential component of the construction of national identity based on human rights and human dignity”. Transitional justice, i.e. judicial and non-judicial measures implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses, can be fraught, polarising and controversial. Although undoubtedly necessary, these measures, which may include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions or reparations programmes, do not always produce the desired cathartic and unifying effect on society. Although memorialistion is not without its own difficulties, it is also a way of remembering victims without seeking to lay any blame; its only goal is, or should be, to promote moving forward by remembering the past without being bound by it. It should not be utilised instead of transitional justice; in fact, memorialisation is usually of most benefit when it follows transitional justice initiatives. A study by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) found that “The passage of time enables survivors to achieve perspective on a conflict and what they want to remember about it. If other transitional justice processes—especially tribunals and truth commissions—have finished their work, the public is likely to better understand aspects of the conflict that were previously hidden or repressed”. As such, memorialisation has increasingly become an important feature of transitional justice in most parts of the world.

With this in mind and prompted by the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide in 2004, the African Union pledged to create an African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM). Like many such initiatives, the plan languished in officialdom for a number of years but since 2011, the project has begun progressing rapidly. The AUHRM will not only memorialise the victims of major African human rights atrocities but also document, research and educate current and future generations about major human rights abuses on the continent. It was decided that the AUHRM will initially commemorate the Ethiopian Red Terror (1977-79), the Rwandan Genocide, Apartheid in South Africa, colonialism and the slave trade. However, its remit is broad and it is envisioned it will expand and grow to encompass the unfortunately many mass atrocities on the continent which deserve attention.

Some critics dispute the necessity of memorialisation but in the case of numerous genocides or mass atrocities in Africa, such as the Rwandan genocide or apartheid in South Africa, the perpetrators are many. Crimes may have been so widespread, as in Rwanda, or abuse so entrenched in society, as was the case in South Africa, that to prosecute all those who are guilty is simply an impossibility. In the perceived or actual absence of accountability, the creation of public memorials is a way of acknowledging the past and providing survivors with assurances that their suffering will not be forgotten. Although memorials do not aim to provide “justice” per se, often they do so by default. USIP’s report points out, “Memorialization is a process that satisfies the desire to honor those who suffered or died during conflict and as a means to examine the past and address contemporary issues. It can . . .  promote social recovery after violent conflict ends”.

There are unique challenges facing the AUHRM however. Currently, the most recent atrocities it is concerned with occurred almost two decades ago and although consultative meetings with survivor groups and civil society will be held in each affected country, the memorial itself will be in Ethiopia. The location of the memorial is significant as it stands on the former site of Alem Bekagn (Amharic for ‘farewell to the world’) prison where thousands of Ethiopians were imprisoned and tortured during the Red Terror of 1977-79. However, for other atrocities it commemorates the memorial is remote in terms of time and location. As such, it must tread a fine line between being continental but still relevant to each national tragedy it deals with.

Which is why the AUHRM will be more than just a memorial but also a research, education and documentation centre. As part of the AUHRM, genocide and mass atrocity awareness and prevention education modules will be developed and made available to higher level education institutions in Africa. Global genocide and mass atrocity education generally needs to be developed but especially from an African perspective. Although genocide is “the crime of crimes” and unfortunately knows no national boundaries, historical evaluations and practical policy examinations in an African context are lacking from the global genocide discourse. A memorial should not only serve as a reminder of the past but also as a warning against similar future occurrences. Practically speaking, a historically informed, politically aware and diverse education module which educates Africans about genocide and mass atrocities on their own continent will seek to do this. It should not only be theoretical but have a thorough grounding in practical policy matters in order to actually contribute to the prevention of future atrocities. The AUHRM has already engaged with existing memorials in Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It hopes to continue these relationships and engage with other African initiatives, in order to build a more comprehensive African memorial landscape.

Although independently conceived and developed and now instigated by civil society actors, the AUHRM was initiated by the African Union and will be housed at their headquarters; political concerns will quite possibly be a future issue. Louis Bickford note that in periods after mass atrocity or human rights abuse, states have at least four kinds of obligation according to international law: They must establish the truth about victims and perpetrators, pursue criminal accountability for perpetrators, develop reparations programs for victims, and take steps to guarantee non-repetition, often understood as the obligation to pursue institutional reforms. The duty to memorilise is implied in three of these but it is not explicitly stated. Thus, concern about the political will of African leaders to support such a project has been voiced. In answer to this however, the AUHRM will be independently financed, developed and run. Although the input of the African Union is valued and its support appreciated, in no way will individual governments be able to manipulate the purpose or process of the AUHRM.

Memorialisation is an important feature of transitional justice, focused at once at the past but also signifying a move towards the future. The AUHRM is an ambitious attempt at providing a uniquely African outlet for memory and education for genocide and mass atrocities. It aims to build on already successful efforts at memorialisation and transitional justice in countries such as Rwanda and South Africa and fill in some of the gaps which remain in terms of formulating prevention policies which can be instigated by both civil society and policy makers. It is an ambitious project but unfortunately, a necessary one.


Louise Hogan is studying Human Rights, Politics and History at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland. She is also associate project coordinator with Justice Africa (


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