Ethics of Political Commemoration
The question of what and how to commemorate is a pressing contemporary challenge in politics, as disputes over past events influence identity formation, how social groups and states treat each other, and the potential for positive or conflictual relationships. At the heart of this challenge is a question of what ‘good’ or ‘ethical’ political commemoration looks like, and how we can determine whether proposed commemorative actions are ethical. In the absence of a robust paradigm, disagreement can escalate in part because sides feel that dimensions of commemoration that are important to them are disregarded entirely.
We propose a framework for the Ethics of Political Commemoration that can help debates on the past, the same way that the Just War Theory influenced military approaches to war. This is not with a view to forcing a resolution, but to at least provide a better structure for disagreements. The framework uses a set of Ius ad Memoriam (how do we justify commemoration?) and Ius in Memoria (what is appropriate commemoration?) criteria.
Ius ad Memoriam
Right Intention. Are we trying to gain advantage over ‘the other’ or to build a better joint future? Commemoration is an ethical undertaking if it helps to build bridges of empathy, if it promotes mutual understanding, or if it supports re-conciliation.
Reasonable Chance of Success. Commemoration becomes unethical if it creates cycles of violence. Empirical social research is required to understand the impact of planned commemoration on conflict and its transformation.
Legitimate Authority. Commemoration should speak for the experience of wider society in a compassionate way, rather than being used by elite groups to strengthen their authority and voice over society.
Just Cause. Commemoration should look to memorialize that which is significant and most in need of redress, without needing to establish a grievance in absolute terms.
Ius in Memoria
Transcend the Collectives. Commemoration can reinforce 'us and them' divisions. Commemoration is ethical if it encourages people to treat each other as individuals rather than group representatives.
Exit Circular Narratives. Commemoration should help people exit circular narratives that trap them in debilitating interpretative loops. Further, commemoration should not distract people from their own agency and responsibility.
Assert Moral Autonomy. Groups should justify their actions in universal terms, rather than excusing transgressions with reference to what others have done. This means that commemoration should help those in conflict to assess themselves first.
Contained Unfathomability. Precision with dates, locations and names can help to tether past trauma. Conversely, there is something to be said for general categories to communicate qualitative aspects of trauma.
The book Ethics of Political Commemoration: Towards a New Paradigm (publication in August 2023) sets out this framework. Offering a moral argument with memorable illustrations, we draw on experiences from Armenia, Georgia, Ireland, Lebanon, and Libya, while connecting to mainstream debates in Western Europe and the United States.
Bringing together an ethical tradition with the practice of conflict transformation, the framework fuses two perspectives that enrich each other. The book, in providing a first systematic presentation of the ethics, seeks to engage citizens and scholars, and help those who work to transform conflicts.
Ethics of Political Commemoration: Towards a New Paradigm, forthcoming, Palgrave, August 2023, see here.
The Ethics of Political Commemoration: The Stalin Museum and Thorny Legacies in the Post-Soviet Space. Hans Gutbrod published an article in PONARS Eurasia in March 2022.
Genealogies of Memory: History and Memory in International Relations. Hans Gutbrod and David Wood presented on the ethics at an international conference in Poland, October 2022.
Memory Politics: The Challenge of Commemoration in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. David Wood and Hans Gutbrod participated in an event organized by Chatham House in October, 2021.
How to Commemorate Wisely. Presentation by Hans Gutbrod at the Central Eurasia Studies Society, Annual Conference, October, 2021.
Turkey Will Never Recognize the Armenian Genocide. David Wood and Hans Gutbrod published an article in Foreign Policy in June, 2021.
Towards an Ethics of Commemoration. Hans Gutbrod was featured in CPCS' newsletter in May 2021.
Towards an Ethics of Commemoration - Reflections on Armenia’s Quest for Recognition. Hans Gutbrod participated in a CPCS event in April, 2021, discussing the ethics of commemoration.
Assembling the Moral Puzzle – Just War Tradition and Karabakh. Hans Gutbrod published an article in Global Policy in February, 2021.
Bringing the Ideas to Your Team or Class
Our contention is that this Ethics of Political Commemoration can ‘sustain a constant scrutiny and an imminent critique’ of commemoration, to use the words with which Michael Walzer described the role of just war theory. Such scrutiny can help direct practices, and, at its best, transform relationships and build peace. If you are interested in a guest/book presentation for your team or class, contact or follow us below.
Other Articles featuring the Ethics of Political Commemoration
Hans Gutbrod “Yerevan’s Cascade Memorial to Victims of Repression: Returning from Hilltop Marginalization”, Slovo 36(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.14324/111.444.0954-6839.1409
———, Sebald's Path in Wertach -- Commemorating the Commemorator, Cultures of History Forum (30.05.2023), DOI: 10.25626/0146. <https://cultures-of-history.uni-jena.de/exhibitions/germany/sebalds-path-in-wertach-commemorating-the-commemorator>
———, ‘Addressing Institutional Trauma in Health Care: The Case for a Structured Ethical Framework’, STAT, 2022 <https://www.statnews.com/2022/08/09/addressing-institutional-trauma-health-care-structured-ethical-framework/>
———, ‘Bolnisi Museum — the Longest Human Journey’, OC Media, 1 August 2022 <https://oc-media.org/features/bolnisi-museum-the-longest-human-journey/>
———, ‘Brijuni or Brioni: Reviewing Tito’s Luxury Island’, Baltic Worlds, 2022 <https://balticworlds.com/brijuni-or-brioni-reviewing-titos-luxury-island/>
———, ‘Ethics and the Glasshouse of New Genocide Claims in Georgia’, Caucasus Edition | Journal of Conflict Transformation, 2022 <https://caucasusedition.net/ethics-and-the-glasshouse-of-new-genocide-claims-in-georgia/>
———, ‘Just War Theory: The Only Winner Across Four Grim Conflicts’, Opinio Juris, 2022 <https://opiniojuris.org/2022/06/27/just-war-theory-the-only-winner-across-four-grim-conflicts/>
———, ‘Natan Sznaiders Fluchtpunkte der Erinnerung und eine Ethik des Gedenkens’, theorieblog.de, 2022 <https://www.theorieblog.de/index.php/2022/09/natan-sznaiders-fluchtpunkte-der-erinnerung-und-eine-ethik-des-gedenkens/>
———, ‘Uses of Scholastic Tradition Against Abuses of History’, Religion in Praxis, 2022 https://religioninpraxis.com/uses-of-scholastic-tradition-against-abuses-of-history/
How to cite this page: Hans Gutbrod, David Wood, The Ethics of Political Commemoration – An Overview of the Framework, SHU CPCS Website, 2023, https://www.shu-cpcs.org/ethics-of-political-commemoration