There are things to be learnt from Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, notably from the South African one. Of course there are differences between what is possible after a conflict and what is possible while the conflict is still raging. But for those in a current conflict to see what another one looked like afterwards may give needed perspective.

In its final report, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission reflected on what it had achieved. What kinds of truth had resulted? What was the relationship between truth and reconciliation?

The first contribution to truth was quite literal. The testimony people gave undermined various influential falsehoods, which people (on different sides) had believed because of dishonest propaganda or because of self-deception.

About falsehoods on the apartheid government side, the testimony had “made it impossible to claim, for example that: the practice of torture by state security forces was not systematic and widespread; that only a few “rotten eggs” or “bad apples” committed gross violations of human rights; that the state was not directly and indirectly involved in “black on black violence”; that the chemical and biological warfare programme was only of a defensive nature”. About falsehoods on the other side, the testimony had made it impossible to believe “that slogans by sections of the liberation movement did not contribute to killings of “settlers” or farmers; and that the accounts of gross human rights violations in the African National Congress camps were the consequence of state disinformation”. (REFERENCE TO TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION FINAL REPORT, VOLUME ONE, CHAPTER FIVE, page 5.)

The Commission hoped that replacing propagandist versions of past abuses with something closer to literal truth might make peace more stable. Mentioning Yugoslavia, they stressed the need to “overcome the temptation to remember in a partisan, selective way; to recognise that narrow memories of past conflicts can too easily provide the basis for further mobilisation towards further conflicts”. (REFERENCE, page 8.)

The Commission hoped to go beyond literal, factual truth about who did what, to whom, and when. They hoped to reach deeper, human truths about what these episodes had meant to victims and to perpetrators. By encouraging victims to tell their own stories, they hoped for the emergence of a “narrative truth” which would include “the validation of the individual subjective experiences of people who had previously been silenced or voiceless”. They endorsed “dialogue truth”: “the truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate”. (REFERENCE page 6.) Central was “healing truth”: “the kind of truth that places facts and what they mean in the context of human relationships”. (REFERENCE page 7.)

The victims, through this emphasis on what these abuses had meant in their lives, were given public recognition that they had been wronged: “The public victim hearings vividly portrayed the fact that… not only was there a disrespect for human rights in the abstract, but the very dignity and “personhood” of individual human beings were centrally violated”. (REFERENCE, pages 14-15.)

How did the truths that emerged, together with their meanings in people’s lives, contribute to reconciliation?

Sometimes facts about the abuses were a precondition of progress to reconciliation. Father Michael Lapsley, who lost his arms and an eye in a parcel bomb attack by the security police, said, “I need to know who to forgive in order to endeavour to do so”. (REFERENCE page 3.)

Those who had suffered abuse were not prepared to forgive if that meant forgetting the past. Trying not to be bitter is not the same as forgetting. They needed to express what had happened and what it had done to them. They needed their story to be heard and for it to have public recognition: “What is critical is that these facts be fully and publicly acknowledged. Acknowledgement is an affirmation that a person’s pain is real and worthy of attention. It is thus central to the restoration of the dignity of victims.” (REFERENCE page 7.)

The Commission accepted that the desire for revenge is natural and that suppressed anger undermines reconciliation. But they hoped to replace retribution by “a restorative account of justice, focusing on the healing of victims and perpetrators and on communal restoration”. (REFERENCE page 9.)

Up to now, the systematic pursuit of truth, reconciliation and restorative justice has always been after a conflict. It would be much harder, perhaps impossible, to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission while a violent conflict persists. Victims who testified might be targeted by the other side, or as traitors by their own side. The chances of reaching an agreed narrative on the South African model would be poor. But there are ideas from the South African process that may help groups escape from conflicts still alight.

The needs so apparent afterwards to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission were there during the conflict. Victims’ unmet needs for recognition of their suffering and their violated dignity probably make conflict more intense. Peacemaking may be helped as well as hindered by not pushing the past entirely aside. This was supported by criticisms by Edward Said of the “unhistorical” Middle East peace process: “The process doesn’t do enough to recognize the Palestinian narrative and what they went through… To pretend that history isn’t important, and that we have to start somehow from the realities on the ground, is a pragmatic political notion that I simply can’t agree with as a humanist and somebody who believes that people’s histories are complex things involving ideas of justice and injury and oppression.” (REFERENCE TO THE END OF THE PEACE PROCESS.)

Peacemaking with a historical dimension does not leave the deep differences untouched. A lot will depend on how it is done. If it generates only rancorous exchanges between two sides determined to assert their own narrative and to deny each others’, the conflict may be made worse. But if it encourages “the kind of truth that places facts and what they mean in the context of human relationships”, this might help responses to each other as human beings to break through the stereotypes. Willingness to settle for understanding that falls short of agreement would help. Encouragingly, Edward Said carried on the above remarks by saying, “I don’t think it is necessary that everyone should agree, as long as there’s a mutual acknowledgement that a different view exists.”

Sometimes the pragmatic approach that leaves the resentments untouched may be the only possible one. But, if any opening presents itself, it may be worth trying to go as deep as the conversation will bear.


