Spatializing Memory and Justice in Transformation Processes

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This chapter asks what processes of dealing with the past have been set in motion and how they relate to the search for justice and the quest for remembrance on a more global scale. In the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” the affected countries have been going through transitions of various forms that are significantly re-configuring the MENA region. In this context, a number of new civil society actors, political elites, and international norm entrepreneurs are engaging with the lengthy histories of repression in the respective countries as well as with the violence that occurred during the Arab Spring in order to reckon with the legacy of human rights abuses (Sriram, Transitional justice in the middle East and North Africa, Hurst, London, 2017). These transitions to justice are not without obstacles and challenges, though. The objective of her chapter is therefore not to tell the stories of various transitional justice and memory projects in post-Arab Spring countries, but to situate such practices in time and space.


Memory Transitional justice MENA Arab spring 

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the affected countries have been going through various transitions that are significantly re-configuring the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In this context, a number of new civil society actors, political elites, and international norm entrepreneurs have been engaging with the long histories of repression in these countries, as well as with the violence that occurred during the Arab Spring, in order to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses (Sriram 2017). As many chapters in this volume testify, these transitions to justice are not without their obstacles and challenges, however. Nevertheless, it is important to ask what processes of dealing with the past have been set in motion and how they relate to the search for justice and the quest for remembrance on a more global scale. The objective of this chapter is thus not to tell the stories of various transitional justice and memory projects in post-Arab Spring countries, but to situate the practice of doing so in time and space.

On a global scale, with the advent of a strong human rights discourse in the 1990s and the initial triumph of liberal peacebuilding, including a strong dose of transitional justice, demands for memory and justice after human rights abuses have become more prominent and turned into an imperative, if not a mantra. Today, hardly conflict is ended without a quest to set up an institutional, legal or civil initiative to develop transitional justice projects and to establish a memory discourse. In the MENA region, too, a variety of measures have been implemented, including inter alia a truth commission and trials in Tunisia; two highly contested memorials by the Egyptian government (Barsalou 2017, p. 201) and impromptu murals on Tahrir Square in Cairo (Pannewick 2017); vetting measures passed by the Libyan parliament (Boduszynski and Wierda 2017); and the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Fakhro 2017).

Importantly, the demand for justice and remembrance in response to past human rights abuses is no longer exclusively a domain of national governments or local initiatives, but has become part of a discourse on global responsibility and the “internationalization of the commemorative paradigm” (Bickford and Sodaro 2010). Commemorating human rights abuses has been enshrined in the UN Resolution on Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (2005), which addresses symbolic reparations, international and national institutions, and the “global consciousness” in addition to citing “commemoration and tributes to victims” as an important means of retributive justice.1

The Arab Spring occurred during a period when the field of transitional justice was reflecting on “whether it is most appropriate to adopt readymade and tested approaches or rather to push for more creativity and advancement of locally generated solutions that draw upon other experiences” (Fisher and Stewart 2015, p. 4), a question that speaks to the tension between global and local approaches to dealing with the past of human rights abuses. Against this backdrop, and without going into empirical details, this chapter focuses on the global norm of remembrance and its local translation. The field of memory and justice lends itself to a spatial analysis as put forward by this chapter, given the significant body of literature on the different phases of memory studies and commemoration as a practice, allowing us to trace the origin and spread of these ideas across time and space.

Memory and Justice from National to Global and Back to Local

Finding constructive ways of linking the past to the present and the future is central to dealing with the past of human rights violations. Accordingly, the field of transitional justice has been devoting increasing attention to memory politics (Björkdahl et al. 2017). This is also highly pertinent to the transformation processes in the MENA region, as explored in this volume, where memorials to violence and repression, intended as symbolic reparations, play a particularly significant role (Buckley-Zistel and Schäfer 2014). Moreover, memory initiatives and commemorative events such as anniversaries may contribute to a wider public understanding of the past (ICTJ 2015) and educate civil society about the violence, which may prevent future aggression (Bickford 2009). For victims and their communities, moreover, remembrance might provide some form of acknowledgement—as implied by the UN Resolution—and thus contribute to some form of restorative justice. Whether and how these normative aspirations translate into practice is a matter of empirical research.

