Memory, Truth, and Victimhood in Post-trauma Societies

John Brewer. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The intensification of organized violence with globalization has created new wars (Kaldor 1999) and transformed old ones (Moore 2000) to fundamentally alter the focus in social science on genocidal nationalism (Shaw 2003). The new interest in social science with memory, truth and suffering (on the latter see Wilkinson 2004) can be attributed to the negative impact that several cases of genocidal nationalism have had on our notion of late modernity as enlightened and progressive (Bauman 1989). The discovery of memory in social science is really the return of genocide to contemporary experience. Theories of nationalism have always been sensitive to the link between nation, violence and memory, but we now need to recast their relationship in order to understand the new problems faced by post-trauma nations.

The purpose of this chapter is to outline the pivotal role of memory in national and communal conflicts, but primarily to shift focus on to the post-violence setting in order to assess the role of memory as a peace strategy. This involves attention to subsidiary issues like truth recovery and victimhood as new features of social science and their potential as strategies for healing in post-trauma societies. Remembrance and commemoration are difficult peace-making strategies and memories of the conflict can be obstacles to successful post-violence adjustments, nonetheless memory must become an object of public policy after communal violence. Before we look at how memory is implicated in war and peace, it is worthwhile drawing attention to the particular way that memory is conceptualized as a sociological process in these arguments.

Understanding Memory

Sociology understands memory as having individual and social dimensions. Remembrance is something we all do as individuals all the time, and we all have our own personal set of memories, unique in its constellation to us. What goes on in people’s heads in the formation and use of individual memories is a question about individual remembrance. We might call this personal memory. What goes on in society in the formation and use of collective memory is a question of social remembrance. The realization that societies remember as much as individuals has received renewed attention (Connerton 1989; Misztal 2003) as societies nowadays seem to be more conflict-ridden, vulnerable and subject to risk, and as evocations of supposedly golden ages dominate collective memory. Sociologists in the past recognized the power of collective memory, but the new term ‘social memory’ now dominates the field. There is a good reason for this change in nomenclature. Collective memories are understood as group memories, shared by a community, that help to bind that community together. Nations have collective memories as part of their narrative of nationhood, so may ethnic groups and other communities. Collective memories are thus shared images and representations of the past that assist in constructing social solidarity. Social memory as a term includes this dimension, but it also incorporates the claim that individual remembrance or personal memory is itself social. Personal memory is clearly not collective but it is still social.

There are several reasons why memory is social:

  • People have personal and collective memories at the same time, the latter being those representations that are commonly shared by all.
  • Personal memories exist in relation to the social processes that occasion and shape them, such as language, nationalism, cultural and political symbols and the like.
  • Individual remembering takes place in a social context and memories can be occasioned by the context in which people live.
  • Remembering serves social purposes at the personal and public levels, being sociologically functional for individuals and societies.
  • Memories can affect the social behaviour of people and groups.
  • Memories supply individual and social sense-making processes, giving ways of understanding and comprehending the world and a set of values and beliefs about the world.
  • Memories help in the construction of collective identities and boundaries, whether these are national, cultural, ethnic, religious or otherwise.
  • Social processes like culture, nationhood and ethnicity are in part constituted by memory.
  • Memory is constructed by various social practices that encourage or discourage the remembrance and commemoration of particular things.
  • Forgetting is as social as remembrance and the denial or recasting of particular memories serves social purposes.
  • Memories are selective and therefore always open to change and can be affected by social change, changes that reinforce certain memories or encourage collective amnesia.

Social memory is more than just the social benefits or social aspects of personal memory, and social memory does not just work through people’s personal memory as a set of consequences at the societal level deriving from individual remembrances. Social memory is this, but it is also a set of specific public remembrances that are manipulated and constructed by various social practices. The ways in which social memory has been manufactured and manipulated for the purposes of nationalism and nation-building are obvious examples.

