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“We need to address both the extent to which historical events shape the collective emotions and worldviews of the present, and the extent to which power-hungry politicians are willing to manipulate those emotions and instrumentalize those worldviews to lend the appearance of legitimacy to their political goals.” - Werner Wintersteiner
In February 2022, in the first week after Russia has invaded Ukraine and started a full-scale war on an independent state, who wants to talk about transitional justice or reconciliation? In such a situation, how can we reflect on dealing with the past, when the present and an uncertain future full of threat demand all our attention and absorb most of our energy? Will this area of conflict transformation and peacebuilding – a hallmark of FriEnt’s work over a substantive part of the past 20 years – be pushed to the sidelines of political debate and decision making, in favour of “the hard facts” of foreign, security and defense policy? The short answer is no. It would be ill-advised and short-sighted to turn our back on transitional justice and reconciliation. Both government and civil society, as well as academia, are well equipped to maintain focus and increase joint learning on how to counter the main driving forces for injustices and gross violations of human rights happening – again.
The terms “transitional justice”, “reconciliation”, “dealing with the past” are all associated with somewhat different origins, goals and connotations. What unites them is the understanding that past violence shapes both the present and future of political and social community. From the human rights and accountability perspective, that is calling for justice in the face of being deeply wronged and wounded, through the humane and sometimes spiritual perspective of being in need and capable of forgiveness and rebuilding relationships and connection, to a pragmatic and realistic assessment that it is necessary to reform sufficiently the state and society’s institutions – all these are needs experienced and, however imperfectly, met in the aftermath of crimes against humanity and significant violence. Left unaddressed, injustice and violence never simply disappear, as David Bloomfield has once underlined.
Much of this has been known and often reiterated in expert circles. But with the resurgence of war as a means of imperial politics, many may ask if the concept has not lost its currency.
On the contrary!
The past is shown over and again to be used and (mis-)used in political narratives that aim to justify and mobilize. The war on Ukraine is simply one of the latest examples, in which recurrence to old glories and horrors are interwoven with a sophisticated media and social messaging toolkit. Only if we become literate and articulate in detecting and understanding the way in which such historical narratives can work to fuel violence, can we hope to successfully work on building and hearing different narratives, ones that support community and shared problem-solving.
Also, through means of technology and social media, historical narratives have been amplified and have proliferated, often in separated “echo chambers”. Governments, civil society organizations and the public frequently find themselves confronted with layers of information which need to be carefully assessed and analyzed. To bring actors together in this is another important task for the field of dealing with the past.
And finally, current political developments – in Syria as much as in Ukraine – remind us starkly over and again that what has been gained in the past decades – a core of global human rights, a base of principles and values, interdependent alliances – needs to be defended by means of justice, accountability, but also forgiveness and mercy. The guarantee of non-recurrence does not come cheap. But preventive politics, which have spectacularly failed in the places we are now staring at, must be re-envisioned. Even so, it remains paramount for our common survival.
Considering the rise of violent conflict around the globe, the need for experience-based knowledge generation, partnership and collaboration is as high as ever. Armament might bring a feeling of greater valiance and security; it will not bring peace nor safety. Yet, despite extensive academic literature and research on transitional justice and numerous initiatives in the field of dealing with the past and reconciliation, the gap between theory, policy and practice persists. Moreover, state and civil society actors from the global South have shown an increased interest to gain insights from Germany’s dealing with the past processes, institutions and experiences. And, they have a wealth of knowledge from their own societies and processes that need to be shared, and that can now, in turn, enrich and help the societies of Europe and the US as they undergo their own fresh reckoning with the past.
In partnership with the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, Berghof Foundation hosts the Global Learning Hub for Transitional Justice and Reconciliation to link German experiences in dealing with the past with current and future transitional justice processes and to shape partnerships for global exchange for actors from the global North and South.
The Hub wants to deepen the understanding of complex peacebuilding processes, to develop innovative approaches to dealing with the past and reconciliation and to enhance policy and practice in the field. It aims ultimately to create a central and lively place for mutual learning with the aim of creating more sustainable and scalable transitional justice and peacebuilding approaches that can be adapted to diverse needs, contexts and challenges and co-shaped by a variety of stakeholders.
Dealing with the past paves the way into the future. Thus, FriEnt’s Transitional Justice expertise of the past 20 years is fit for the future and we are counting on you as a strong partner.