Erkki Tuomioja, the former Foreign Minister of Finland and founder and president of the International Network of Historians Without Borders (HWB), came to IPI on November 7th to discuss the importance of historical knowledge in recognizing elements of peace and resilience within societies in conflict.
He said that the speaker at the founding meeting of HWB with 300 historians from 30 countries in Helsinki in May, 2016 was Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Marti Ahtisaari, who recalled the numerous occasions on which he as a mediator was faced with difficulties in striking an agreement because of disputed history.
“Even where there are peace agreements,” Dr. Tuomioja said, “the unaddressed history you think you left behind can return as a zombie to haunt you and at worst can lead to renewal of conflict.”
The event, co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations, IPI, and HWB, was entitled “Leveraging Historical Knowledge for Sustaining Peace, and Dr. Tuomioja said the creation of HWB was important now because “we live in increasingly ahistorical times. Understanding how we arrived where we are is diminishing, not increasing,” he said.
The lesson was, he said, that ”if you do not know your history, you cannot see into the future.”
Dr. Tuomioja pointed to the Armenian Genocide, when 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1917, as a historical event over which anger runs deep and fuels tensions to this day. Historians are more or less agreed on what took place, but Turks and Armenians dispute how to recognize the event.
“Present day Turkey and Armenia continue to be in open disagreement on whether to call this event a ‘genocide,’” he said. “Leaders take a stand on the issue… it is not a military conflict, but it prevents the normalization of relations between the two countries and sours other relations. Different views and interpretations of history, even ancient history, continue to play a role in creating and enhancing conflict, and hamper efforts in conflict resolution.”
He went on to decry the rise of “alternative facts” surrounding current events, asserting that it complicates the mission of his group which is, he said, “writing the history of conflict in a way that meets the approval of all parties.”
One positive example of historical context harmonizing with conflict resolution, he said, was South Africa. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in operation from 1995 to 2000, staged public hearings on human rights violations committed under the white-minority regime’s rule, inviting victims to share testimony of their experiences and giving perpetrators the chance to request amnesty for their crimes.
By contrast, he noted that many western democracies have been slow to own up to their bloody colonial past, citing the atrocities of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France in present-day Namibia, India, and Algeria respectively.
HWB was established with such contentious legacies in mind. Signatories to the organization’s founding Declaration in 2016 agreed to work together to promote open access to historical material, encourage interactive dialogue, support efforts to identify abuses of history, and contribute to conflict resolution processes.
Warren Hoge, Senior Advisor for External Relations at IPI and the event’s moderator, asked the historian for his views on the current dispute over Confederate statues in the United States and gave three possible actions—demolish them, leave them, or keep them in a place with a written explanation of the actions by the people the statues depict.
Dr. Tuomioja said only one would respect history while paving the way for lasting peace: “Leave a statue with a sign,” he said. “Regard history—the different layers in our environment, in our physical environment as well.”
Lastly, asked how the UN can empower HWB to prevent and resolve conflicts, he said that UNESCO in particular could play an important role in giving historians access to historical archives.
The event was held as part of IPI’s Global Leaders Series.