Nationhood, Identity, and Memory

Nations and memory are indivisible. Misztal refers to ‘communities of memory’ (2003: 155), in that memories help to mark social boundaries and define collective identity. These groups—families, ethnic, racial or religious communities, whole nations or global diaspora networks—are in part constituted by memory—that is, they are made up as units in part from the sense of shared past and common journeying that memories furnish—but these communities also help to constitute memory, in that they socialize us into what should be remembered and what forgotten. It is for this reason that there is such a strong link between memory and nationalism.

There are several dimensions to this relationship. Social memories are often linked to features of nationhood, to the physical and symbolic places, landscapes, cultural and historical sites and events that constitute the nation. We have personal memories of places and landscapes that link us collectively to the nation. Nations need a narrative by which to construct a sense of nationhood—a historical narrative of the past, a sense of the travails and triumphs on the journey to nationhood, a sense of collective identity and solidarity and so on—all of which memories help to supply. Nations require a sense of their past for reasons of social cohesion, memories of which are embodied in acts of public commemoration and in public memorials, in public images, texts, photographs and rituals that socialize us in what to remember. Nationhood also requires us to forget. Deliberate collective amnesia or denial helps in nation-building since it excludes from the national narrative items that in the present here-and-now are problematic. These items might be anything that prevents the construction of the nation as an imagined community and which blurs the social boundaries that mark the nation or disrupts the formation of a common identity. They might also be any items that suggest that the members of the nation do not share a common destiny. Nations need to forget things from the past that dispute a common journeying to nationhood amongst its peoples and things that suggest a parting of the ways in the future. So closely allied are social memory and nationalism that it is no surprise that in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century hey-days of nationalism in Europe, we saw the greatest expansion in building large public memorials that now adorn civic centres and in the development of national traditions and emblems that served as national memories.

The link between memory and communal violence is clear from this summary (for a fuller account, see Ray 2000). Social memory is one of the processes that people go to war about and memories of the violence can keep the enmity going. A comment on each is appropriate. Memory is often deeply embedded in the conflict precisely because memory defines the boundaries between the included and excluded groups, it shapes the identity of one’s own group and that of the marginalized other. The state or the powerful dominant community can manipulate memories—and history generally—to create an enemy and justify violence against them. Memories help to construct racial separateness; they can divide people into separate and distinct imagined communities. Public acts of remembrance or rituals of commemoration of past wars, usually done in honour of the victors who get to write history from their point of view, can keep alive old divisions and continually reinforce the cultural inferiority of the vanquished and maintain some ethnic group as despised; and the vanquished can have their own ‘sad celebrations’ to keep alive their servitude and defeat. These acts of remembrance can be ‘official,’ developed by the state, but also ‘unofficial,’ in which members of the victorious group hammer home their dominance in more aggressive acts of remembrance: contrast the celebrations of 1690 in Northern Ireland by Loyalist gangs compared to the state.

Memories can also be used to develop a sense of vengeful justice, as Ray puts it (1999), in which some group feels ‘good cause’ to attack another to avenge some supposed or real historical affront. Ray explores how senses of the past were used in the Balkans as part of the genocide that befell the collapse of Yugoslavia because some groups had a distorted notion of themselves as having ethnically pure homelands in the past, which they wished to recreate. This analysis has much broader application. Notions of ‘historic homelands’ often lead to contested borders (Robin and Strath 2003) and thus to violence in the name of justice, revenge, loss or restoration. For these and many other reasons, memory is implicated in war.

