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Transitional Justice - The Role of Historical Narrative in Times of Transitions

 May 15 - 17, 2015

Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies
Voßstraße 2, Building 4400, Room 212
69115 Heidelberg, Germany


Transitional Justice - The Role of Historical Narrative in Times of Transitions “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
― George Orwell, 1984


The history of every country contains periods of transition: from war to peace, from a previous to a succeeding government, from an autocratic regime to democratic representation, from colonial domination to independence. Turbulent transitions are often times of violence and chaos conducive to violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. A recurring demand in many transitions has been the need to establish a historical record of the events leading to the unrest and to document the reproachable actions committed during the period in question. Truth in this context mainly denotes the act of historical record-setting but more often than not, what “the truth” is, is fiercely contested.

In the past, various strategies have been pursued to generate historical narratives for transitional periods; each of these strategies, so it seems, comes with certain problematic aspects attached to it. A very salient example is the attempt to set a historical record through criminal prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes. The judicial forum often proves to be a poor one in the pursuit of truth. Criminal trials are meant to establish criminal responsibility and the fact that a trial usually concerns only a single individual means that any narrative generated through it is necessarily limited. Moreover, the confrontational nature of a trial where the prosecutor acts on behalf of a particular national community or even in the name of humanity against a defendant leaves little incentive to provide a balanced or well-rounded depiction of the facts.

Another strategy that seems to counter many of the problems which afflict historical narratives created through prosecutions has been the setting-up of so-called truth commissions. These commissions are non-confrontational in nature and charged with establishing historical truth in a broader sense. Experience has shown, however, that the reports produced by the commissions tend to become the only and “official” narrative of past wrongdoings, crowding out competing narratives.

Funding Line “Graduate Student Workshop”

The workshop is funded as a Graduate Student Workshop by the Graduate Programme for Transcultural Studies (GPTS) together with the four Research Areas of the Cluster "Asia and Europe in a Global Context". With this funding, doctoral students are given the opportunity to conceptualize, organize and implement an event by themselves according to their and their peer’s needs. While the workshop is organised by doctoral students, it is open for participation by senior and junior scholars.


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