Depolarizing the Past: The Role of Historical Commissions in Conflict Mediation and Reconciliation

By Karn, Alexander M. | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Depolarizing the Past: The Role of Historical Commissions in Conflict Mediation and Reconciliation


Karn, Alexander M., Journal of International Affairs


Building peace in the wake of large-scale historical injustices is difficult and sometimes dispiriting work. Rival groups often conjure vastly different memories of the same events, and these divergences reinforce cycles of violence and deepen feelings of resentment. Whether we look at the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the longstanding feud between China and Japan or the civil wars and genocides that continue to plague sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear that partisans in these contests seek to weaponize the past in order to legitimate their campaigns and support their claims to moral superiority We know that history pervades and animates many of the seemingly intractable conflicts unfolding in the world today, but can the recounting of past events also work to smooth relations between rival groups who find themselves entangled in each other's memories and identities? Is it possible, without denying history's most traumatic episodes, to remove the past as an obstacle to peaceful and productive inter-group relations?

Conflict resolution experts routinely employ storytelling as a first step in their mediation efforts. By giving rivals an opportunity to exchange perspectives on the roots of their conflict and a chance to air their grievances openly, mediators attempt to open a space for dialogue and clear the way to a possible settlement. Yet practitioners routinely under-utilize history as a tool for conflict mediation and reconciliation under the traditional negotiating frameworks. This is due in part to what one theorist has called the "instrumentalist view" of storytelling, which conflict resolution professionals commonly develop as part of their formal training. (1) Mediators learn to see storytelling as a warm-up exercise for the more difficult and technical negotiations that follow. They do not view the recounting of history as a productive mode of negotiation, but rather as an ice-breaker to overcome the initial awkwardness that appears when deeply embittered adversaries sit together to contemplate an end to their feud. At best, these preliminary exchanges suggest appropriate parameters for subsequent negotiations. However, they are not seen as encounters with truth since both sides of the conflict are entitled to their own perceptions, nor are they understood as substantive components of the conflict. Rather, they are merely considered the outward signifiers of a damaged relationship. This relegation of history to the margins of mediation practice is unfortunate. It points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that history and historical consciousness play in perpetuating large group conflicts, and, as I will attempt to show here, it takes no account of recent successful efforts to employ history as a tool for reconciliation.

CONTEMPLATING THE POLITICS OF HISTORY

Since the mid-1990s, professional historians have shown increasing interest in engaging the politics of the past and in working to improve inter-group relations where historical injustices generate enduring hostility and tension. Coming off the merry-go-round of postmodern theory and eager account for the trend toward apologies and reparations that gained momentum following the end of the Cold War, scholars began to seriously contemplate the importance of confronting traumatic episodes from the past and accepting the moral obligations attached to historical injustices. (2) No longer content to remain within the discourse of what happened, "activist-historians" developed a different set of questions. The new mode of inquiry, still fundamentally historical but also opening the way to a multi-disciplinary approach, evolved to become: How do groups divided by the past utilize their history, and what can be done to mitigate the interpretive differences and misperceptions which help to generate and sustain conflicts? If enemies could sort through their differences using a shared historical lens, rather than through the partisan narratives that monopolize popular imagination, then history could perhaps provide a new avenue for conflict mediation. …

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