It is also implicated in peace because memories of the communal violence hamper peace processes. They can do so in innumerable ways. Divided memories can lead to renewed outbreaks of violence, perpetuate senses of grievance amongst victim groups that increase the risk of such violence locally, distort perceptions of the fairness of the settlement and discourage tolerance toward the former enemy. When the new regime that emerges from the peace settlement is weak, its legitimation crisis may encourage the perpetuation of selective social memories and unofficial practices of remembrance that reproduce the old divisions and perpetuate the conflict locally. There is also the problem of how to commemorate the victims in such a way as not to keep them locked in the wounds of war. There is a problem for peace processes in how to remember the conflict, honour people’s sacrifices, while simultaneously moving people on to a non-violent future. There are two sociological issues around public memory in peace processes: what it is that is publicly remembered and forgotten; and what social practices need to be adopted to culturally reproduce these selective public memories. There is no easy policy solution to these issues.

However, social memory is implicated in peace in a second way because, despite the close connection between memory and genocidal nationalism, social memory can be used as a peace strategy. Indeed, it is precisely because social memory is socially constructed, subject to manipulation and change—albeit slow—and affected by social context and social change, that various social practices that occasion and shape memory and remembrance can be devised to garner peace, if not also reconciliation.

Memory and Peace

Social memory can be reconstructed to become a peace strategy and to help the maintenance of the peace process by revisiting, and where appropriate reconstituting, the past for the purpose of peace. There are a number of dimensions to this:

  • Forgetting to remember that which is divisive or inconvenient to the peace agreement.
  • Correction of the distortions of the past that once fuelled divided memories.
  • Historical re-envisioning of the conflict itself so that the way it is remembered changes.
  • Recovery of memories, perhaps formerly denied or avoided, that illustrate unity or peaceable co-existence in the past rather than enmity.
  • Developing new narratives of nationhood and symbolic structures that legitimize the new post-violence regime.
  • Developing new forms of commemoration that celebrate peace and cultural diversity, which point towards the future.
  • Developing a pluralist approach to memory to incorporate other groups’ memories.
  • Continually remembering to forget what needs to be discarded socially and to recollect what needs to be remembered.

Collective amnesia appears the oddest of the above notions. Amnesia is here meant as a conscious decision to forget. Amnesia has been part of the nation-building project in many post-violence societies in the past, such as post-Franco Spain and post-war Germany (on which see Frei 2002). In ancient Greece, there was an annual ritual in the temple in which worshippers were reminded to continue to forget a defeat in war. Mandela was famous for saying in South Africa that people needed to forget the past. This was not literal. What he meant was that society should forget. People’s personal memories may well continue for a long time to be full of the violence, sacrifice and suffering. Victims often have no choice but to remember—memories furnish them with daily tortures and living nightmares. The question is not one of individual remembrances, however, but of social remembrances; how post-violence societies should structure public remembrances and commemorations so as to assist individuals in managing their personal memories. In other words, post-trauma societies should address social memory and thus only indirectly what is inside people’s heads.

Social memory cannot do all this in isolation from managing issues of truth and victimhood, all of which are intricately related, as we shall shortly emphasize, or in isolation from managing the emotions caused by violence (on which see Brewer 2006). But at this point, it is worth focusing on some social practices by which social memory can be recast as a peace strategy in order to achieve some of the dimensions noted above.

It is first necessary to identify the different roles memory performs in peace processes in order to understand the practices and policies that are relevant to each. There are four roles, some of which are primarily to do with personal memory, although indirectly social; others are directly social memory:

  • Memory as restoration for perpetrators/collaborators. This may be achieved through acknowledgement of perpetrators’ culpability through personal memory work with them. It might take the form of truth commissions or other truth recovery processes, restorative justice policies and ex-offender programmes.
  • Memory as healing for victims. This may be achieved through the therapeutic effects that follow from remembering traumatic events and builds on work in cognitive psychology about the healing effects of releasing autobiographical memory. It might take the form of story-telling and other collations of personal narratives of suffering, such as oral history projects, as well as trauma counselling.
  • Memory as reconciling for interpersonal relations. This can be addressed by sharing each other’s memories, coming to learn of each other’s experiences and views of history and of the conflict. It might take the form of cross-community work on issues around identity, history and memory and other inter-community interaction programmes. The intended outcome would be respect for others’ memories and the development of a pluralist approach to memory.
  • Memory as social transformation. This may be achieved through change in social memory at the societal level.