Conceptionally, although the practice of remembering past atrocities has quite local origins, it has gone global in recent years—while maintaining its local importance (Winter 2006; Feindt et al. 2014). This development can be delineated into several phases (Erll 2011). Beginning with Maurice Halbwachs (1992) and others in the 1950s, memory studies was primarily concerned with the social and collective aspect of memory; debates revolved around how memory could be transmitted, constructed, and passed on by various societal groups ranging from family to nation. This focus on the social setting is important because remembrance, so one of Halbwachs’s key arguments, is always conditioned by the present milieu in which we are situated. In other words, we remember as part of a collective, not as individuals. This is based on an understanding of a social environment as fairly stable and extending over a limited geographic space, which leads to an understanding of social memory as confined by space and time.

Halbwachs’s viewpoint was expanded by thinking of memory in terms of material and non-material sites, as introduced by Pierre Nora (Erll 2011, p. 6). In his view, these sites of memory (lieux de mémoire) comprise “any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community” (Nora 1996, p. xviii) and thus include places, objects, and ideas that are vested with historical importance for a particular nation or community. They may include references to past violence such as war memorials or commemoration events, but also national symbols such as flags or national holidays. Importantly, they serve to create some form of bounded community, such as a nation, and thus a coherent identity.

The current thinking, in contrast, leaves behind the physical constraints of spatial limitations, i.e. localized communities or sites, and suggests that memory has gone global, that it has moved beyond national borders to become transnational (Assmann 2014; Erll 2011). Proponents of this contend that while, until recently, memory work and the construction of memorials mostly developed within the confines of nation-states, global conditions—or the conditions of globalization—have had a strong influence on remembrance (Assmann and Conrad 2010; Levy and Sznaider 2002). In the words of Andreas Huyssen, “temporal boundaries have weakened just as the experience of experimental dimension of space has shrunk as a result of modern means of transportation and communication.” (2003, p. 1). Whereas there were solid communities in the past, as in Halbwachs’s idea of the social milieu or Nora’s notion of sites of memory, under this argument, time and space are compressed. Due to mass media, the internet, and activities such as the promotion of the mantra of transitional justice, memory practices are increasingly going global. Levy and Sznaider (2002) argue that this has led to a global script that promotes a shared morality, the identification with distant others, and a desire, if not concrete efforts, to lessen their suffering. This builds a baseline of universal norms: a cosmopolitan morality, a cosmopolitan memory.

Nevertheless, despite the globalization (or transnationalization) of memory, memory remains tied to a locale. For “[a] politics of location does indeed pay rigorous attention to the local—starting from the intimate terrain of the body—but it situates such attention in relation to other scales: from the regional to the national to the global” (Rothberg 2014, p. 652; Jebari 2018). For Rothberg, this can be referred to as multidirectional memory, through which different memory projects around the globe mutually affirming one another to their mutual benefit. The emergence of Holocaust memory, he suggests, has contributed to the possibility of other victims of mass violence articulating their demands, and even highlighting or enhancing their memories—and memory itself. Moreover, it has led to a more intensely shared memory—and a sharing of memory—that disentangles individual from collective memory, links victims’ groups, and cuts across spatial, temporal, and cultural sites. This is exemplified by the Mothers of the Disappeared, for instance, an initiative which started in post-Dirty War Argentina and has been adapted to other local contexts such as in Morocco (Menin 2017, p. 36) and Egypt (Mhajne and Whetstone 2018, p. 57) where women use their status as mothers of disappeared political activists in order to keep the memory of their loved ones alive. Similarly, a central memorial to Germany’s socialist past—the former Stasi remand prison Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen—participated in a two-year project entitled Against Forgetting, in which it engaged with Tunisian stakeholders on issues pertaining to transitional justice, including how to construct a memorial to victims of repression (Stiftung Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, n.d.). Moreover, the international NGO Sites of Consciousness is operating the project Digital Mapping and Documentation in the Middle East and North Africa, which identifies sites of human rights abuses in the MENA region (funded by Germany’s Robert Bosch Foundation; International Coalition of Sites of Consciousness, n.d.). These examples illustrate the entanglement of actors, ideas, and resources across the globe when it comes to sharing memory and ideas about memorialization.

