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

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