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How history is used in and affects peace processes

History is felt, invoked and insisted on in conflicts and peace talks in numerous ways. In identity and territorially centered conflicts, it can be a crucial factor and a formidable obstacle to their resolution. Positions taken by the parties are based on readings of history and used to demonstrate or deny the legitimacy of competing claims. The issues at stake are in the present, but some of the keys to the conflicts and their resolution are often believed to reside in the past. In negotiations to end such conflicts, the opposing parties’ perceptions of history, including with regard to their past relationship, often clash. Each side views, experiences and relates differently to what may appear to outsiders to be a common history. Negotiators on either side of the table do not just tell their versions of history as if these were two sides of the same coin. Usually each side has a very different story, based on different sources, grounded in different values and traditions and often springing from different world views. And so mediators may be confronted with two completely different experiences and perceptions, two entirely different stories that lead, in the minds of their protagonists, to different and at times irreconcilable entitlements today.

In some disputes an important episode of history or its interpretation is expressly contested and put on the agenda of negotiations. This may be a disputed annexation of territory, a population transfer, or alleged promises made during a decolonization process. For examples of current conflicts consider those concerning the contested annexation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain of islands by Japan in 1895; the disputed 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Chile and Bolivia that confirmed the disputed transfer of 120,000 sq. km of the latter’s territory, including 4000 km of coast, to Chile; the controversial 1969 Act of Free Choice of West Papuans, by which they allegedly chose to become a part of Indonesia; and the disputed 1914 Anglo-Tibetan boundary agreement, which the PRC claims deprives it of some 9000 sq km of territory controlled by India, an unresolved dispute that turns on the historical status of Tibet and that precipitated an inconclusive war between India and the PRC in 1962. In some peace processes parties insist that the other side accept their version of history –in extreme cases even as a pre-condition to substantive talks—, a public position the PRC has taken in a number of situations, including in talks with Tibetan leaders. In others, parties deploy national narratives of victimization and loss to mobilize popular support for their positions in disputes, as Thailand has done in relation to territorial conflicts with Cambodia.

It is not uncommon for arguments put forth by negotiating parties on the basis of history to be trivialized or brushed aside as ‘mere narratives’ and not credible, especially if parties invoke things that took place centuries ago or use sources and accounts that may be culture specific and unfamiliar to people from a different culture. Diplomats tasked to mediate or support a peace process are prone to reject apparent (sometimes blatant) attempts to selectively use historical arguments for political gain and are quick to suggest that parties ‘park’ the past and focus on the future instead. However, where claims to territory and authority are assessed under international law on the basis of historical circumstances, the historical narratives are of extreme relevance to the parties and cannot be left unaddressed. The examination of interpretations of historical situations requires special and expert attention, moreover, as parties routinely project modern political and legal concepts, terminology and interpretations on a past where they do not at all belong, requiring a careful untangling of the past and present. And lastly, Kreddha mediators have repeatedly experienced that, explicitly expressed or not, the experience or perception of history of each of the parties informs their beliefs, their identity, their sense of righteousness and entitlement. Especially in identity-based conflicts, profound historical consciousness resides at their core.  Here group, ethnic and national identities are inextricably intertwined with historical narratives, the sense of truth of which animate emotions of pride, injustice, victimization, loss, anger, righteousness and so forth. The justice and injustice of past actions are felt and argued by each side on the basis of respective understandings of history, and all of this in turn permeates the agenda of talks and their respective positions, demands and arguments. This will not change by not addressing these perceptions of history; quite the contrary.

Understanding the competing historical narratives employed as foundations for territorial and other claims in intrastate conflicts is essential—both for negotiators and mediators—and can be a challenge. Confronted with this challenge on more than one occasion, and without the benefit of the guidance provided by an established practice in this regard in the field, Kreddha embarked on a multi-year research project to develop a methodology to address history in intrastate peace processes. It did so to benefit the field as well as the processes Kreddha mediators themselves are involved in. For more information on this research project click here.To read more on the subject of understanding historical narratives, especially in the context of intrastate conflict resolution, click here

Box: For a 50 minute presentation on the deployment of history and its effects on peace processes, click on the following link:  https://youtu.be/pDNMGGfhR08(Michael van Walt, IAS Faculty Lecture, March 2013).