Dealing with the past

Addressing the legacy of a violent past is essential for rebuilding relationships and trust between individuals, communities and states.

Dealing with the past


An overarching term referring to a set of measures carried out in relation to past injustice and harm, which at the same time create a fair society in the present and better prospects for sustainable peace and development in the future.

See also: Reconciliation, conflict transformation

The past plays a significant role in conflicts. How actors experience and perceive previous events shapes collective identities and determines the structure of disputes. In order to peacefully transform conflict, it is thus essential to understand the history of past violence as well as its representation and impact on peoples’ lives in the present.

Dealing with the past stands for all measures aimed at constructively addressing the past, such as truth seeking, dialogues on competing historical narratives, or the acknowledgment of wrongdoing. It is a holistic process, which may span generations and requires analysis and action on many different levels; both personal and public dimensions must be addressed along with the integration of victims, perpetrators and bystanders.

Unreconciled issues from past violence never disappear simply by default.David Bloomfield

A specific approach to dealing with the past is that of transitional justice, which the United Nations understands as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation”. In addition to legal ways of holding perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, the repertoire of transitional justice includes truth commissions, reparations, memorialisation and institutional reforms. To achieve the long-term transformation of conflicts, transitional justice efforts increasingly seek linkages with other fields, such as peacebuilding and sustainable development.

Listen to "Voices for Transitional Justice" on Spreaker.

At Berghof, we aim to create spaces for individual and collective reflection on violent pasts and draw lessons from these reflections that can create the basis for peace. In the Caucasus, we have used the methods of biographical storytelling and history dialogues to allow people to reflect on their own experiences with conflict, the other sides’ experiences and the differing conflict narratives. Addressing the past in a manner that fosters reconciliation is also central to our work in Somalia.

From our experience in peace education, we know that education can be a driver of conflict when promoting exclusionary and discriminatory version of history. Reforms in the educational system are thus a crucial element of dealing with the past. The project ErinnerungsZeit aims to promote critical historical awareness and media literacy among young people based on an animated graphic novel about experiences during Germany’s period of National Socialism.

To bring the wide range of experiences in dealing with the past from different countries into dialogue with each other and to learn from them, we are hosting the Global Learning Hub for Transitional Justice and Reconciliation. Through its network of partners from across the world, the Hub seeks to advance the policy and practice of transitional justice through dialogue and mutual learning, practice-oriented knowledge generation, capacity development and advice.

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