home > contents > Recent History and Social Responsibility. Overview
Recent History and Social Responsibility
“In postdictatorial societies,” writes Joan del Alcàzar, one of the authors in this section, “we historians have a role that can be of great interest in giving expert support to judicial actions taken against those who committed crimes against humanity. This would be the applied side of our knowledge.”

Historians of the present day are often called upon to use their knowledge beyond the regular tasks of teaching and research. Settings range from truth commissions and judicial processes to community post-conflict projects addressing the needs of victims to public and private institutions that wish to promote historical memory. Closer to classic concerns of historians are the writing of new teaching manuals, providing materials and holding workshops for history teachers, serving as expert advisors to audiovisual productions for larger audiences and, of course, writing on recent history for the general public. Through this gamut of professional roles runs a central responsibility to promote the advance of knowledge through proven methods of historical research – to illuminate the truth about the difficult past and make it accessible in ways that help people deal with it.

The four authors in this section were all called to use their knowledge within larger efforts to clarify the past that shaped democratic “transitions” in the last 10 years. The circumstances in which they worked were practically unprecedented and presented a host of pressing difficulties to confront and overcome. In such settings it is not surprising to see them use the same words – truth, responsibility, challenge – to describe their experience. Consider, for example, of Julissa Mantilla in Peru’s Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (CVR, the acronym in Spanish):

We found ourselves in an institution with a great responsibility on our shoulders, with a challenging mandate, […] with a difficult task to carry out in a short period of time and with limited resources. It was not an organization meant to be more than transitory; topics and situations came up unexpectedly and complications multiplied daily.
Each of our authors analyzes the political circumstances that affected their work – in Guatemala, Chile, Northern Ireland, and Peru – but their articles also reflect broader currents that developed in the 1990s in Europe as well as the Americas about the public uses of historical knowledge and the social responsibility of historians.

Arturo Taracena evokes his research in a team of social scientists that were part of Guatemala’s effort to establish a bedrock of historical truth about more than three decades of political violence – a huge undertaking by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH, the Spanish acronym) over nearly three years between 1997 and 1999. The report of Taracena’s team, “Causes and Origins of Internal Armed Confrontation,” was published in the first volume of Guatemala: memoria del silencio (Guatemala: Memory of Silence, 12 volumes, Guatemala: F&G, 1999). His article here, “The Experience of a Historian on the Guatemalan Commission of Historical Clarification” (Spanish version) reflects on his responsibility in a setting between a nightmare era that left up to 200,000 dead and a new one of fragile democracy.

It seemed to me that in that context I could and should accept the challenge of participating as both a professional and as a citizen. I [don’t] want to hide the difficulties of carrying out this work [as a professional] given my past as an activist which conditioned and [still] conditions my interpretation of the events.
What was perhaps most important in Taracena’s thinking was the fact that this was not a university research project that he had chosen to undertake but rather “something I did because of my duty as a citizen in a very special political context.”

What kind of historical research is appropriate to constructing such a narrative of truth? There were no precedents for this, he recognizes: “we had to use our creativity and intuition.” The government flatly refused to collaborate with the CEH’s work and closed all military and official sources. Nor were the archives of the guerrillas or the political parties available to their research team. Moreover, they faced a range of fundamental issues of historical interpretation, such as determining the beginning and immediate origins of the internal war. As Taracena writes,

From the beginning we were barraged with questions such as, how should we balance the weight of collective memory against that of individual actors? How should we deal with the existing theses that attempted to explain almost four decades of civil war solely on the basis of the bellicose spirits of the army and guerrillas, or the evil of the CIA?
Working out answers to these questions added up to putting Guatemala’s violence into historical time.

For Taracena and his colleagues this challenge was manifest in reconciling the disparate views from field work by the CEH teams and from the historical research group. The former tended to gloss over the initial stages of the armed conflict (1962 - 1978) – which concerned primarily conflict among ladino (non indigenous) groups and saw lower casualties – and focus on the period after 1979 and the vertiginous violence experienced by rural indigenous groups (estimates speak of between 25,000 and 175,000 dead). The team of historians, in contrast, held that truly understanding the conflict required a fuller analysis of its early stages and the expansion of the guerrillas in the 1960s.

Joan del Alcàzar’s “Applied History: Expert in the Pinochet case in the Spanish National Hearing” (Spanish version) situates us in January 1999, when the British lords were reviewing the legal issues of the Chilean general’s possible extradition for human rights crimes committed during his rule. Arrested in London in 1998 on an international warrant issued by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, Pinochet and his fate galvanized opinion throughout the international community but had particular resonance in Spain. Del Alcàzar remembers his appearance there in 1975 after the death of Francisco Franco: “The sinister figure of Pinochet, wrapped in his military uniform cape at the funeral of our long-lived dictator marked all my generation, I believe.” At issue in January 1999 was determining when Pinochet could be considered a head of state.

The defense lawyers argued that Pinochet was considered head of state as of 11 September 1973 […] If the president of the court heeded the criteria of the defense, it would be necessary to decide whether to concede him immunity or not. If he accepted the argument of the prosecutor…, Pinochet had lost this hypothetical refuge that could protect heads of state in office from certain acts under their leadership, since between 11 September 1973 and 26 June 1974 he had not been head of state.
According to this second hypothesis, “the ex dictator could be judged for the crimes committed during these ten months that caused the death and disappearance of almost two thousand victims.”

