With a Touch of Wisdom: Human Rights, Memory, and Forgetting

Historians in the News
tags: war crimes, human rights, genocide, historical memory

Antoon De Baets is professor of History, Ethics and Human Rights by special appointment of the Foundation EuroClio at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He is the author of more than 200 publications, mainly on the censorship of history, the ethics of historians, and the history of human rights. This includes books such as Responsible History (Berghahn Books, 2009) and Crimes against History (Routledge, 2019). Since 1995, he has coordinated the Network of Concerned Historians.

In a recent contribution to the International Review of the Red Cross entitled “And if there was also a duty to forget, how would we think about history then” (2019), David Rieff, son of Philipp Rieff and Susan Sontag and a prolific writer on humanitarian issues, defends a double thesis. He argues, first, that nowadays human rights activists dealing with the aftermath of conflicts want to impose a blanket duty to remember the violent past. This, Rieff says, is an absolute view, popular but logically weak. He then claims – see his title – that in many post-conflict situations it would make more sense to defend a duty to forget the violent past. That, he says, is a pragmatic view, unpopular but logically strong. On closer scrutiny, Rieff’s double thesis does not hold if one looks at it from a perspective inspired by international human rights principles. Why? Because a human rights approach to the past neither imposes a duty to remember nor prevents a right to forget. In fact, Rieff and the human rights activists he opposes in his contribution resemble each other far more than he assumes.


Editor's note: this essay is exerpted by courtesy of the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas. 

Read entire article at Journal of the History of Ideas

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