Toronto Star - The incurable deficits of memory

November 20, 1999
Press Freedom

Louise Arbour, the former chief prosecutor of United Nations war crime tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkans, told journalists in Toronto to pursue the truth in the face of politicians to try to revise history. In her speech to the International Press Freedom Awards, Arbour spoke of the danger of relying on memories of past injustices as a reason to perpetrate new ones. She is now a member of the Supreme Court of Canada.
IN THE fall of 1998, I went to Sarajevo on an official visit. As usual in such circumstances, I gave a news conference at the end of my visit, which was on a Saturday morning.

Carlos Westerndorp, the High Representative for Bosnia, had asked me if I would agree to have my news conference broadcast, in full, without cuts or editing, on Republika Serpska television. As part of its efforts to cut down the stream of biased, anti-SFOR and anti-international broadcast on that state-controlled broadcaster, the High Representative had an agreement with them that they had to broadcast one hour a day of international programming, submitted to them by his office, without editing or commentary.


So I believe that we must resist, at all cost, the rooting of the lies that attempt to deny, day by day, a reality that triggers responsibility and maybe criminal liability, and that will serve to fabricate a past upon which the worst excesses of the future will be justified.

He proposed that my news conference be the international Sunday contribution. I welcomed the initiative, which allowed me to speak directly and frankly to the Serb public. Westerndorp's office was to provide the dubbing or translation, and the monitoring of compliance with the agreement. I gave my news conference, and went back to The Hague.

On Monday morning I received a report from the Tribunal's office in Sarajevo about the broadcast of our news conference on RS Television the night before. Not only had it been edited, by cutting off the parts where I spoke of Radovan Karadic and of his arrest or surrender, but it was preceded, I was told, by an introduction, describing me in the most unflattering terms as the biased political puppet of the West, or something worse that I can't quite remember.

I immediately called Ambassador Jacques Klein, Westerndorp's deputy. He had already heard, and he knew why I was calling. His office had undertaken to provide me with full, unbiased coverage, and this was now their problem. He agreed. What did I want? I said I wanted a rebroadcast of my full press conference, intact and without their introduction, and I wanted them to read out an introduction that I would supply, which included some edifying remarks about the virtues of free and fair reporting, and other niceties of democracy.

All of which the broadcasters did, to everyone's surprise, that very night . . . immediately after which SFOR tanks moved in, took over the transmitters of RS Television and shut down the station. They had cheated one time too many, said the international authorities, and the apology was too little, too late.

Although there are some who will claim that I had just been a pretext, not even the straw that broke the camel's back, for the long-awaited shutting down of this irritant to the rebuilding of Bosnian democracy, I admit that it did marvels for my image, particularly with journalists everywhere, who, I am sure, to this day will think twice about reneging of any undertaking they give me. Mind you, it did not seem to do much to the many Canadian journalists to whom I agreed to speak, between January and June of this year, on the condition that they ask me no questions about the Supreme Court of Canada.

Maybe they thought that I could not commandeer tanks as easily in Canada as I did in Bosnia, or that the Charter would somehow protect them. I suppose the issue is unlikely to be tested in court. In any event, inasmuch as I am now constrained by a duty not to express views that may trigger a reasonable apprehension of bias, particularly about Charter issues, I am prepared to assert unequivocally here tonight that I do not approve of silencing the press with tanks.

If I was not unduly upset with the nasty turn of events for freedom of the press in Bosnia, it is because I was, at that time, honestly persuaded that we, The Tribunal, had no chance of establishing ourselves as a credible international judicial institution, in an environment which was poisoned by a highly concentrated, biased, manipulated and manipulative press. I must say that I am now less sure that the lack of credibility, and therefore legitimacy, of that novel and daring institution was solely attributable to these severe distortions in the public depiction of our work where it mattered the most.

This was made apparent to me when I realized that skepticism toward our efforts, if not outright hostility, was also present in many communities, particularly Serbian and Croatian communities, in North America and in Europe, where access to more balanced, diversified and overall more accurate information about our work was, of course, widely available. Why is it then that some people cannot be persuaded about the reported factual accuracy of facts and events, anymore than they are willing to listen dispassionately to another point of view, in a debate about ideas?


