IV Congreso Internacional
Historia a Debate
Santiago de Compostela, 15-19 de diciembre de 2010
Mesa H. Historia y justicia universal
Antoon de Baets (University of Groningen, Nederland)
Conceptualizing Historical Crimes
Should crimes committed in the course of history which are comparable to genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes carry those same names, whatever the label used at the time? I will first show that labeling historical crimes with recent concepts is a proliferating practice, often executed with good reason but also leaving us behind in some bewilderment. I will further compare the problems to label historical crimes with historical concepts and with recent concepts respectively. I will argue that the use of historical concepts—terms used in the time that the practices took place—has many disadvantages while the use of recent concepts is not necessarily anachronistic and often plainly better. It is, however, not because the use of recent concepts is possible, and often desirable or necessary, that it does not entail its problems. Not only is there the task to prove the facts of the alleged crime beyond reasonable doubt, recent labels for historical crimes can be abused, they can shift, or they can be confusing. I further discuss the problem of "memory laws". In several countries, laws have been adopted that prescribe how people ought to think about certain historical episodes and that criminalize the denial of imprescriptible crimes. I shall argue that such memory laws should be firmly rejected. However, scholars are not completely free to do what they want. Certainly, they retain the right not to adopt contemporary human-rights labels for historical practices or the right to define existing crimes differently from the definitions of international treaties (as many scholars have done for the genocide concept), but given that these labels and definitions exist, they can only ignore them at the cost of explaining why their alternative label or definition is superior.