I want to mention in more detail the last role. Psychological healing and relationship building have direct social benefits but social memory also needs to become an object of policy management in its own right and be addressed through various social practices that assist in the reconstruction of social memory. Civil society, which is a key agent of social change and foundational to peace processes, can be mobilized to achieve these policy objectives, so that there is not a sole reliance on the new state. Indeed, some of the social practices are best dealt with by community processes rather than national or governmental strategies. Four strategies seem useful:

  • Atonement strategies, such as the ‘sorry day’ in Australia, earmarked as a special Day of Atonement or Day of Reflection, the development of ‘narratives of mourning’ that help deal with the loss and grief (such as texts, images, photographs, exhibitions and story-telling that capture a society’s cultural mourning), programmes to facilitate reflexivity amongst communities, institutions and organizations about the conflict, the provision of mechanisms for making public apologies, like formal truth commissions, concerted campaigns, perhaps through religious and para-church organizations, to address the issue of forgiveness.
  • Citizenship education programmes, which assist people to develop the citizenship skills for living with their former ‘enemies’ in the new post-violence setting. This involves civil society and the state developing programmes that help people acquire the knowledge and learn the skills for tolerance (peace activists in Northern Ireland refer to this quaintly as the public practice of manners), such as education programmes, teaching tolerance, civic responsibility and cultural diversity in schools, the establishment of bridge-building forums and the like. Post-conflict wish fulfilment does not have to re-fight the war (films like Rambo) but can be oriented to establish the peace.
  • Re-remembering strategies, such as mechanisms to capture hidden memories that are functional to peace, re-visiting the distorted memories of the past, various storytelling procedures and truth-recovery projects, changes to the history curriculum and to history textbooks and to the mass media’s cultural mediation of history, public mechanisms to garner and support new frames of meaning and sense-making through re-remembering. Public memories can be recast and reconstructed by means of historical re-envisioning of the conflict (in which, for example, it might be denuded of its ethnic origins, blamed on third parties—normally colonizers—or shown to have affected all groups equally rather than one victim group alone), as happened in Rwanda where Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities have become recognized as nineteenth-century inventions of the Belgians. There are even cases where memories have been publicly recovered (and people’s personal memories now publicly acknowledged) when they pertain to a pre-conflict past or become convenient as part of the reconciliation of social divisions (as in the new public recognition of Tamil contributions to Sinhalese culture in Sri Lanka, or Irish Catholics who served in the British armed forces in two world wars or in the colonial Royal Irish Constabulary).
  • Re-memorializing strategies, such as museums, exhibitions, memorials that celebrate peace, either through a focus on the pain of the past enmity (Robben Island/Holocaust museums) or which point toward a new future, the development of new symbols of commemoration, such as flags, public rituals, national holidays and new sites for memorializing such as Centres for Remembrance or Reconciliation (buildings, places, heritage centres, even forests or parks devoted to peace).

These strategies are likely to be more effective in conjunction with policies that address truth recovery and victimization.

Memory, Truth Recovery, and Victimhood

Truth and victimhood seem strangely coupled, but there are good reasons for linking the two together with memory. Some of the demand for truth commissions and truth recovery processes comes from combatants, in that the search for truth feeds into the issue of amnesty and speeds social reintegration of ex-combatants. The ANC was in favour of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on these grounds, as were some former members of the South African Police. Security force personnel in Guatemala who have been ‘born again’ in their conversion to conservative evangelicalism, have been keen to reinforce this wiping away of their past by also participating in truth recovery (see Kaur 2003). Governments can desire truth recovery too, in order to try to give an official version of events. Most of the demand for truth, however, comes from victims. In the transition to post-violence there is a desperate need by victims to know the ‘truth. It is for this reason that truth commissions proliferate, or take different forms as judicial inquiries, recovered memory projects or commemoration projects through the collation of people’s narratives.