A large number of the many dramas that have unfolded in the Balkans in the last decade, and many times before that, and many similar disasters in Central Africa, are rooted in a collective memory of distant, or sometimes even recent events, but a memory that suffers from severe and, it seems, incurable deficits

I have worked in and around criminal law all my professional life, and I think that I have had my fair share of exposure to deficiencies and pathologies of many kinds.

In the last three years, my work in investigations and prosecutions of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, has brought me in contact with another order of magnitude of evil, and has opened, for me, new avenues of inquiry. I am not sure that I have today sufficient distance to offer a lucid analysis of many of these issues. But tonight offers me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our efforts, judicial or journalistic efforts, to reconstruct the past, whatever the consequences.

I would therefore like to talk to you tonight about the pathology of memory and the manipulation of facts, and of history.

A large number of the many dramas that have unfolded in the Balkans in the last decade, and may times before that, and many similar disasters in Central Africa, are rooted in a collective memory of distant, or sometimes even recent events, but a memory that suffers from severe and, it seems, incurable deficits. It is very clear, however, that factual accuracy is not always of prime relevance to the language of entitlement. In fact, it is important to deal both with factual accuracy and with allegories and metaphors, as long as one does not lose the capacity to distinguish between the two, and one can muster the courage to revert to facts when fiction is no longer appropriate.

In many ways in the day to day affairs of the world, as in private life, accurate recounting and chronological precision in the recalling and telling of events is less important than the impression conveyed by that objective reality on the mind of those who experienced it, and on the memory of others, who will thereafter pass it on. Even when we are fully aware that factual inaccuracies have been demonstrably exposed, we often continue to refer to a non-truth, because the non-true story is still closer to the reality that we want to convey, than the factually accurate version of the same event.

I can illustrate that through a striking example from my recent travels. Canada owns a very beautiful residence in the Netherlands, acquired shortly after the war. It is a large Art Deco mansion, built by a famous Dutch family, and surrounded by a gorgeous park, immense by Dutch standards.

I was told when I arrived in the Netherlands that this magnificent house had been given to Canada by the Dutch government after the war, to express the gratitude of the people of the Netherlands for the role that Canada played in the liberation of Holland. It is a beautiful story, made even more relevant and credible by the fact that the house was commissioned during the war as the residence for the German commander of the occupying forces, and was apparently the home base for many German officers.

The story of the gift of the house is in a way the story of the friendship between the people of the Netherlands and the people of Canada, and the link between their respective destiny during the war. It is a simple story, easily told, and it serves to capture a whole chapter of history, that it would be difficult to recount in detail on every occasion when Dutch/Canadian relations need to be explained.

The only problem, which is not a problem at all, is, of course, that it is not true. Canada purchased that house, which never belonged to the Dutch government, from its lawful owner, in an open market, shortly after the war. But the interesting thing is that everybody seems to know that the story is not true, and yet the legend persists. Not because there is any doubt that Canada actually bought the house, but because the memory of the gift is more real than the reality of the purchase. The gift of that house is an metaphor that is too useful to have dismissed in favour of a reality that is completely meaningless.

In a case like that one, the subterfuge of collective memory is benign and inconsequential, since legal documents are available to prove the objective reality of the purchase should that ever become an issue. In fact, it is more than benign, it is positively superior to reality since it speaks, in a simple and persuasive way, of bravery, generosity, gratitude and reciprocity. And it does not lie.

The Dutch never cease to express their gratitude for the role that Canada played in the liberation of their country. Moreover, the Dutch government was instrumental in suggesting that Canada should consider buying the Kroller-Muller residence, as the house was called, as fitting for its embassy and because it was of historical significance to the Netherlands.

So all is well, and if truth loses in the process, then all is still well.


Even when we are fully aware that factual inaccuracies have been demonstrably exposed, we often continue to refer to a non-truth, because the non-true story is still closer to the reality that we want to convey, than the factually accurate version of the same event

Not so, I would suggest, with the numerous myths and legends, undeniable because unverifiable, at least unverifiable to the satisfaction of those who perpetuate them, these myths that feed the extremist discourse that leads not only to war, but to genocide, extermination, murder, rape, torture, enslavement, deportation and persecution on ethic, racial or religious grounds. It is difficult to believe that there are some who seriously purport to justify these kinds of excesses, by reference to alleged injustices, suffered centuries before, by poor people whose unsettled claims they have appropriated. There is a difference between suggesting that crime is not the subject of time limitations, and relying on the immortality of entitlement to revenge.

