Dealing with the Past to Promote Peacebuilding


As we progress through the second decade of the twenty-first century, the protracted nature of conflict around the world illustrates the urgent need to effectively deal with the past, resist war and consolidate peacebuilding. This article will discuss the challenge of dealing with the past, which has been a major issue for WRI groups in countries emerging from war or authoritarian regimes, such as the apartheid regime or military dictatorships. There is a perpetual tension between the pursuit of peace through recovering the truth and utilizing this as a basis for reconciliation, and the use of the evidence generated through this process to prosecute those who are alleged to have committed war crimes. In other words, there is a tension between investigating war crimes with a view to determining responsibility and sanctioning perpetrators, on the one hand, and establishing a new basis for coexistence through acknowledgement and reconciliation.

Peacebuilding in Context

At the heart of the peacebuilding project is the identification of more effective ways of stabilizing and improving the livelihood and well-being of war-affected citizens. In 1992, the Agenda for Peace, published by the then United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, defined peacebuilding as the medium to long-term process of rebuilding war-affected communities. It defined peacebuilding as ‘action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace to avoid a relapse to conflict.’1 Over time the definition of peacebuilding has ‘gradually expanded to refer to integrated approaches to address violent conflict at different phases of the conflict cycle.’2 At a fundamental level peacebuilding involves addressing the root causes of the conflict and enabling warring parties to continue to find solutions through negotiation and when necessary through mediation. These activities are ultimately striving to bring about the healing of a war-affected community through effectively dealing with the past and promoting reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, is not sustainable without socio-economic reconstruction and development. All of which cannot be done without the mobilization of resources. Peacebuilding is effectively a political activity but one that seeks to unify the judicial, social and economic spheres.

Understanding Dealing with the Past

Dealing with the past includes establishing processes of justice and redress as a means to promoting peacebuilding and reconciliation. In 1997, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the UN Human Rights Council) approved the Joinet Principles on Combating Impunity which established the rights of victims and the obligations of states. The Joinet Principles identify four key parallel processes that are necessary to mitigate against impunity, namely:

  • the right to know;

  • the right to justice;

  • the right to reparation; and

  • the guarantee of non-recurrence.

The processes are premised on confronting the atrocities of the past and undertaking certain judicial and quasi-judicial measures to safeguard against the potential recurrence of similar abuses in the future.

Some of the processes for dealing with the past fall under the rubric of the still contested term ‘transitional justice’.3 In particular, transitional justice seeks to advance processes and establish mechanisms and institutions to confront the past and to address the key issues that have sustained political repression or fuelled conflict.4 Transitional justice ‘seeks to address challenges that confront societies as they move from an authoritarian state to a form of democracy’.5 More often than not such societies are emerging from a past of brutality, exploitation and victimisation. In this context, transitional justice does not seek to replace criminal justice, rather it strives to promote ‘a deeper, richer and broader vision of justice which seeks to confront perpetrators, address the needs of victims, and start a process of reconciliation and transformation towards a more just and humane society’.6

The ultimate purpose of a process of transitional justice is to establish a quasi-judicial framework to undo the continuing effects of the past. South Africa remains an important model in this regard. At the heart of the South African transition was the need to deal with a past through procedures that were acknowledged and accepted by the key interlocutors who were affected by the deep divisions of the past. It is also necessary not to loose sight of the fact that transitional justice is just that, a ‘transitional process’ and it should not be viewed as a permanent solution to addressing the atrocities of the past. It is rather a transient process that will have to give way to the rule of law and the restoration of a constitutional order that will manage and resolve the social, political and economic tensions within society. Bodies such as truth and reconciliation commissions and special courts are temporary and time-bound institutions and should not be considered as a permanent solution.

There are at least five components of dealing with the past through transitional justice processes identified in a publication entitled Pieces of the Puzzle: Keywords on Reconciliation and Transitional Justice compiled by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town, South Africa. These include:

  • ensuring accountability in the fair administration of justice and restoring the rule of law;

  • the use of non-judicial mechanisms to recover the truth, such as truth and reconciliation commissions;

  • reconciliation in which a commonly agreed memory of past atrocities is acknowledged by those who created and implemented the unjust system as a prerequisite to promoting forgiveness and healing;

  • the reform of institutions including the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of government as well as the security sector to ensure that a degree of trust is restored and bridges between members of society can be re-built;

  • the issuing of reparations to victims who had suffered human rights violations, including gender-based violence, as a way to remedy the harm suffered in the past.