This wish for the ‘truth’ is widely recognized as part of victims’ healing and is a necessary element of reconciliation, so truth recovery has formed a part of most post-violence adjustments. A lot of the demand for truth recovery comes from victims groups who want an opportunity for their suffering to be publicly acknowledged as well as to discover those responsible for their pain and expose the general atrocities of the perpetrators. One might use the common alliteration of the three ‘R’s’ to understand this: victims approach truth recovery procedures from the point of recognition (of their victim-hood), responsibility (discovering who is to blame) and retribution (exposing the perpetrators). Whether or not we add a fourth ‘R’ to the alliteration—reconciliation—depends upon whether the victimhood experience becomes psychologically healing and sociologically functional. I will explain below what is meant by sociologically functional victimhood.

Recognition, responsibility and retribution are motivations that easily resonate with the experience of victimhood. The three ‘R’s’ can dominate even the ambiguous groups and communities that were both victims and perpetrators simultaneously. Republicans in Northern Ireland, for example, are in favour of truth recovery procedures as a way of exposing the role of the British state, even though they run the risk of exposing their own culpability; likewise Loyalists want to expose the military background of Sinn Fein politicians but try to continue to conceal the role of the security forces. It may well be that their respective support for a Northern Irish Truth and Reconciliation Commission will wane once they realize that they cannot control what truths the process discloses (on truth recovery in Northern Ireland see Lundy and McGovern 2001; Smyth 2003). But their wish to use so-called truth to batter their opponents illustrates the general problem with truth recovery in all post-violence societies. The idea of truth is problematic; hence the universal complaints that truth commissions only disclose partial truths. Analysts know that ‘truth tends to be relative, truth-from-a-perspective and is subjective, but common sense renders the idea of truth as objective, unaffected by partisan standpoints (Shapin 1994). Not unnaturally therefore, victims often wish to know what happened and who was responsible and tend to believe that there is but one objective course of events and decisions in the past that represents this ‘true’ account. They want to know whose hands are dirty and bloodstained and believe such identification is unproblematic and non-partisan. Thus, while ‘truth is therapeutic and part of the healing process, it can re-open wounds and hinder or slow the process of reconciliation because the ‘truth may be used from one standpoint to damn a particular group. People’s perception of the peace process may be negatively affected by the ‘truth behind the former violent acts of negotiators, peace activists or politicians, or by feelings of anger, shock or rage at finally ‘proving’ the identity of the culpable. In short, ‘truth can be incompatible with ‘reconciliation’ (Rotberg and Thompson 2000).

Peace processes therefore need to manage two problems: finding the balance between the need to know what happened in the past and moving forward, and encouraging victims to see the truth from someone else’s standpoint. Such balance allows victims to know about the past in such a way as not to keep them locked there. It is for this reason that the fourth ‘R,’ reconciliation, does not automatically form part of the alliteration. If it is to do so it needs to become the objective of policy management, which requires that victimhood is policy managed in such a way as to make it sociologically functional to the new society.

Why Truth is Important

Truth Commissions have been used for a long time (see Hayner 1994, 2001), particularly in Latin America, and the universalization of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made the demand for one part of the rhetoric of several peace negotiations since. It is easy to see why; there are at least four reasons that make ‘truth important:

  • Recognition of victimhood via truth recovery, particularly of unacknowledged suffering, is therapeutic for victims.
  • Assigning responsibility for incidents can be healing for victims and their relatives, as well as restorative for perpetrators.
  • Truth recovery is a way of managing the emotional dynamics of post-violence adjustments and dealing with the problem of memory.
  • Truth recovery offers procedures for making ‘shame apologies.’

For my purposes here, however, I want to focus on the negative case in order to illustrate that truth recovery is not a simple panacea.

