The recent death of Elie Wiesel recalled for me seeing him in action, not as author, not as activist but as legal witness in the 1987 trial of the notorious Nazi SS officer, Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon for having personally tortured French prisoners of the Gestapo. France and a number of civil parties, including Communists and resistance fighters were seeking justice for the victims of the French village of Izieu — orphan children who in 1944 were deported to their deaths at Auschwitz where Wiesel himself had been imprisoned, liberated and lived to tell his story.
Mr. Wiesel testified that it was impossible for anyone who did not experience the Nazi death camps like Auschwitz to truly understand what it was to be a Nazi victim. While Wiesel emphasized the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy in his testimony, pressed by Jacque Verges, Barbie’s attorney about the crimes of Algiers — the basis of his “unclean hands defense” — Wiesel said: “I want to have the same compassion for all victims.” And he would go on to bear witness from Bosnia to Nicaragua, and as a Nobel laureate even called for intervention upon hearing of evidence of genocide in Syria.
Wiesel’s very power derives from bearing witness to his own experience and that of the collective. But he was not a universal witness. Hence, his experiences can’t be a basis of essential insight into all problems. Nor can we expect the rapportage of survivors like Wiesel to be a basis for addressing conflict atrocities universally. In fact, to do so detracts from the experience of other victims and collectives as well as from the particulars of their suffering and conflict. Wiesel for his own reasons would not speak out about the conflicts and suffering endured by the Palestinians.
Thus, we have seen that memory work by itself cannot resolve difficult conflicts. By now, there are many precedents to reflect upon. In my native Argentina, in its period of transition following military repression, the Nunca mas or the Never Again commission of inquiry was the first step on the path to the courthouse and the “Trial of the Juntas” held three decades ago. Whereas in nearby Chile, their truth commission lay the foundation for that country’s road to reconciliation between the torturers and the tortured.
Consider the experience in South Africa regarding the relationship of memory and justice: Both sides of the apartheid regime — both for and against — were held legally accountable for the conflict and its atrocities. Hence both camps were offered their own configuration for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where amnesty was exchanged for full disclosure of political related crimes. This commission and its report succeeded in preserving a truthful record of the past, reflecting contrasting perspectives fairly and equally, so as to enable the new civic community and peaceful political future.
Transitional Justice, which refers to the idea of justice in moments of political change that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of large-scale human rights abuses. These measures range from criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, memorialization, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms including new constitutions.
In such moments the burning question becomes just how to respond to a violent past so as to transform the state and society towards a better future?
The study of such experiences is part of the Transitional Justice Colloquium at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law in Jerusalem. This innovative program brings together Israelis, Palestinians and foreign students from the world over to learn about Transitional Justice in past and current conflicts.
And sitting and learning together in Jerusalem, which holds different meanings for many, they learn firsthand of each other — their narratives — by looking in two directions at once, honoring the past while using that past to turn to the future.
In essence, the power of Transitional Justice employs the memory of repression and killing in order to distance the present from that awful past and create a different story — promoting a liberal message of the possibility of progress
Ultimately, Elie Wiesel would likely have agreed that the effort of those involved in Transitional Justice issues concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are best served by close analysis of the uses of pre-emptive racial propaganda – to guard against abuse of historical memory — if only to build a culture of better prevention of crimes against humanity but also to promote those uses of historical memory that may lay the basis for contributing to a more peaceful and inclusive future.
Ruti Teitel is an internationally recognized authority on international law, international human rights, transitional justice, and comparative constitutional law. She is the Ernst C. Stiefel Professor of Comparative Law at New York Law School and a Visiting Professor and Chair of the Fried-Gal Transitional Justice Colloquium at Hebrew University. She is the author of Globalizing Transitional Justice (OUP 2015)