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The African Union has resolved to create a memorial to the victims of human rights violations in Africa at its headquarters in Addis Ababa. This promises both a deeper engagement with human rights and a more holistic approach to conflict transformation by the continental body

This initiative is particularly remarkable at a time when the AU is in the headlines for its confrontation with the International Criminal Court, an institution that represents a step forward for international justice – albeit currently compromised and partial. In contrast, the African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM) project shows the AU in a precedent-setting role, both in its establishment of a continental memorial and in its engagement in a consultation process with various civil society groups and memorialisation experts to inform the content and form of the memorial.

No memorial can respond to the immediate needs of those Africans who are fleeing to churches for sanctuary again and United Nations officials are warn of a risk of mass atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR). As in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), military force is an essential component in any effort to halt the massacres. The African Union may authorise an intervention force, as required by the principles of its Constitutive Act; it has committed to protect civilians in grave circumstances of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. But if the lessons of the DRC tell us anything it is that peacekeepers, however robust, are not sufficient to resolve conflicts. Even as the M23 are defeated, but some wonder whether a new M24 will emerge.[1]

If it were true, as some scholars argue, that conflict in Africa is rooted in contestation over scarce resources or is a response to collapsing ‘weak’ corrupt states, then rapid external interventions and post-conflict ‘statebuilding’ projects might succeed. But too often peace operations don’t work, or broker unstable, partial settlements. This reinforces the evidence that the origins of conflict lie in complex socio-political logics and processes. Perpetrators are not simply driven by greed or grievance; understanding and ending conflict depends on changing the ideas and social practices that organise conflicts and on promoting existing cultures of peace.[2] Notably, African communities are bound by commitments to honour their dead; intra-communal and regional solidarities can also be forged through practices and symbols which uphold human dignity.

The AUHRM project represents Africa’s recognition of this need to go beyond conflict resolution and engage in transformation. The project has been in the making since 2003. The proposal for a memorial began as an expression of moral regret for its history as a bystander to atrocities: the OAU failed to intervene to protect Rwandans from genocide and it failed to denounce the Red Terror in Ethiopia in the 1970s—an atrocity carried out on its very doorstep in Addis Ababa. On the tenth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the AU stated: ‘the need to restore the dignity of the victims through acknowledgement and commemoration of their suffering in order to… prevent further violations of this magnitude.’

The annual commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda became the basis for a commitment to commemorate the Red Terror at the AU headquarters, in recognition of the unique history of its location. By this time, the AU had inherited the neighbouring compound, the land formerly of the former Kerchele prison, known as ‘Alem Bekagn’ (farewell to the world), a site of massacre, torture and abuse, which was due to become the site of the AU conference centre and headquarters building. In January 2012, the new building was inaugurated with a vast continental gathering. As part of the ceremony three African leaders, Presidents Paul Kagame, Jacob Zuma and Yayi Boni, laid a foundation stone for the AUHRM at the site.

As indicated by the small gathering which attended the unveiling of the AUHRM foundation stone, some leaders have yet to embrace the initiative – even if none has yet openly opposed it. Indeed, the project is better off without the support of some, for instance the AU narrowly avoided the prospect of a notorious human rights abuser President Theodoro Obiang Nguema unveiling the stone. But certain AU representatives have been firm supporters of the project, among them the Rwandan, Ethiopian and South African ambassadors. Their commitment originates in the experience of particular national atrocities, but they have now become champions for the victims of violations elsewhere. As such, the AUHRM project has the potential to encourage leaders to challenge violations and honour all victims; it is not simply a means for the construction of legitimacy as some might have envisaged.

The project is still in its early stages. At the AU, the foundation stone is the only physical marker. But questions are already being asked its future merit, as one blogger recently commented: ‘What is the purpose of having exhibits of mass atrocities such as “The African Union Human Rights Memorial Project” when you are not doing much to abate future crimes against humanity?’[3] This reminds us that the premise that public remembrance is a means to ensure ‘never again’ has already been shown to be false. Memorialisation is not equivalent to peacebuilding, on the contrary, it can become a means to mobilise for war and strengthen exclusionary notions of community, making outsiders vulnerable or targets. Nor can public remembrance offer a panacea for loss and suffering; often it is painful and it may revive trauma. We may deem a monument to be a symbolic form of ‘reparation’ but it does not replace the moral duty to care for survivors and address their economic and social losses.

A memorial that takes elite, selective and static forms will not prevent future violence and might even contribute to the consolidation of certain forms of selective memory and associated political repression. And yet genocide remembrance fuelled the spread of international human rights norms, while public forgetting constitutes a form of denial. The answer to this dilemma lies in the processes through which memory are made. Indeed a dialogue about how past atrocities are remembered may even have more impact than the forms and content of a particular memorial. In this regard we should welcome the AU’s launch in 2010 of a series of three consultative meetings at its headquarters in Addis Ababa with survivors, memorialisation experts, scholars and human rights groups to gather recommendations for an AUHRM; its outcomes included the formation of an AUHRM network. In 2013, the AUHRM Interim Board and the Department of Political Affairs at the AU, with which the ownership of the physical memorial lies, extended the consultation process, authorising six ‘in-country’ consultations to be coordinated by civil society groups in the AUHRM network.

Justice Africa has worked in partnership with local memorial museums and human rights groups to support the AUHRM process. Over the past year, we have co-convened memory forums in Kigali on the genocide in Rwanda, in Addis Ababa on the Red Terror and Graziani massacres (perpetrated by the Italian Fascist regime in 1937), and in Dakar on slavery; in each, survivors, scholars and memory practitioners have shared and examined the histories of violence, or spoken of their personal suffering and loss and the ways in which they remember, as well as of the challenges of memorialisation. Tutsi survivors in Rwanda spoke of commemoration as a means to overcome divisions, and of how they also remember the Hutus who were killed in the genocide and ‘reading loudly their names and acts’. Ethiopians told private stories of the Red Terror and expressed concern at the limits on access to documentation of the killings, despite public trials and convictions. Activists combatting contemporary slavery in Mauritania described how women and children remain in bondage while there is an imposed silence about both these and the historical injustices of the slave trade: ‘We are forbidden to memorialise slavery and we are forbidden to fight slavery’. Throughout these consultations we have been inspired the memory work going on around the continent and its association with human rights education, with examples from District Six (South Africa), La Maison des Esclaves (Senegal), the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre (Rwanda), Constitution Hill (South Africa) and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience among others.

The wrongs to be memorialized at the AUHRM include slavery, apartheid and genocide, described by Professor Andreas Eshete of the AUHRM Interim board as ‘practices which are paradigms of public evil, for they exclude an entire people from the equal title of belonging to a common humanity.’ But already the scope and reach of the project is growing and consultations on the memories of civil war in South Sudan and prison massacres in Libya will take place in the months ahead. Such dialogues among concerned citizens should continue. In the words of the Professor Eshete: ‘the AU Memorial should become an enduring, generative source of Pan-African solidarity’. We need a continental ‘citizen-led movement’ to promote dignity, rights and an end to atrocities in Africa.

* Rachel Ibreck is Acting Director, Justice Africa



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1. Martyn Davis of Frontier Advisory, in David Pratt (2013) ‘Doubts remain over Congo despite surrender of rebels’, The Herald, Friday 8 November, accessed 19 November 2013
2. See Paul Richards (2005) ‘New War, An Ethnographic Approach’, No Peace No War, An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts, Oxford, James Currey, pp 1-21
3. Daniel Kawuma (2013) ‘Open Letter from Massacred Africans to the African Union’, African on the Blog, 30 October,, accessed 19 November 2013