Since the Arab Spring, however, there has also been a very localized or regionalized approach, as expressed in cultural production on memory. This is, for instance, expressed in the form of prison writings, i.e. autobiographical accounts of torture and maltreatment in detention (Hachad 2018; Ghachem 2018; Jebari 2018); documentaries and films about human rights violations (Pierre-Bouthier 2018); and artistic and cultural formats (El Guabli and Jarvis 2018). In contrast to other post-violence countries, these forms of memorialization seem to be more common than those used as transitional justice mechanisms, which mainly comprise memorials (Barsalou 2017).

Rothberg’s notion of multidirectional memory has not been without criticism, though. Critiques include that it neglects to take inherent power relations into account (Milich and Moghnieh 2018, p. 6) and leaves unquestioned the asymmetries of a memory discourse that is always highly entangled in both local and global power structures (De Cesari and Rigney 2014, p. 10). Yet how can this entanglement be depicted conceptually? We shall turn to this critique of power structures in the next section by taking a spatial turn.

Spatializing the Entanglement of Local and Global2

The consciousness of the local has acquired relevance both as a backlash to globalization and in regard to the dissemination of global norms and practices (as with memory practices), which are said to at the same time incorporate and marginalize the local. This has led to the local turning into a critical viewpoint from which to assess the contradictions of globalization. At its most basic, the local is often posited as meaningful and authentic in the literature on memory and beyond, and it is often accompanied by words such as “real,” “grounded,” or “lived” (Massey 2007, p. 4). It thus connotes life-worlds with relatively stable associations and relatively shared histories (Appadurai 1995, p. 215), and, from an anthropological perspective, signifies some measure of groundedness (albeit unstable), some sense of boundaries (albeit permeable), and some sites for constructing identities (albeit contingent; Escobar 2001, p. 140).

In current memory studies, the local has come to signify a site of resistance against (global) power structures. It has been suggested that this wariness toward the global impact on local structures is often couched in post-colonial and post-structural thought, which places great emphasis on the local while voicing suspicion over grand meta-narratives accused of seeking to dominate prevailing discourses (Massey 2004, p. 9). A common concern of these approaches is to acknowledge contingency and particularity, to honor if not celebrate difference and otherness, and to stimulate local capacities (Massey 2003, p. 51). In this reading, current discourse and practice start from the premise that global and local are mutually exclusive entities. Frequently, they understand “the local” either to be sealed off from the global by some form of boundary, or view it as at the mercy of external relations.

In this chapter, I would like to challenge this binary perspective and ask whether and how global and local constitute each other and how this can be conceptualized theoretically. To this end, I will take a spatial turn. I argue that the scalar construction of global and local needs to be re-assessed and their mutual constitution through social interaction brought to the fore when analyzing transitional justice. Yet what does a spatial turn signify? The term space refers to areas around, within, and between objects; it marks the expanse in which objects occur. According to Henri Lefebvre (2009, p. 186 f.), space is always social, for it assigns more or less appropriate locations to social relations. Importantly, though, space itself is socially produced; it is a result of interactions and can thus be described as a complex social construction composed of social norms, values, and ascribed meanings (Lefebvre 1991, p. 26). It follows that space is both a complex social construction and the condition under which individuals and groups interact. In a circular way, space provides the structures that enable and constrain agency. There is thus a dialectic relationship between physical space and the societies that inhabit it: space is shaped by social interactions, and at the same time it shapes these interactions.

