Remarks by Secretary of State Stenlund at the Historians without Borders Conference

Remarks by Secretary of State Peter Stenlund at the Historians without Borders: The Use and Abuse of History in Conflict, International Conference in Helsinki, 20 May 2016.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Historians. It is a great pleasure to be here with you at this occasion. First, I wish to praise the idea and initiative of "Historians without borders". It is certainly a very timely endeavor. In fact, in today’s globalized and digitalized world different uprisings around the world backed by historical narratives seem to take more vivid and visible role.  Trained historians – and we all – face occasionally those individuals or groups of people who deny, twist and distort the historical record in order to further their own political ideals.

The study of history is definitely not outmoded. The study of history is not only useful and important, but also an extremely challenging subject. It is a very demanding task to interweave testimony and documents available with learned judgments, and to create a balanced and thoughtful narrative of it all.

For those of us working in the Foreign Service and in the field of diplomacy, it is crystal clear that history, the use and abuse of it, is part of the presence in different processes of re-construction, and deconstruction of realities. Remembering is never objective neither at individual nor at collective level.

In fact, there are very few disputes or conflicts where differing or often conflicting interpretations of history would play no role. Look from Aceh via Nagorno-Karabakh, Cyprus and Western Sahara down to Falkland Islands. Often conflicts are about the question whose reality counts. We know that the study of history and politics have been in very close contact in many societies, and sometimes even strongly intertwined, and that politics turns into history at some stage. Let me stress, that this remark by no means advocates the primacy of political and administrative history.

Indeed, looking at the Post World War era now, it is no coincidence that the OSCE Academic Network is working on a study dealing with Cold War narratives in different participating states. Our Ministry contributes to this exercise.

Whilst the study and interpretation of history is first and foremost a task of trained historians, I wish to emphasize the importance of adequate and critical knowledge of history within any society, state administration, and among politicians in particular. Such knowledge and awareness should, for its part, contribute to a positive agenda for supporting research and research contacts among historians, and with decision makers.

In addition, another issue is to make the work of historians possible. As a concrete example of openness, our Ministry contributes towards a deeper understanding of history by making all more than 25 years old material available for research purposes.

The use and abuse of history and the related construction, re-construction and deconstruction of histories and identities is maybe most visible today in our priority theme of peace mediation. Mediation could even be characterized as an effort to domesticate and bring into peaceful coexistence wild and fractious narratives often bound in conflicting interpretations of history. Thus, on one hand, history-free mediation seems impossible. On the other hand, sufficient and balanced knowledge of history seems a pre-requisite for successful mediation purposes. This is where historians and academics, as relatively impartial outsiders, can contribute.

Their task is demanding: in some cases they have to act as experts and expert witnesses in situations where there is a tendency or a clear intention to distort evidence and manipulate documents to serve somebody’s own purposes. As we know, skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions is very easy to do. The role of historians and academics as trained professionals in arguing that type of abuse of history is very important. In some cases, their opponents are engaged in the defamation of academic historians and present extreme patriotism and acrimonious criticism.

The historians have to be prepared to face opponents who are a bit like dim students who don’t listen: If they don’t get the answer they want, he just repeat the question.

Consider, for example, the UN guidelines on mediation that emphasize justice and truth as fundamental building blocks of sustainable peace. The entire dialogical approach behind the concept of mediation – weather we talk about national dialogues, inter-community dialogues or interfaith dialogues – is closely linked with understanding of history – or even better – various histories in a comprehensive way. Let me provoke a bit: it is cheap to invent a glorious past but much more costly to design a stable and peaceful future – both in terms of money and efforts involved – based on the knowledge and understanding on one’s own history.

Mediation in its different forms remains a priority theme in our Foreign Policy. Finland emphasizes in particular the role of women, use of local knowledge as well as the role of civil society in mediation efforts. In addition, the role of inter-religious dialogues deserves to be mentioned.

Finally, while history for the sake of history and for the sake of science and research is undeniably important, such value in itself is only a part of the beauty. We all need to do our outmost to make the available knowledge and understanding of history to contribute to policy making, as appropriate. It is not that history helps us only to learn from the past but also give some tools for designing better futures. For example, the Arab spring can be considered to represent a mass peoples' movement  where people claimed back their history from autocratic and oppressive rulers. But what matters even more is how such a claim of stolen history is used in the building of the new, preferably better future.

To conclude, the symbolic title of “historians without borders” should remain a living process with the noble aim of undoing any obstacles towards sustainable peace.

Thank you.

human rights
peace mediation