There have been many different complaints made about the specific truth recovery processes deployed in the past, but these essentially break down into three sorts of problem: problems around how the claims to ‘truth are received in the recovery process; concern around the partiality of the truths disclosed by the process; and anxieties over the selective use to which truths are put. Let me look briefly at each in turn. What matters for the effectiveness of truth recovery is how the claims to truth are received. They have to be heard as accurate descriptions of events. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up an investigation unit to test the veracity of truth claims, only to discover that most things could not be proved unless the perpetrator claimed responsibility—as most did not. The readiness to hear what is disclosed as somehow ‘true’ is diminished when what is disclosed does not fit with what the victim or relatives expected or wanted. Uncomfortable truths are often explained away as inadequate or, indeed, as untrue, especially if the truth recovery process that disclosed it lacks community legitimacy. Judicial or governmental enquiries as specific truth recovery procedures often lack legitimacy because of poor community involvement. Afrikaners saw the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a witchhunt against them and mostly refused to participate.

Even where shame apologies are made as part of truth recovery as combatants acknowledge culpability, apologies have to be heard by the former enemy to be meant, the key to which, according to the restorative justice paradigm, is hearing the shame-guilt as genuine. Elsewhere I have discussed some of the problems around shame-guilt as emotions, and some of the difficulties in eliciting shame-guilt apologies (Brewer 2006). The failure of Ulster Protestants to hear what they consider amounts to an apology from Sinn Fein has been used by anti-Agreement Unionists as one of the grounds to suspend the Belfast Agreement. This bears witness to the difficulties some perpetrators have in saying precisely what victims want and to the doubts victims have about accepting what is actually said.

The partial nature of the truths disclosed is both cause and effect of the problems around how truth claims are received, resulting in ‘truth being partisan. Some people can simply refuse to participate in the recovery process, as happened in South Africa, ensuring a onesided or selective recovery of truth. There can be vested interests trying to limit what is disclosed. Truth recovery processes have sometimes been designed by states, governments or political groups to disguise their own culpability or partisanly expose that of their opponents. This is most likely to happen in post-violence settings where the former regime retains some capacity to dictate the disclosure of its activities and thus in those peace accords where there has not been an outright winner.

The terms of reference of the truth recovery process can sometimes be under the control of powerful groups who limit the range of activities to be addressed. The South African Commission focused on ‘gross violations of human rights’ between March 1960 and May 1994. This was impressive enough but it addressed actual incidents and events in this time frame and thus excluded what we might call the silent oppression of the apartheid regime itself. It has been noted, for example, that since women bore the brunt of that oppression, through forced removals, the pass laws, domestic violence and broken families, women were not recognized as a special category of victim beyond specific incidents of murder or abuse that involved them (Wilson 2001). But other truth commissions have been less generous than South Africa’s. The Chilean Commission, for example, focused only on the disappearances and not on Chilean human rights abuses, although the El Salvadorian commission had a very broad mandate to address ‘serious acts of violence’ (for a comparison of the two, see Ensalaco, 1994). The Northern Irish Victims Commission, not strictly a truth recovery process but which was set up as part of the peace accord, published a Report entitled We Will Remember Them, which completely excluded victims of state violence (for an account from the Chair of the Commission, see Bloomfield 1998).

One response to control on the truth recovery process from above is to have community-based processes. However, these are mostly localized and focus on truth recovery in a particular neighbourhood or group, and thus tend to be quite deliberately partisan. One notable exception to this was Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification, better known as the Recovery of the Historical Memory Project (1999). This was set up by the grassroots and civil society in Guatemala under the aegis of the Catholic Church as a popular response to the weakness of the state’s own truth commission. The Report was launched in 1998 to great controversy—the coordinator of the project was assassinated two days later. The project addressed country-wide cases of murder and managed to be popularly acclaimed by local communities, demonstrating the viability of democratic and grassroots approaches to truth recovery, but even so, it took only six months to address 36 years of violence and lacked legal powers to compel participation. Information collected could not be used in prosecutions, and it lacked resources.

