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III Congreso Internacional Historia a Debate Santiago de Compostela

III Congreso Internacional Historia a Debate
Santiago de Compostela, 14-18 de julio de 2004


Memoria histrica activa


A Duty To Remember or a Right To Historical Truth?
-Deber de la memoria o derecho a la verdad histrica?-

(preliminary abstract-9 February 2004)

Antoon De Baets
University of Groningen

Everybody has a right to memory. Such a right to memory can be inferred from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which covers the freedom to hold and express opinions. And opinions include memories. Today, however, some groups advocate not only a right to memory but also a duty to remember the past. Looking closer at those pleading such a duty to remember, we can distinguish three groups. The first group maintains that the living owe a debt toward all those dead who achieved something positive and created our heritage. The second group believes that we should remember the dead who were victims of grave human-rights abuses in order to restore posthumously their dignity which they were denied during their life. The third group combines the views of the two former groups and asserts that the living should accept the whole past, whether good or bad. I will analyze these claims and recognize that gratitude, restored dignity, and acceptance of the entire past are powerful motives to remember. However, I shall also argue that, whereas there should be a right to memory, a duty to remember should be rejected on four grounds: because it is impracticable, controversial, undesirable, and contrary to the spirit of international law. At the same time, I shall defend the view that there are two exceptions, one full and one partial, to the rejection of a duty to remember. The full exception is the historical profession. Historians should accept a mild form of the duty to remember to the extent that-not as individual professionals but as a worldwide community-they are obligated, at least as a matter of principle, to cover the whole past and not only its cherished episodes. The partial exception is the state. The view that states have a duty to remember those who died at the hands of predecessor regimes is increasingly endorsed. It is prompted by recent discussions about transitional justice after periods marked by major crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes). Both the scale and the gravity of these crimes almost always implied that the very institution supposed to protect human rights, the state, was involved in violating them. Gradually, a new principle of international law was formulated to cope more adequately with this fundamental problem, variously called the right to know, the right to truth, or the right to habeas data: the principle that successor states are obligated to investigate past crimes. The foundation for this right is to be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which covers the right to freedom of information, and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates the right of victims to a remedy and the obligation of the state to assist them actively. The development of this principle involved several steps of standard setting and jurisdiction. I will trace the story of this principle from 1948 until its discussion under the name of "Joinet Principles" in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights today. In the story we discover the true meaning of imposing a duty to remember upon the state: this duty creates the necessary conditions for its citizens to exercise their right to memory. The discussion about "a right to know" is of cardinal importance for historians, because what is called a "right to know" or a "right to truth" in international law today, is a "right to historical truth" to them.