Reckoning with our violent pasts, the role of historical commissions*
Dr Cira Palli-Aspero
Cira is a trained historian specialised in contemporary political history. Her work lies at the nexus of historiography and transitional justice with a focus on State sanctioned historical commissions as mechanisms to address the legacies of the past. She obtained her PhD at the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University. In her doctoral research, she developed a theoretical and methodological framework for historical commissions operating in conflicted and divided societies.
In contexts where there is an engagement in specific historical accounts that deny or justify past wrongs, historical discourses often become the centre of accusatory narratives that can initiate or perpetuate violent confrontation. In this framework, several governments are taking a range of initiatives to address the legacies of contested pasts. Among them, the establishment of historical commissions has increasingly been seen to have the potential to open new possibilities to address the legacy of violent and contested pasts that continue to perpetuate social division.
State-sponsored historical commissions are ‘ad hoc academically grounded body of inquiry set up by state institutions to revisit historical records and facts about wrongs committed many decades earlier’, to uncover unknown events, and to challenge perspectives of the past built on ill-informed accounts or historical myths. The rise and popularity of historical commissions took place throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In the context of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, trained historians took a new interest in engaging with ‘the politics of the past and working to improve intergroup relations where historical injustices generate enduring hostility and tension’. At that time, there were growing demands from society for governmental initiatives to engage with the past in a more ‘self-critical retrospection’, which motivated new historical projects to (re)evaluate and/or (re)interpret past events in order to clarify and uncover different historical facts.
In the past decades, many commissions have been established in different contexts to investigate past events. These can be broadly divided into four categories, diplomatic historical commissions, post-totalitarian historical commissions, (post-)conflict historical commissions, and (post)colonial historical commissions. Since 2020, coinciding with the latest protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have witnessed an increased recognition of the work of historical commissions as former colonial powers are facing pressures for redressing the legacies of the historical (and ongoing) injustices of colonialism (for example, in Belgium, the Nordic countries, in Victoria – Australia), bringing historical commissions back to the spotlight. Although in this piece I would not have the space to explain in detail the characteristics of each category, what is important to note is that the growing recognition of the potential of historical commissions as tools to address the legacies of contested pasts is widening their reach to different contexts and types of inquiries.
State Sanctioned Historical Commissions
Historical commissions focus on ‘the structural conditions and underlying processes that led to and followed past injustice’, placing the emphasis on ‘the complexity and contingency of historical developments’. These commissions respond to different functions that can be explicitly specified in their mandates, or implicit in their work. These are, typically, historical clarification of past events, fact-finding and event reconstruction, breaking historical myths about the past, challenging misrepresentations of historical events, contributing to the historiographical debate, addressing moral and political responsibility for past wrongs, and contributing to the recognition of those who suffered their consequences. These processes often ‘focus on explaining particular events, presenting the lines of historical continuity that have led to the present day, or explaining how the actions of our predecessors have determined, or at least influenced, contemporary generations’.
These commissions have at their disposition an array of research methodologies that allow them to inquire into long chronologies through the analysis of different sources and to identify the lines of historical continuity that allow them to link historical injustices and crimes and their enduring consequences in the present. Through an active engagement with the past, historical commissions foster revision and (re)evaluation of sources and enable a process of critical reflection to ‘transform the political and public perception of the past to achieve social change’.
Advocating for Historical Dialogue
Historical commissions are framed within the paradigm of historical dialogue, which provides a theoretical and methodological framework to understand not only the operation of these commissions but also their potential within a given society. In contexts of social and political tension, historical dialogue becomes a vehicle to deconstruct narratives that are based on inaccurate historical records, in order to help societies to find ways to overcome historical antagonisms.
Historical dialogue advocates for ‘collaboratively producing (…) historical narratives that provide reliable facts and analysis for public debate and discussion on contentious violent histories’, and it engages in the ‘use of different methodologies to counter (…) myths and popular misconceptions’ acknowledging ‘responsibility for various historical injustices’. It focuses on the meaning that individuals, groups or communities, and societies ascribe to the past through historical narratives, grounded in the understanding that these meanings change over time.