If truth recovery mostly discloses only partial truths, it is hardly surprising that what it discloses can be selectively used. Indeed, people often have pre-determined preferences in the way they intend to use so-called truths, which limit their capacity to receive as genuine whatever the recovery process reveals. ‘Truth may merely be a bludgeon with which to beat the other side, to criticize their position as elected representatives or dispute their place in parliament. Disclosures and revelations can be used to continue the war not end it, inflaming not assuaging emotions. ‘Truth in these settings may lead to revenge killings rather than emotional recovery. This is especially the case under two conditions: where victimhood is widely dispersed throughout the society so that most people can claim status as victim and perpetrator at the same time; and where the peace accord is fragile so that truth recovery is used intentionally to continue the conflict or to oppose a settlement. It is reasonable to argue on the basis of all this evidence that truth recovery works best, if at all, as part of a successful settlement that has already stopped the killing, not as a mechanism itself to end the violence. But if not by means of truth recovery, what is the best way to manage the experience of victimhood?

Memory and Victimhood

In earlier work (Brewer 2003), I have alluded to the psychological costs of peace for victims in Northern Ireland and South Africa, and the special problems they face in adjusting to their ‘identity dilemma’: victims have defined their identity for so long in terms of ‘the enemy’ and suddenly find in peace processes that they have to reshape their sense of who they are. What makes adjustment worse for victims is that victimhood is highly politicized, for it encapsulates the moral virtues of the groups involved in the conflict and addresses their separate claims to moral justification for the war. What is victimhood and who gets to define it are thus key questions in truth recovery and peace processes generally.

Victim groups tend to dominate the debate about victimhood and to affect our perception of who the victims are and what experiences victims suffered. Yet in a sense everyone who has lived amidst communal conflict is a victim irrespective of whether they or others significant to them experience direct suffering and harm. While some victim groups recognize that everyone shares the experience of victimhood in different ways, others operate a hierarchy of suffering and attach to themselves and their kind a special victimhood. There are also individuals with profound feelings of harm and suffering who are not in victim groups and are thus ignored inasmuch as victim groups attribute to themselves the moral claim to have suffered or suffered the worst. Victimhood is a more general experience than victim groups imply or accept and needs to become recognized as a moral claim everyone can reasonably invoke. We also need to recognize that society as a whole is a victim not just individuals living in it, in that a whole society can be impacted by the conflict, not just people directly wrapped up in it. These forms of victim experience tend not to form part of the mobilization done by victim groups.

However, victim groups serve several functions, not all of which are negative for the peace process. Victim groups provide support structures, from counselling through to shared storytelling. They can act as campaigners on behalf of victims, mobilizing for material resources and public attention. Many voluntary groups, charities and social movements in civil society similarly work in this positive way for their client groups. Another function is more negative. Namely, where the victim groups act as forms of political mobilization, either as political alternatives to conventional groups, or more likely, as surrogates on behalf of political parties. This is negative irrespective of whether the mobilization is done to undermine or undergird the peace accord. Victim groups that ally themselves with anti-peace groups use their suffering as a brake on the negotiated settlement by accusations that their suffering is being neglected or undervalued. It is hard to respond to such claims. It is more defensible to discourage all politicization of victim experiences. Politicization is difficult to reverse once set in train; some political parties who formerly embraced victim groups as part of their contestation of the peace accord can find victim groups an embarrassment as the party’s political agenda changes.