The Spanish historian had recently done research in Chile and came across documentation that he believed might bear on the question being debated by the lords. He wrote a report from his sources for Judge Garzón. In doing this Del Alcàzar analyzes the sensation of responsibility of taking this course: might his modest participation in this case have political consequences? What would they be?

If 1998 was a memorable year for Chile, it also marked a turning point for Northern Ireland. On 10 April 1998 the Good Friday Truce gave promise of ending three decades of bloody conflict (1968 - 1998) between Protestants and Catholics in the six counties of Ulster, or Northern Ireland, that remained part of the United Kingdom after the founding of the Irish Republic. In “Inside Silence” (Spanish version), sociologist Patricia Lundy and historian Mark McGovern tell the story of the Ardoyne Commemorative Project, a remarkable community initiative that helped lay the groundwork for the peace agreement. It gathered testimonies from some 300 friends, families and witnesses about the conflict’s victims in a single locality and published them as a book, Ardoyne: The Untold Truth (Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 2002). McGovern and Lundy, who helped coordinate the Ardoyne project, reflect on its significance in their article here.

In July 1998, after 30 years and 99 murders, relatives of the victims, community activists and interested individuals met to decide the best way to remember their dead. They agreed to make a “community story of the truth” to which any native of Ardoyne or anyone living there a long time could contribute. About the same time as the Ardoyne project was launched, similar projects of community truth-telling sprouted among Protestants and Catholics alike. The idea of making the “never-told truth” public knowledge gained momentum in the civil society. As one of the inhabitants told the authors: “It [didn’t have] to be your truth. It [didn’t have] to be a shared truth. But to really be healed, I needed to feel that someone had heard my story.”

Building confidence and trust were crucial for the Ardoyne project (paralleling the experience, one might note, of various community post-conflict efforts in Latin America). In Northern Ireland Lundy and McGovern both had strong claims of belonging to the community, which helped make participants more willing to speak candidly. The project faced a particular challenge in dealing with presumed informers, some of whom had been killed “by their own people” but were also in their own way victims of the violence. This problem took them into the intimate fractures and the interior silences of each of the communities. Lundy and McGovern insist that the scourge of the violence be seen not only between the communities but in the heart of each as well. Against all expectations, reaction was favorable: “we were very satisfied that [the families of the informants] were there; they could cry and do all the things and this way have all this support,” one interviewed person commented. By daring to address the most delicate aspect of this issue, the project managed to launch a true process of healing.

A final point: it was of central importance for the people of Ardoyne that they participated in every stage of the project. Seeing their words in black and white in a book about their dead was part of a cathartic experience – and of overcoming their vulnerability by publicly revealing painful, highly personal experiences.

Julissa Mantilla’s article, “Without Women’s Truth, History will be Incomplete” (Spanish version), draws its title from a bulletin inviting women to contribute their testimony to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission – CVR (2001 - 2003). The Final Report of the CVR has a section dealing specifically with sexual violence directed against women or that affected them disproportionately. It shows that violence befell men and women differently according to their social positions and different roles, and that pre-existing inequality and discrimination shaped how the conflict was unleashed.

Doing research from a gender perspective was not within the initial mandate of the Peruvian truth commission, but half way into the project, members of the commission decided to incorporate it. A member of the judicial team, Mantilla was in charge of defining the principles of action and helping inform new policies. Her article describes the objectives of including a gender dimension and how it affected commission findings.

A new guide to train the teams working in the field, accompanying them in their task, and producing materials appropriate to the Quechua–speaking (and often illiterate) victims were important. “It was necessary to demonstrate that a gender focus would make it possible to obtain a greater wealth of information in our research, that it is a work tool, not a simple charge or imposition,” Mantilla indicates. Because the facts of sexual violence committed against women were not included in the initial mandate of the CVR as crimes and human rights violations, fresh research on existing juridical instruments was required. The author shows how the commission took advantage of international judicial norms forged over the previous ten years to establish that sexual violence could constitute, among other violations of fundamental human rights, a war crime or a crime against humanity.

Mantilla presents a range of examples of the effects of violence against women put into evidence by the commission. The conflict produced major changes in female social roles. As men were killed or fled, women entered the public sphere and fought for their families’ survival. When violence drove them from their homes, the task of organizing of the displaced families was left to the women leaders in the new settlements. Another effect of the violence was Sendero’s strategy of recruiting women who wanted to escape their subordinate roles in established society. But “although Sendero Luminoso [SL] assigned women new roles as […] combatants, they continued to demand that they cook and take care of the sick or wounded.” Finally, women became leaders in the fight against violence – particularly in social organizations that sprang up to counter the economic crisis, such as mothers’s clubs, the glass of milk program, and soup kitchens. Many of these women leaders were threatened by the SL and killed. In certain parts of the mountains, widows and single mothers were forced to participate in the peasant militias fighting the SL; they were trained to use firearms and participated in confrontations with the guerrillas.

An epistemological lesson can be drawn from the efforts of Mantilla and her team about how to establish a “more complete truth.” Note, for example, the commission’s instructions to its researchers:

Always keep in mind the different ways in which violence is experienced and continues to be experienced by men and women. Ask yourself […] if our conclusions and achievements can be generalized or if it is necessary to make a difference because there are men or women involved; recognize the existence of traditional gender roles which must not predetermine the orientation of our research (woman: mother, wife; man: father, head of the house) but be able to identify and recognize them in all the stages of work; and finally, differentiate the statistical results by sex.

Translation by Lea Fletcher
Universidad Alberto Hurtado | Centro de Ética | © 2007 Anne Pérotin-Dumon > Todos los derechos reservados | All rights reserved Créditos