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On Commemoration

Global Reflections upon Remembering War

Edited By Catherine Gilbert, Kate McLoughlin and Niall Munro

How, in the twenty-first century, can we do commemoration better? In particular, how can commemoration contribute to post-war reconciliation and reconstruction? In this book, a global roster of distinguished writers, artists, musicians, religious leaders, military veterans and scholars debate these questions and ponder the future of commemoration. They include the world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz, the award-winning novelists Aminatta Forna and Rachel Seiffert, and the human rights lawyer and Gifford Baillie Prize-winner Philippe Sands. Polemics and reflections together with poetry and creative prose movingly illuminate a subject that speaks to our common humanity.

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The Act of Looking Back (Philippe Sands)


philippe sands

Philippe Sands offers a reflection on the unintended consequences of commemoration in the court room and beyond, and on how his work oscillates between public and private acts of commemoration.

I’m a lawyer who teaches at University College London and works as a barrister. I realised, while struggling to look for what the word ‘commemoration’ means, that its essence relates to the act of looking back. And for the lawyer, that act of looking back always raises questions of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. In my world, acts of commemoration often arise in the court room, which is a place where you tell stories, and a place where you commemorate some acts but not others.

In thinking about these questions, I recognised that the act of commemoration is about highlighting certain stories and ignoring others, and that process necessarily has unintended consequences. Every act of commemoration will have unintended consequences. And I want to explain that by reference to three or four very brief anecdotes that relate to my life as a lawyer but also to the writing of East West Street, which is sort of a coming together of a private act of commemoration – my grandfather – and a public act of commemoration, namely the processes that culminated in the Nuremberg trial. So just four brief anecdotes and then some concluding thoughts. Unintended consequences is the broad theme.

You’ve all heard of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal which dealt with...

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