The kind of conflict most favourable to constructing a shared narrative is one where rights and wrongs are evenly distributed between the two sides. It is easier to adjust to a less glorious narrative if the other side has to do the same. But we cannot assume that all conflicts are evenly morally balanced. This point has been made to me by partisans of both Israel and Palestine. Although they differ about the direction of the moral imbalance, they are right that it may exist. But this may not make a shared account impossible. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not neutral between supporters and opponents of apartheid. Their report spoke of oppressors and oppressed, but it still rebutted propaganda that denied the atrocities by opponents of apartheid.

Philosophically, the deeper question is not about agreement but about truth. Can a historical account describe an episode, in Ranke’s phrase “as it actually was”? Or is Pieter Geyl right that “history is an argument without end”? Are there objective truths to uncover, or are there only historians’ interpretations?

Could truth-directed dialogue lead to an objective account? This question is really several. Could there be a shared account that includes all the facts that appear in the selectively constructed rival narratives? Is it possible to determine the appropriate emphasis to give to different facts? Is a correct account of the causal sequence possible? Is it possible to adjudicate between the rival accounts of each others’ intentions?

Breaking down the issue of historical objectivity into these four component questions suggests that each of them may have a different answer and that the answers may admit of degrees. It could be easier to construct an account that includes something close to “all” the facts in the rival partisan narratives than to agree on the appropriate emphasis different facts deserve. On some matters both sides may agree on what is plausible, while on many they will not. Some causal sequences may be easier to establish than some participants’ intentions or motives. And so on.

We need an educational project about rival narratives. It should be about how they are constructed, about what they leave out, about their contribution to conflict, and about how far it is possible to transcend the biased account. There are strategies that may help loosen up some of the rigidities.


One such project would involve one team from each side being given technical support to make a film, from their own perspective, about the history of the conflict. They would be encouraged to film interviews with victims from their own side, and interviews with participants and others who remember the events. They would have access to news film. The aim would be for each team to present their group’s version of the story as powerfully as is compatible with avoiding intentional distortion of the truth.

Each film would present their side’s memories, hopes, fears, bitterness or resentment. It would aim for what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “the kind of truth that places facts and what they mean in the context of human relationships”. The content of each film would depend on the people featured in it. But we can think of some kinds of things that might be said.

The Israeli film might include Jews from displaced persons’ camps who had felt that, without Israel, they had nowhere to go. It might include memories similar to Amos Oz’s account of what his father whispered on the night the UN voted to set up Israel, or like David Grossman’s account of children losing “something deeper” as they absorbed the Eichmann trial. It might include a parent talking about a soldier son, who wandered off course and was literally torn apart by a Palestinian crowd. Others might talk about their children killed in a school bus by suicide bombers.

The Palestinian film might include people with experiences similar to Ghada Karma’s childhood memories of her family fleeing Jerusalem after hearing about the Deir Yassin massacre. It could include accounts, similar to Mourid Barghouti’s, of the sense of disrupted identity through exile, or of the death of his brother. There could be interviews with people tortured. There could be clips of families watching their houses being bulldozed down. There might be accounts of humiliation, by people with experiences like that of the mother treated in front of others as a sex toy by Israeli soldiers.

The two groups would meet to see each other’s films and to take part in a kind of seminar about them. The idea would be for them to share some of the film-making difficulties they had experienced. It might be possible for them to discuss some of the shared themes: perhaps what the need for roots is, and to compare different experiences of uprootedness. Again, it would be worth trying to go as deep as the conversation would bear. A lot would depend on the empathy and intuitiveness of those moderating the discussions. If things went really well, the two groups might be willing to share thoughts about the effects of humiliation. No doubt other topics would criss-cross between the films. Finally, there would be discussions of the problems of objectivity in making such films. The central question would be philosophical: how far is it possible to produce a film that does justice to the truths expressed in both of theirs: the film that God, or perhaps Tolstoy, might have made?

The next task would be for the two groups (now merged into one) to produce that film. If the project succeeded, its educational value would depend on the process of “film making followed by discussion followed by film making” itself being filmed so that whatever is learnt can be conveyed to a wider audience.

Obviously there are many ways in which this film project could go wrong. The two groups might get angry and refuse to listen to each other. They might refuse to cooperate on a joint film. Or the selection process might result in the two groups not being properly matched. It would be a disaster if one group was more intelligent and articulate than the other, with an unfair advantage in the discussion. It would be a disaster if one group was humanly sympathetic and willing to listen while the other came over as rigid, angry bigots. The intention would not be to contrast heroes and villains. Perhaps these dangers can be guarded against. But no doubt there are many others.

The aim would be to show each side at their best. The hope would be to illustrate how even at their best they are in the grip of distorting narratives, and to explore how far the two groups can cooperate to help each other escape from them. One hope is that they might reach at least some agreement through discussing the limitations of the two narratives. Even if they did not succeed in making a joint film, or in reaching much narrative agreement, there could be things to learn from their failure.

The other hoped for gain is a human one. Even if huge and deep disagreements remain, some things will have been shared. It will be something if Palestinians help Israelis express the hopes and fears of those who came to Jerusalem but whose memories left them screaming at night, and whose children have never felt sure that Jews can live in safety. It will be something if Israelis help Palestinians express how they feel about being driven into exile, and about being at the mercy of a powerful and well armed enemy, as their state is divided up and subjected to a cruel and humiliating occupation.

This cooperation may be too much to hope for. And, if it does happen, it will be small in the context of the huge and bitter conflict. But it will still be something: a few cracks in the imprisoning stereotypes. These cracks might allow a small breakthrough of the human responses on which ending the conflict may depend.