Accessibility links

World: Analysis From Washington -- The High Costs Of Forgetting The Past

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Countries whose leaders seek to avoid confronting human rights violations in their own national pasts both violate the moral claims of the victims and their descendents and make it more difficult for their countries to move toward democracy.

That is the conclusion of a report by Article 19, a London-based media freedom group. The report's release has been timed to coincide with International Human Rights Day on December 10. That day marks the 51st anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from whose 19th article on press freedom the group takes its name.

Titled "Who Wants to Forget?" the report examines the ways in which governments of three sub-Saharan African countries -- Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Namibia -- have dealt with human rights abuses in the past. But the study's authors pointedly note that their conclusions have far broader applicability.

The report, which is available online at, emphasizes that the right to information about past human rights violations is "fundamental," and it urges both governments and international assistance agencies to promote rather than restrict that right.

In addition to outlining the moral responsibility of regimes to face up to the past, the report calls on all governments to recognize that they have a legal obligation to do precisely that. That legal responsibility arises from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a provision, the authors of the Article 19 report say, many political figures around the world appear to have ignored.

But the Article 19 report suggests that governments have practical reasons to engage in such reporting. Based on its comparison of the three countries it examined, the report concludes that those governments which have provided such information about abuses have generally made more progress toward democracy than those which have sought to prevent their citizens from finding out what happened in their societies earlier.

Indeed, the authors of the report argue, such honest reporting about past violations is "not a luxury but a precondition for those who are trying to put a history of abuse behind them and construct new societies based upon dignity and respect for human rights."

The Article 19 report outlines various means that governments can employ to "excavate the past both literally and figuratively:" commissions of inquiry, media investigations, NGO studies, criminal prosecutions, other court proceedings, reburials of those interred in mass graves and the erection of memorials, academic studies, literary works, and museums.

Such appeals, the study argues, increasingly run into three obstacles: the unwillingness of governments to talk about the past honestly and fully, the inherent difficulties involved in recovering a past that others have sought to keep hidden, and popular attitudes, often encouraged by political leaders, that are summed up in the often-heard term that "it's time to move on."

While understandable in many cases -- dredging up the past can be unpleasant and even politically explosive -- this widespread popular attitude may be the greatest obstacle of all, one that individuals and governments of all kinds regularly exploit to shift debate away from issues that they find uncomfortable to others which protect their political position or otherwise promote their interests.

But if governments and individuals do refuse to face up to the past and its numerous human rights violations, they may be "condemned to relive it," as the late American philosopher George Santayana pointed out more than a half century ago.

The report notes in conclusion that "when considering the question 'should we remember?' we should ask 'who can forget?' and also address who benefits when atrocities stay silent in the past." This will not be a welcome message for some, but as the Article 19 authors note, it is a principle worth recommitting to on the anniversary of the most important international document on human rights.