Not so innocuous either are the relentless efforts of those who will attempt to create a benign mythology to mask a reality so incredibly brutal that the human mind may be forgiven for being attracted to the escapism and convenience of the denial of evil.

So I believe that we must resist, at all cost, the rooting of the lies that attempt to deny, day by day, a reality that triggers responsibility and maybe criminal liability, and that will serve to fabricate a past upon which the worst excesses of the future will be justified.

The currency of the untruths and the power to make reality just by stating something, could no better be illustrated than by the following statement attributed to Slobodan Milosevic, President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Roger Cohen of the New York Times reports (Fri., July 2, 1999) that Christopher Hill, the U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, who has had extensive dealings with the Serbian President, attending a meeting on the eve of the NATO bombings of Serbia, during which Milosevic said to him: ``You are a superpower. You can do what you want. If you want to say Sun. and Wed., you can. It is all up to you.''

What is clear to me in that statement is not so much what apparently struck Hill and others present, that is, the fatalism of Milosevic and his megalomania, but what strikes me is his obvious equating power with control of the truth. What he meant by that remark is that if you are powerful enough, you can actually make Sunday Wednesday, just by saying it.

Interestingly to me, Roger Cohen concludes his article by quoting a Serb from Kosovo Polje, cradle of the Serb nation, who said: ``He (Milosevic) came here 10 years ago to inspire us with our history of Kosovo. But we have learned that you cannot live from history. Americans have no history and they live wonderfully well.'' In other words, Milosevic lost, the lie has been exposed, not by the force of the truth, but by the force of his defeat.

One of the aims and purposes of the criminal sanction, and of international criminal justice, is to eradicate the malign untruths, to deny all moral equivalency while asserting the universality of the rule of law. I will not stand here and talk of a partnership between law enforcers and the press. But I will say that the press stands at the crossroads between the two realities: the one based on so-called objective, verifiable facts, which, of course, may mean nothing, and the one by which ideas and emotions are carried, and which may make otherwise innocuous facts newsworthy, but not necessarily true.

Champions of the marketplace of ideas should not be buyers in the marketplace of facts. The power of truth is often measurable by the intensity of the means deployed to suppress it, or in a less sinister environment, by the detailed, meticulous effort of reconstruction that is required to get the story straight. And courageous, admirable storytellers are those who get the true story, full of emotions and ideas, and who take little for granted, specially not the boilerplate.

I spent a great deal of my time in the last three years with journalists and reporters, having had no previous media experience. It felt, at times, like a reciprocal feeding frenzy, a cannibalistic effort to find out more, one from the other. Like us, by us, I mean the investigators from the Office of the Prosecutor, they were struggling with factual accuracy and plausible detail, in an environment in which history is often an exercise in attribution of the implausible.

I am therefore delighted to be here tonight to join in your tribute to journalists who are getting the greatest personal rewards of recognition by their peers. I hope that you will permit me to indulge in a small tribute to my own.

I would like to express my admiration, in this gathering, to the many journalists who have covered the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the last decade, and in particular to those who have reported on the work of the two institutions with which I have been associated. Many are well known, worldwide, others less so, at least here. Young journalists are producing Ubutabera in Arusha, one of the few independent and dependable observations of the work of ICTR. A few journalists are covering The Hague Tribunal on a daily basis. May I single out two who in my view embody the best of their profession: Mirko Klarin and Julia Bogoeva. It is through their daily recording and reporting that the integrity of the memory will be restored and preserved. May they be safe and strong.

As I was preparing my remarks for tonight, I received an E-mail from The Hague, informing me that a Bosnian Serb journalist Zeljko Kopanja of the independent newspaper Nesavisne Novine, published in Republika Serpska, had been the victim of a bombing attack. Although his life was no longer in danger, his legs had to be amputated. I understand that he was the first to publish, last summer, a series of articles on war crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs.

I urge you to remain vigilant. Thank you.

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