Victimhood can thus remain divisive in peace processes. In Northern Ireland’s case, for example, victimhood was experienced differently between Catholics and Protestants and contested notions of culpability for the violence tend to reproduce the old divisions because there is either a reluctance to accept the others’ victimhood or a wish to impose an artificial hierarchy of victimhood in which one’s own ‘side’ suffered the worst. Equality of victimhood is denied, so that victimhood is not a uniting experience amongst people who shared the same emotional and physical suffering. Victim groups in these circumstances thus tend to cohere around the lines of division and differentiation involved in the former violence, easily reproducing the old dysfunctional passions. In Northern Ireland, there are ex-combatant groups (security forces, Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries), giving recognition to their particular partisan set of experiences and suffering. There are survivor groups (‘survivor’ here includes relatives and family members of the dead) who act as champion on their own or their loved one’s behalf as people with shared experiences. Sometimes survivor groups are based around a high-profile incident of atrocity in which they or their significant other were involved; sometimes, amongst types of survivor, such as those based on neighbourhood, religion or type of suffering, injury and harm. There are also political victim groups, who have either been hijacked by the political parties for broader political ends or are themselves political groupings only masquerading as victim groups. These groups tend not even to talk to one another.

Even though victimhood is politicized and manipulated, post-violence societies cannot afford to neglect victims. Victimhood can cause feelings that constitute a psychological disorder for the sufferer from grief upward to known psychiatric conditions. These have to be managed if the person is to become a normal functioning member of the new society. A pathway to psychological healing for the individual forms part of post-violence adjustments, for victimhood is a psychological state. It is also a sociological process. That is to say, victimhood has ramifications at the level of society rather than just the person. It can distort society by introducing what has been called ‘bad civil society’ (Chambers and Kopstein 2001), that is, voluntary and community groups whose practice and effects, unintended or otherwise, destabilize the social structure, perpetuate ancient hatreds and reproduce the conflict. Victimhood at the social level keeps vivid the emotional dynamics associated with the former society, requiring policies by which society manages the continued emotional impact of past communal violence. Victimhood provides a ready source of political mobilization that can impact negatively on the peace accord, made especially difficult since such politicization is emotion-based rather than reasoned, thus inhibiting the transformation from emotion/identity politics to democratic/issue politics. A post-violence society thus needs to find pathways to healing for the society as well as for the individual.

Victimhood can be made sociologically functional for peace processes as a result of public policies that address it at the societal level. The following seem relevant policies, although they are hardly comprehensive:

  • Society needs to find ways in which victimhood can be honoured as an experience in public ways (in acts of remembrance and commemoration, sites of memorial, recovered memory projects, truth recovery projects and the like);
  • Victim groups need to be recast as ‘healing groups,’ in which victims are encouraged to release themselves from the past and look to the future, by which victim groups maintain their positive functions (support structures and resource campaigners) but shed their political ones, a transformation that society reinforces both materially and symbolically.
  • Society should materially and symbolically discourage burdens of grief for the individual being used by victims and victim groups to prevent the rest of society moving on in terms of the victims’ attitudes toward social and political change.
  • Forums of public accountability need to be developed in which victims and victim groups are required to take responsibility, along with the rest of society, for the future rather than just commiserate in their suffering.
  • Financial and material resources should be deployed by the state to manage the practice and functions of victim groups.
  • A pluralist attitude toward victimhood should be facilitated and supported in which the victimhood of everyone is morally upheld and hierarchies of victimhood challenged.
  • Cultural adjustments in the long term should stress the unity of victimhood as an experience across the divide, something reinforced in the short term by citizenship education programmes, adjustments to school curricula, publicity campaigns and acts of public remembrance and commemoration and in sites of memorial.
  • Special sites of healing should be developed in parallel to sites of remembrance, being those places, events, moments or experiences that bring together victims from across the divide.

Not only is this form of victimhood healing for society generally, many of these policy initiatives seem relevant also for psychological healing of individual victims.


Memory, nationalism and communal violence can be an unholy trinity. However, the sociological nature of memory permits memory to become an object of public policy, in which various social practices are deployed to make memory functional to post-violence societies. Subsidiary issues like truth recovery and victimhood are dealt with in the process, making memory pivotal to peace.