Moral Remembrance

By Lea David, University College Dublin

Moral remembrance refers to the human rights memorialization agenda that prescribes standards for a ‘proper way of remembrance’ with which states are expected to comply when dealing with legacies of mass human rights abuses. It refers to the generative process of standardization of memory that has developed and adopted an isomorphic-like set of norms, based on normative world-views of human rights that, through the human rights infrastructures at the global level, promote “facing the past”, “duty to remember” and “justice for victims” as its pillars. Though all three of these principles have very different sociological-historical trajectories and are rooted in distinct ethical and philosophical ideals (David 2020), they merged and became pillars of the human rights memorialization agenda. In fact, the emergence of moral remembrance, and its extensive promotion via human rights bodies and advocates, has shaped our current understanding on how the ‘proper’ way to remember past atrocities and massive human rights abuses should look. Moral remembrance points to a gradual, accumulative development from ‘duty to remember’ as an awareness-oriented approach to a contested past, to the policy-oriented ‘proper memorialization’ standards that are understood and promoted as an insurance policy against the repetition of massive human rights abuses (David 2017). It is grounded in the presumption that ‘proper memorialization’ is essential for ‘healing’ societies with a difficult past and moving beyond trauma and violence. Moral remembrance points to the current preference, worldwide, for memory standardization, institutional homogenization and norm imitation. It provides a technocratic-like set of policies and a tool kit of practices that aims to advance a human rights vision of memorialization processes in order to promote democratic, human rights values across the globe. However, it is important to stress that, while often utilised as a blueprint model, moral remembrance created a blind spot that in reality produces numerous pitfalls – from worsening nationalist and ethnic animosities to establishing hierarchies of victimhood followed by social stratifications and inequalities.

A distinct human rights memorialization agenda started to appear only with the institutionalizing of human rights activism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Through networks of human rights activism, the memorialization agenda started to proliferate into a widely-diffused human rights infrastructure which became increasingly embedded in a set of regional, international and global linkages. The so called ‘third wave of democratization’, since the mid-seventies, has brought an explosion of previously-suppressed collective memories and adjoining dilemmas of how to address past wrongdoings (Huntington 1991). Since the 1980s, the human rights vision of memorialization, as a process of remembering the wrongs of the past and honoring the victims, has grown, together with the prevalent idea that public and official recognition of crimes is “essential for preventing further violence”(Hazan 2010, 5). One of the defining features of the international human rights movement, that also shaped the moral remembrance agenda, was a new concern for the suffering of specific others in distant lands – an agenda that, to some extent, displaces those earlier very nation-specific struggles, even in the same places (Moyn 2010). Additionally, the emergence of a market society, through widening the scope of exchange, unintentionally, also extended the public scope of compassion (Sznaider 1998, 119). Further, through the memories of human rights abuses and their institutionalization in international conventions, with cruelty being understood as the infliction of unwarranted suffering, compassion – a public response to this evil – transformed into an organized campaign to lessen the suffering of strangers (Sznaider 2015).

These processes coincided with the dilemma of how to deal with post-dictatorship, post-totalitarian and post-conflict societies, experienced by 1980s human rights activists, lawyers and legal scholars, policymakers, journalists, donors, and comparative politics experts when it came to places such as Korea, Chile, South Africa, Brazil, The Philippines, Uruguay, Guatemala, Haiti, Poland and Czechoslovakia. They were concerned with human rights and the dynamics of “transitions to democracy” (Arthur 2009). By the late 1990s, the victim-centered agenda had become deeply embedded in transitional justice and human rights understanding of past abuses (David 2020). Additionally, the rapid growth of memorialization across the globe during the 1980s and 1990s, and the obsession that led to a shift from commemorating victories to commemorating massive past human rights abuses, can be explained by the fact that memorialization became a crucial representation of the identity politics struggle. In particular, since the 1980s, and even more so the 1990s, when identity politics established the importance of witnesses after the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989 (Winter 2001), it became clear to all parties involved in the process of memory construction that memory is not a guaranteed right but a privilege.

Unfortunately, moral remembrance, as a core model for the remembrance of past human rights abuses and historical injustices, unintentionally produces a number of undesired outcomes. It often ends up creating new forms of inequalities, and even strengthening nationalist sentiments and ethnic hostilities. This results from the fact that moral remembrance is deeply embedded in the neoliberal logic of standardization, efficiency and ascribing monetary reasoning to past human rights abuses, all of which limits our imagination when it comes to the possible ways and resources to reckon with past injustices.


Arthur, P. “How ‘Transitions’ Reshaped Human Rights: A Conceptual History of Transitional Justice.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 31, 2009, pp. 321–67.

David, L. The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

David, L. “Against Standardization of Memory.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2017, pp. 296–318.

Huntington, S. The Third Wave. University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Hazan, P. Judging War, Judging History, Behind Peace and Reconciliation. Stanford University Press, 2010.

Moyn, S. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Sznaider, N. “Compassion, Cruelty, and Human Rights.” World Suffering and Quality of Life, edited by Ronald E. Anderson. Springer, 2015.

Sznaider, N. “The Sociology of Compassion: A Study in the Sociology of Morals.” Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 2, no. 1, 1998, pp. 117–39.

Winter, J. “The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Contemporary Historical Studies.” Canadian Military History, vol. 10, no 3, 2001, pp. 57–66.

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