It is clear that not all ‘contested legacies are not always caused by misconceptions, lies or historical myths’, and that governments political parties, or other groups may use discourses based on particular historical events in an attempt to legitimize their political position by constructing self-serving narratives. Nevertheless, by encouraging the establishment of different bodies designed to address the legacy of the conflicted past through clarification of the events, the sponsoring state potentially has the power to influence how members of society engage with the traumatic past. The promotion of ‘critical historical inquiries from officially established institutions, [can act] as a vehicle to destabilize those unreflective historical narratives that are constructed to serve a particular agenda’. In these lines, historical commissions can be seen as an institutionalized effort ‘to initiate a new political project around norms and values’, and to rebuild trust among citizens and among citizens and state institutions.
Political Responsibility for Past Wrongdoing
Ascribing political responsibility for historical injustices, and their enduring consequences in the present, means that one can be responsible for injustice based on one’s entanglement in history. The recognition of responsibility towards injustices of the past injustices, thus, requires us ‘to see ourselves as participants in a transgenerational relationship in which each generation inherits obligations from its predecessors and passes these on to its successors’. It is built on the understanding that we, in the present, are linked to past events on the basis of one’s entanglement in history. Within this framework, addressing the legacy of the past and repairing the past wrongs is a task which is inevitably backwards-looking and fundamentally forward-looking. It is backwards-looking and retrospective because it requires an inquiry into the past to give meaning to past events; it is forward-looking and prospective, because the investigation of the past is done with the objective to project certain views for the future.
The contribution of historical commissions to political responsibility lies in their capacity to enable a process of change by which societies in the present do not only acknowledge that an act of victimisation took place, and regard them as wrong, but also seek (to the extent of possible) their redress in the present. Historical commissions contribute to (re)frame and (re)construct the ‘historical imaginary’ of a given society through the construction of historical narratives. The production of historical narratives helps ‘transfer and translate the past into the present’. These backwards-looking accounts are crucial to reframe the historical imaginary and encourage the re-signification of the past contributing to transforming values, symbols, institutions, and regimes of legitimacy, among others, that govern societies.
The forward-looking approach of historical commissions is reflected in the range of recommendations that such commissions bring forward once the mandate has been completed. For instance, there are symbolic measures, for example, the demand for apologies, memorialization, commemoration, and recognition of the historicity of Indigenous communities and historical relations between both nations. In addition, there are often measures directed towards systemic reforms; for instance, legal, political and policy reform (including land issues, health, wellbeing, housing, etc.), as well as aspects of historical, legal, and political recognition of Indigenous peoples and communities (recognition of civil, political rights).
The emphasis of historical commissions’ work, thus, is the understanding of the structural conditions and underlying processes of the past that contributed to the development of the facts investigated, to enable channels for change in the present with the objective to redress historical injustices and their enduring consequences.
History holds many folds, each of which is defined by great complexities, and the work of historical commissions alone cannot automatically overcome disputes and antagonisms about the past. Nevertheless, these commissions can potentially encourage critical reflection processes that consider different interpretations of the past, creating platforms for political, social, and historiographic debates. Framed within the historical dialogue paradigm, these commissions have strong transformative capacities not only playing an important role in understanding the social and political junctures in the present but also enabling channels for change.
*This piece is based on my monograph Clarifying the Past: Understanding Historical Commissions in Conflicted and Divided Societies. The book provides a comprehensive analysis of state-sponsored historical commissions operating in conflicted and divided societies, developing a theoretical and methodological framework within the historical dialogue paradigm, which is key to understanding the work of such commissions. Through the analysis of 27 historical commissions that operated in different social and political contexts from the 1990s to the present, the book presents a detailed examination of these cases giving a broad perspective into the potential capacities of historical commissions in different settings.
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