[Mark A. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law and Director, Transnational Law Institute, Washington & Lee University, and Visiting Scholar, CICJ, VU University Amsterdam.]
This post is part of the NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, Vol. 47, No. 4, symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.
Atrocity begins with story-telling. Elegies lament unrighted wrongs from ancient battles. Fables weave and spin the bravado of national or ethnic superiority. The roll, pitch, and yaw of an entire literature ritualizes dehumanization: stories of vermin, poisonous mushrooms in children’s books, bespectacled intellectuals, enemies of the state. Then come exhortations to cut the tall trees, to take out the garbage, and to make way for Lebensraum
. The filth is to be scrubbed, the society purified, the landscape cleansed.
Atrocity metastasizes once these stories become performed. New stories then emerge. These stories narrate pain and suffering. Their tales, however, may redound with redemption; their ballads may record harrowing strategies of survival paired with forensic accounts of death; at times, too, chants of resistance arise.
In the aftermath of atrocity, these stories become memory. The construction of memory, then, becomes an act of the living and a sign of life. For survivors, authorship over memory represents the exercise of agency and autonomy. For perpetrators and their supporters, revising (or denying) memory – also an act of authorship – becomes a tactic to thrive in changing times.
It is no surprise that in the aftermath of mass atrocity the recovery of memory, and its reclamation, matters so much to so many. The hunger for memory, however, intersects with the blandness of law. This encounter frustrates, perhaps most acutely for victims.
It is here that Professor Lopez enters the conversation. She recognizes this frustration. She also gestures towards a path forward. For her, law can respect memory. It can channel stories of survival, subjugation, and suffering. While Professor Lopez is an optimist about law’s potential, she remains more circumspect about how, exactly, we should understand memory. In a particularly thoughtful argument, she contends that conversations ought to move towards “collective memory.” For Professor Lopez, collective memory arises when those most affected by mass atrocity “though discussion and ritual … merge their fragmented recollections into one holistic narrative.” Collective memory is unscripted. It emerges organically through a synthesis of informal conversations, shared glances, tacit rejections, and knowing nods. Drawing from a rich array of sources, Professor Lopez posits that collective memory is more accurate, consistent, and concise than individual memory.
In sum, then, Professor Lopez effectively exposes law’s predilection for individual conduct and illustrates how this penchant inhibits law’s ability to inflect collective action. For her, this is a loss. It is a loss because victims yearn for more. Professor Lopez’s response is reformist. Human rights lawyers should preserve and promote collective memory. Integrating collective memory of victims into legal process, for Professor Lopez, would clarify how atrocity begins and could document the pain it inflicts, while also furthering aspirations of reconciliation, transition, the development of an historical record, nation-building, and legal reform.
How to accommodate collective memory into legal proceedings? Professor Lopez’s recognizes that the criminal law may find such accommodations awkward, if not downright unworkable. The criminal law, after all, is primarily about adjudging the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The need to focus on the defendant requires the foregrounding of all sorts of due process rules. This need stymies the use of collective memory in penal process because collective memory cannot be properly vetted. Professor Lopez therefore directs our gaze elsewhere. She points to tort-based claims, action civile
, and the victims’ participation scheme built by the Rome Statute and present at the ECCC.
Professor Lopez’s article makes a tremendously valuable contribution to the literature on transitional justice. Her diagnosis of law’s foibles, and her proclamation of the potential of collective memory, is sterling. She has the courage to offer some remedial responses. Her article is a rich base for a symposium.
For me, her piece opens two shutters. The first is architectural. The second is discursive.