Cultural Approaches to Dealing with the Past

Different cultures have developed their own models for promoting peace and reconciliation, as well as pursuing punitive justice. What is evident is that justice and reconciliation models that have been developed in one culture cannot be transplanted into another society. This suggests that each society has to determine which cultural approach to reconciliation is most likely to sustain peace and advance the cause of justice and redress for past violations. It is necessary for each culture to excavate the lessons that it can learn from its peacebuilding and reconciliation processes so that this knowledge can be shared with the global community.

The Rwandan context

Rwanda had hit the bottom rock, twenty years ago. We lost one million people; ten thousand people were dying every day at the hands of Rwandans. The genocide is an example of the worst human beings can do. Reconciliation is showing us the best human beings can be as we work to leave this tragic past behind us.

The Genocide destroyed Rwanda's social fabric which had been deliberately damaged over decades. Our work as a new nation in the last twenty years has been about restoring social cohesion and the dignity of Rwandans.

For us, what came out of that tragedy is energy and renewal. We have gained power to work in coherence. If you don't learn from the tragedy you went through, it is another way to invite another tragedy.

Some of home grown initiatives that inspired by the Rwandan culture are:

INGANDO:(solidarity camps):

A civic education activity that has facilitated the smooth reintegration of former returnees, X-FAR, provisionally released prisoners back to their communities. Target group include Women, Youth groups, students joining university and local leaders.

INGANDO provide forums to Rwandans to come to terms with their past by facing history, forging a common vision for a united future.


This is also a homegrown initiative inspired by the Rwandan culture that was formerly a traditional Rwandan school to instill moral values of integrity, and capacity to deal with ones problems.

Itorero ry'Igihuguhas today been revived to promote values of unity, truth, culture of hard work.


GACACA are traditional community courts. GACACA COURTS initiative is very timely because it will make the following possible:

It will enable the truth to be revealed about Genocide and crimes against humanity;
It will put an end to the culture of impunity in Rwanda;
It will reconcile the people of Rwanda and strengthen ties between them;
It revives traditional forms of dispensing justice based on Rwandese culture;
It demonstrates the ability of local communities to solve their own problems;
Helps solve some of the many problems caused by Genocide.


Community reconcilers who resolve day to day conflicts before refer in them to Courts.


Dealing with the past is a vital part of the overall strategy to resist and prevent war in the future. In a real sense justice postponed can become reconciliation deterred. However, a blind pursuit of prosecutorial interventions can also increase tensions in a country and undermine the prospects of consolidating peacebuilding. Citizens are often the direct targets of previous oppressive and repressive regimes and therefore they need to become actively engaged in monitoring and raising awareness about the efficacy of dealing with the past mechanisms and peacebuilding processes. Therefore, a progressive shift of emphasis is required towards the active participation of citizens in monitoring the incorporation of strategies for dealing with the past. Ultimately, war will continue to be a dominant form of human interaction unless we can understand and establish effective processes for dealing with the past in order to promote peacebuilding.

There is no future in the past. You can never live in the present and create a new and exciting future for yourself if you always stay stuck in the past.

Recovery from wrongdoing that produces genuine forgiveness takes time. For some, it may take years. Don't rush it. It helps to focus your energy on the healing, not the hurt!

Being willing to forgive can bring a sense of peace and well-being. It lifts anxiety and delivers you from depression. It can enhance your self-esteem and give you hope.

Forgiveness offers the possibility of two types of peace: peace of mind- the potential healing of old emotional wounds and peace with others… the possibility of new, more gratifying relationships in the future.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." - Mahatma Gandhi


Dr. Tim Murithi is Head of the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, South Africa,; Dora Urujeni is the Legal Representative of MEMOS, Learning from History in Rwanda.


1 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping, New York: United Nations, 1992.

2 Necla Tschirgi, Peacebuilding as the Link between Security and Development: Is the Window of Opportunity Closing?, (New York: International Peace Academy, 2003), p.1.

3 United Nations Security Council, The Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies, Report of the Secretary-General, S/2004/616, 23 August 2004, p.3.

4 N. Kritz (ed), Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, (Washington, D.C.: 1995; and A. J. McAdams, Transitional Justice and the Rule of Law in Democracies, (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1997).

5 Alex Boraine, ‘Transitional Justice’, in Charles Villa-Vicencio and Erik Doxteder (eds), Pieces of the Puzzle: Keywords on Reconciliation and Transitional Justice, (Cape Town: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2004), p.67.

6 Boraine, ‘Transitional Justice’, p.67.


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