The term space thus points to the complex social constructions at the level of the local and global. In this sense, it designates not a container—a de-historicized, largely homogenous, fixed and bounded entity in which interaction occurs—but the materialization of social relations that have developed over time and are therefore contingent (Massey 2007, p. 154). Central to this line of reasoning is the assumption that there is a relationship between the local and global scales, which transcends their dichotomy as mutually exclusive concepts. According to Massey:

“if space is a product of practices, trajectories, interrelations, if I make space through interactions at all levels, from the (so-called) local to the (so-called) global, then those spatial identities such as places, regions, nations, and the local and the global, must be forged in this relational way too, as internally complex, essentially unboundable in any absolute sense, and inevitably historically changing”. (2004, p. 5 f.)

In other words, if the local is only a congealing of social relations at a particular point and particular time, global and local are not mutually exclusive binary oppositions but rather related to and mutually constitutive of each other. This implies that the spatial combination of social relations that constitutes the uniqueness of any locality is not confined to this place but stretches beyond its (penetrable) boundaries, so that the global defines part of the local, the outside part of the inside (Massey 2007, p. 5). There is thus an intricate relationship between local and global, as mutually constitutive.

Consequently, the local is not simply the product, or victim, of the global, but there are also elements through which the global is constituted through the local. In other words, there is not only a global construction of the local, as argued by critics of the global influence of transitional justice at the local level, but also a local construction of the global (Massey 2006, p. 30). The local is therefore not simply a passive victim but also has agency of its own. Because if the local is productive of the global, it has some form of agency and thus transformative capacity. This implies that it is important to analyze how local action and local practices reflect back onto global structures, and vice versa.

This is apparent, for instance, in efforts to turn personal memory into public memory, a process through which such memory gains presence in a particular place. This personal memory is profoundly local, for it is internalized in a person who has experienced or witnessed an atrocious event. Nikro and Hegasy (2017, p. 3) illustrate this with the example of former political prisoner Fatna El Bouih who narrates her personal experience in her autobiographical monograph (El Bouih 2008), but in so doing has gone from being a target of repression into an agent of memory politics in Morocco. In the process, her individual memory is transported into a social memory by making it available in print as a book, and then into spatial memory by assigning it a particular (non-material) territory, i.e. incorporating it into institutions that deal with the legacy of the past. This institution is then transferred to a national and global level, at which it gains prominence.

Despite arguments regarding the transnationalization of memory culture, memory thus also remains profoundly local. After all, importantly, the atrocities to be remembered took place in a particular locality, so they directly affect people who live in physical proximity to the events, who have to deal with the consequences of the rupture, i.e. people for whom remembrance serves an important political function. Sites of atrocities that are turned into memorials or memorial museums, for instance, are composed of tangible local relics and material cultural heritage (Mannergren Selimovic 2018) that root the site deeply in place. They give each site an idiosyncrasy that is unique and exceptional. There are thus always local aspects of memory culture and locally vernacularized aspects of a global memory culture.


To return to the criticism of memory practice from a local perspective, we must ask whether current scholarship overly emphasizes the local as a product of the global, inadvertently denying the local of any agency and any potential to contribute to the transformation of (global) structures. Determining whether and how this occurs within memory practices would require an in-depth empirical analysis that goes beyond the scope of this chapter. From a conceptual vantage point, this chapter seeks to contribute to the critical literature on transitional justice and memory studies by offering an alternative understanding of how its key concepts travel. By tracing and assessing the influence of local practices—in all their heterogeneity—it endows local justice entrepreneurs with a degree of agency in academic discourses that often regard them as solely subjected to global forces. Hence, the argument has a strong emancipatory component, marking “an attempt to get out from under the position of thinking one’s identity as simply ‘subject to’ globalization” (Massey 2004, p. 12) and calling for a rethinking and a concomitant redefinition of the spaces in which memory and justice occur. In this sense, a spatial turn not only serves as a critique but “as a project that is devoted to the creation and construction of new contexts for thinking about politics and the production of knowledge” (Dirlik 1999, p. 38).


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  2. 2.

    This section draws heavily on Susanne Buckley-Zistel (2015).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zentrum für KonfliktforschungPhilipps-Universität MarburgMarburgGermany

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