Contested historical legacies in public spaces addressed in new analysis by global experts

Monday 29 June 2020

Over a period of three years, a group of global experts – convened by the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), the International Bar Association (IBA), and the Salzburg Global Seminar – has been preparing a volume of eight in-depth case studies on contested legacies in public spaces. The analysis addresses the social, political and legal dynamics in facilitating or complicating the resolution of disputes over contested historical legacies in municipal areas.

Professor Jeffrey Golden, IBA member of the Contested Histories in Public Spaces (CHIPS) task force, commented: ‘Recently, the issue of historical legacies has been thrown into sharp focus, with citizens from cities across the world clamouring for change. Decision-makers must sit up and take notice. The legal profession has a vital role to play in scrutinising existing legislation, identifying any shortcomings and implementing positive change in cases where it is clearly not in step with modern society. It is our duty, as lawyers, to ensure both that legislation evolves to reflect changing attitudes so that all members of society are justly represented, and that the rule of law is respected. The IBA is proud to be working alongside the IHJR and the Salzburg Global Seminar on this project.’

Against the background of protests following the killing of George Floyd in the United States on 25 May 2020; a global elevation of public awareness and discourse regarding underlying continuities with the past; the toppling of statues; and renaming of streets and venues, a summary of the first of the eight case studies has been published.

Authored by IHJR Director Timothy Ryback on behalf of the group of experts, the synopsis Black Lives Matter: Toppling Colston – Vandalism or Vindication? examines the controversy behind Mr Colston, a 17th century slave trader, once described as ‘one of the most evil men in British history’. Mr Ryback references the current climate ‘highlighting the importance of historical legacies in public spaces, but also raising fundamental questions about the role of statues, monuments and street names in public life, as well as the need for established principles and processes for aligning a country’s narrative landscape with its evolving social or political circumstances, in particular, in a world of increasingly diverse and multi-ethnic societies.’ He asks ‘how does a democratic society deal… with complex historical legacies within the parameters while respecting the rule of law?’ He concludes: ‘As with the erasure of Soviet legacies three decades ago, the assault on the topographies of former slave-trading nations suggests a seismic shift in society. It also raises fundamental questions about appropriate means for re-scripting urban landscapes, but also… our understanding of representation in a representative democracy.’

Digests of the eight case studies will be published at www.ibanet.org over the coming weeks. They form a contribution to the IHJR project Contested Histories in Public Spaces – a long-term initiative intended to address controversies over statues, memorials, street names and other representations of disputed historical legacies in public spaces, and to provide policy-makers with a set of principles and best practice guidelines for tackling contestations in an effective and responsible manner.


Notes to the Editor

  1. Click here to read the case study Black Lives Matter: Toppling Colston - Vandalism or Vindication?
  2. Watch the recording of the webinar, Black Lives Matter: a challenge to the law, here:
  3. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), an autonomous and financially independent entity, works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
  4. The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR) is a research centre at EuroClio and works in cooperation with a range of public, private and independent institutions. The Contested Histories project seeks to identify, document, and examine cases of contestation around the world, with the goal of identifying a set of principles, processes and best practices that can help inform decision making. To this end, the IHJR has identified more than a hundred cases in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas.
  5. Salzburg Global Seminar, based in Salzburg, Austria, is an independent non-profit organisation founded in 1947 to challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world. The multi-year programme series aim to bridge divides, expand collaboration and transform systems. Salzburg Global convenes outstanding talent across generations, cultures and sectors to inspire new thinking and action, and to connect local innovators with global resources. Over 36,000 Fellows from more than 170 countries have come together through the Seminar, with many rising to senior leadership positions.

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