Memory and Justice

An exchange between art, law and civil society on human rights abuses, torture and methods of addressing past wrongs

Institute – Cooperation Academy of Fine Arts – Justice and Memory

The Shoah, the Rwandan Genocide and the history of military dictatorship violence in Argentina are just three examples of mass violence and mass crimes that have often been addressed – though far from conclusively – by artists, lawyers and other societal actors. Meanwhile, impunity persists for colonial crimes in Algeria, torture in the so-called war on terror and violence in Syria. All of these situations have one thing in common: in the discussion on the response to these crimes, there is little interaction between lawyers, political scientists, activists and artists.


At the symposium the debate aimed to shed light on the complex relationship between law, collective memory and the creation of a historical narrative: What is the link between prosecutions in a courtroom and a civil society culture of remembering? What are the cultural and political consequences of impunity and public silence concerning grave crimes? And what ethical questions arise when portraying the suffering of others? With this thematic spectrum and several high profile guests the event is aimed at a broad, politically engaged audience.


This was a joint project by the Akademie der Künste and ECCHR. The program was curated by Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of ECCHR and includes podium discussions, film screenings, readings and an exhibition of artistic works, with contributions by Jeanine Meerapfel, Wolfgang Kaleck, Eduardo Molinari, Forensic Architecture, Nghia Nuyen, Silvina Der-Meguerditchian et al.


Gedächtnis und Gerechtigkeit © Akademie der Künste
Gedächtnis und Gerechtigkeit © Akademie der Künste

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The law is clear: torture is prohibited under any circumstances. Whoever commits, orders or approves acts of torture should be prosecuted. This is set out in the UN Convention against Torture which has been ratified by 146 states.

Failure to punish and acknowledge torture adds to the trauma of survivors and their families; individual as well as collective traumas persist. The cycle of torture, impunity and further injustice cannot be broken without addressing these crimes, including through the law. This is why – where torture is used as part of a policy – it is important to hold not only low-ranking perpetrators of torture accountable but also their superiors as well as political and military decision makers – including those from politically and economically powerful states.  

In the fight against torture, ECCHR works with survivors and partner organizations to pursue a variety of legal avenues. In some cases, it might be appropriate to bring a case to the International Criminal Court, as with the torture and mistreatment of detainees by British forces in Iraq. ECCHR also takes cases based on the principle of universal jurisdiction in third states like Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden, filing complaints against those responsible for the US torture program in the so-called "war on terror," against the Bahraini Attorney General, and against senior officials within the Syrian intelligence services.


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