UN genocide commemoration, transnational scenes of mourning and the global project of learning from atrocity

Br J Sociol. 2013 Sep;64(3):501-25. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12029.


This paper offers a critical analytic reconstruction of some of the main symbolic properties of annual UN Holocaust and Rwandan genocide commemorations since 2005. Applying a discourse-historical approach (Wodak and Meyer 2010), it retraces how themes of guilt, responsibility, evil and redemption are woven together across annual commemorative performances in the hope of stabilizing shared patterns of cultural translation of the significance of these atrocities to globally dispersed communities. UN commemorative discourse characteristically links memories of Holocaust and Rwandan trauma in a 'chain of communication' with those of other episodes of brutality (e.g., Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur) chiefly to convey the continuity of human barbarity across time and endorse certain presuppositions regarding the fate of a fallen humanity in this more 'post-secular' age. As scenes of mourning, UN commemorations unite participating international delegations in their expressions of grief for the victims of 'preventable tragedies' in the past but also, it must be said, their uncertainty regarding new horrors likely to occur in the future. The duty to remember is reiterated continuously as both a mark of respect to those who have already perished and as a warning of atrocities yet to unfold. This paper explores how the historical constancy of violence is interpreted by the UN through a detailed critical analysis of its recently inaugurated 'remembrance through education' programme aimed at a transnational collective learning from atrocity.

Keywords: Commemoration; genocide; human rights; memory justice; moral learning; mourning; post-secularism.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Genocide
  • Grief*
  • Holocaust*
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation*
  • United Nations*
  • Violence*