Louis Bickford

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

About this blog series

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. FriEnt's previous Radical-Critical blog series addressed the question if its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? The follow-up series goes further and asks if its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices are still valid against the backdrop of historic legacies like slavery or colonialism.

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On the meaning of non repetition

Confronting the legacies of the past
11. Mai 2022
kelly-mccrimmon-ZVlmHN6qWFo | Unsplash

The idea of learning from the past so as not to repeat it is so commonly mentioned that it seems axiomatic and obvious. But a focus on legacies and path dependencies requires that we rethink any facile assumptions and delve deep into the complexities of ongoing violations of rights that result from earlier moments in history and have become normalized.

It is often said that societies must “learn” from the past so as “not to repeat it”. But what, precisely, does “non-repetition” mean? After all, the past never repeats itself exactly. The Visigoths will never again sack Rome. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 can, by definition, only happen once.

One common understanding of the relationship between “learning” and “non-repetition” is quite literal: that if we learn the causes of Action/Event X in the historical past, then we can take steps to stop Action/Event X from happening again in the future. Take for example the 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II while he was riding in an open car, sometimes called the popemobile. Shortly after he was shot, bulletproof glass was fitted onto the popemobile, thus successfully decreasing the likelihood that a future pope riding in the popemobile driving through a future crowd will be injured by a future shooter. The Vatican has “learned from the past” so as “not to repeat it”.

The past isn´t dead. It isn´t even past.

But there is a second way to think about this relationship, summarized pithily by William Faulkner when he wrote that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”. Learning from the past in this second sense would require understanding legacies: ongoing patterns, systems, and institutions that were established in the past that continue today.

A legacy is a historical trajectory that is “repeated” through its consistent affirmation and normalization, even deepening, almost on a daily basis. Seen from this perspective, non-repetition would require understanding and “not repeating” the uncountable ways in which societies affirm and normalize those legacies in the present and future. A related concept is path dependency: certain historical moments launch societies down new trajectories, which become deeply entrenched pathways. Like a trail in the forest, we rarely even notice the pathway itself (it seems normal enough) and we even more rarely go through the trouble of bushwacking off the trail, much less forging an entirely new pathway. But, continuing with the metaphor, if we want a different destination (non-repetition in the fullest sense), we need new pathways too, not just scenic diversions.

The difference between perspectives can be quite stark. For example, if we seek to “not repeat” the violence and atrocities committed by the British reactions to the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952-1960), these perspectives would take us in different directions. The first perspective would focus on the extreme acts of torture and repression committed by the British during those years. The result would be new laws, policies, norms, and practices which prevent the British from committing violence overseas. This is a positive outcome, and resembles the actual results of a 2012 legal case, but does not go very far.

Non-repetition would mean confronting the sources of violence

Seen from the second perspective, by contrast, we would examine the Mau Mau Rebellion in its greater context, as a difficult stretch of a pathway that was launched long earlier, in 1913. That was the year of the Land Act when the British government gave 999-year leases to white settlers, creating a monopoly on land use, and thus creating the conditions that would lead to the uprising thirty years later. Instead of focusing on legislation to curb acts of violence, then, we would focus on land ownership and distribution in Kenya, seeking equitable solutions to the deep inequality that continues today. Mau-Mau was, therefore, a fragment of a much longer story. Non-repetition would mean confronting the sources of violence—inequity of land ownership—and would lead to different and larger recommended changes in society.

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