Dealing with the past to guarantee the future


In dealing with its own past during the Second World War, Switzerland has learned first-hand what it takes to heal wounds that run deep. That experience has led to the Swiss helping other nations develop a culture of accountability.

This content was published on November 6, 2012 - 11:00

Mô Bleeker is the head of the foreign ministry’s task force dealing with the past and prevention of atrocities. She says the country's status as guardian of humanitarian law and its own history make Switzerland credible for confidence building.

She trained as an anthropologist and has worked as human rights expert and in development aid in Latin America and Africa. She is the author of several books on the subject. Switzerland has managed to put dealing with the past on the international agenda. Do you carry out your work where it is the most needed?

Mô Bleeker: Simply put, we support states that must take responsibility after a conflict for massive human rights abuses or even genocide. When they ask for our help, they recognise our strengths in confidence building, in dealing with factual problems, in working fast and the effectiveness of our expert network. Their collective experience helps boost these countries’ own efforts.

Similar experiences show for example, how important it is for a truth commission to open a door for the victims, without trying to manipulate the truth.

It is a duty for the newer generations to ensure that the rule of law is maintained in the longer term. That means dealing with past atrocities and their consequences.

My work often consists of convincing people that this is not just possible, but also necessary and positive. What moral authority does Switzerland have to help other countries deal with their past?

M.B.: Because we have experienced it ourselves, we understand how difficult it is for a society and especially for the authorities, the parliament and the government, to accept responsibility for the outcome of a conflict or for human rights abuses.

It was tough for Switzerland to deal with its past. We experienced it with the Bergier historical commission, which looked into the country’s role during the Second World War. It helped make us more modest. We gained first-hand experience of the tensions and fears that is generated by dealing with the past. But it was a healing process. It was also an example of the quality of our democracy. Added to that, Switzerland is seen as a defender of international humanitarian law.

More and more countries are seeking our support and want to exchange information with us when they decide to deal with their past. Who exactly comes looking for help?

M.B.: Ministers, presidential advisers, high-ranking public servants, representatives of intelligence services who want to reform their institutions, as well as presidents of truth commissions or United Nations staffers. Some of them must be concerned about what they are getting themselves into.

M.B.. One high-ranking public servant told me in a low voice they had to set up a truth commission and a special court. When I asked him how he felt, he replied he was dismayed because everyone thought there was no political will to move forwards, when in fact the authorities had no idea how to go about it.

I travel a lot around the world. I believe that in most cases where people blame a lack of political will, it is in fact a lack of political and technical knowledge that is hindering the process.

We always start by appeasing people’s fears. We talk about experiences in other countries when we are asked if a reform of the armed forces led to a crisis, a government being toppled or revenge being taken out. They seem to be deeply ingrained fears.

M.B.: Terrifying fears as we have also experienced in Europe. Those with the biggest fears just want to forget the past and not deal with it. We know that this doesn’t work as the victims won’t remain silent and they have the right to speak up because they have rights.

At the international level, there are rules that determine the crimes, the rights of the victims and the responsibilities of the state. We use those rules to support our work.

With this, we can ensure that the fight against impunity is part of the construction of long-term peace. An armistice is the first step towards dialogue between the state and society. The aim is to develop a culture of accountability, to regain the trust of citizens and to ensure the democratic control of state institutions.

If a government chooses to follow this path, it gains legitimacy and increases democratic quality. This in turn is significant in ensuring the transition process from conflict to long lasting peace. It must be hard to measure your success in changing a mindset.

M.B.: I understand the people who question if our work is any good. But I see the difference before and after. You notice that the main stakeholders have more self-confidence and that the dialogue between state and society improves.

We, the international community, often make a big mistake when we believe that dealing with the past is only a judicial process. Impunity is the result of a system, a culture that grows like a cancer. You need a systemic response.

No forgetting

By protecting archives detailing major human rights abuses, Switzerland wants to ensure future generations do not forget what happened.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia asked the Swiss for example to set up information centres in each state it is responsible for. These centres house copies of important trial documents and written elements of proof.

Switzerland has also signed an agreement with Guatemala’s culture ministry to store copies of the archives of the former national police, which has been blamed for many human rights abuses.

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Mô Bleeker

Bleeker studied anthropology at Fribourg University and trained at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

She is the author of numerous books, including Dealing with the Past in Peace Mediation - Peace Mediation Essentials and Dealing with the Past and Transitional Justice: Creating Conditions for Peace, Human Rights and the Rule of Law.

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