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What makes the Institute for Continuing History any different to the multitude of think tanks, academic research centres and human rights organisations that are already out there?

Yeah, certainly, there’s little point in building an organisation that simply replicates what already exists. But we’ve established the Institute because we believe there’s a critical gap in the way that research is conducted on episodes of mass violence. Primarily, we’re talking here about major episodes of state-sponsored violence, but also about large-scale, organised violence that occurs at a community level between different ethnic, political and religious groups.

The biggest problem when it comes to research and knowledge of such episodes is that there’s no sustained follow-through. News agencies, by nature, shift focus quickly. When the worst of a crisis blows over, they move on. Then you have a phase—which typically lasts for around 12 to 24 months—when human rights groups, international agencies, and think tanks produce reports or conduct campaigns. After that, interest tends to drop off to the point where research is virtually non-existent.

Sure, you might get some academic research that begins to develop, but that often occurs many years or decades after the event. And, even with the passage of time, there are far fewer researchers working on these things than most people would realise. Even on some of the bigger issues, there’s often virtually no-one engaged in research.

By contrast, what we want to do at ICH is conduct research on a continuous basis—to develop deep, specialist expertise on particular events, and to keep our files open—to remain on the case on a permanent basis.

What are the practical effects of the lack of follow through that you describe?

Well, the truth tends to die a rapid death. Our understanding stalls as the research grinds to a halt. And, politically, for the perpetrators, the pressure comes off. Having seen through a temporary storm, scrutiny and outside interest disappear. So you get a situation where a particular crisis may be internationally famous, but 5, 10, 20 or 30 years down the track, our knowledge of who did what—and the impact it had—hasn’t moved beyond what we knew 12 months after the event. That’s a very, very common scenario. In fact, I’d say it’s the norm.

In a country like Zimbabwe, you’ve had multiple rounds of state violence since independence in 1980—and a number of those episodes are well-known at a superficial level. But many of them remain very poorly researched. There are still huge holes in our a knowledge of events, from the killings in Matabeleland during the 80s, to the election campaign of 1985, to the so-called land reform program of 2000, to the elections since that time.

Think also of an issue like Darfur. It was a celebrated global cause for a couple of years beginning in 2004. But what do we hear about it now? And what do we know beyond what we learnt in that period? Sure, there is an investigation by the International Criminal Court going on in the background, but what if that goes pear-shaped?

Does it matter if we don’t get to the bottom of who did what and when?

Understanding mass violence matters a great deal because the consequences of such violence are enormous. Major violence may quickly recede into the past for outsiders, but it’s the opposite for those on the inside.


That disconnection cuts to the heart of what we’re trying to do with ICH. What we’re saying is that acts of mass violence are hugely neglected relative to their real importance. There’s often this perception that, ‘yeah, well, we all know about that, but it’s history now and there are more pressing concerns’. But, in most cases, that’s totally wrong. That’s why we have the phrase ‘continuing history’ in our title.

The effects of major violence are very real and continue for a very long time. At one level, you’ve got a group of people who have gotten away with not just murder, but mass murder. Think of the consequences at a micro level—in a family or community when a killer gets off scot-free or is never found. What about a situation where thousands are killed and there are no consequences? What’s more—when the perpetrators are working within a state-sponsored framework—they are usually rewarded for what they’ve done. It’s unimaginable what that does to a society. An immensely powerful culture of impunity develops. Almost inevitably, you get recurrent violence, which can take a variety of different forms, and you also get that sense of impunity cascading into all other areas of national life. So you get violence living alongside systemic corruption and a horde of other abuses. It’s very difficult to turn that around.

I spoke about Zimbabwe before. You’ve got layers of impunity at work there. These things have a compound effect. It’s no coincidence that many of those who were behind the worst violence in the early years of independence are still there. The president is one of them, but he’s far from the only one.

What are the consequences of impunity at the grassroots level?

As far as the victims are concerned, we shouldn’t need to talk in the first instance about the practical consequences of injustice. Justice is a right and need that humans have regardless of what the practical effects of injustice might be. If someone’s killed or maimed, there should be consequences. It’s fundamental to what it means to be human.

But, yes, there are, of course, practical outcomes of injustice at a grassroots level. One of the most common outcomes is that destructive forms of collective identity develop. If people are being attacked indiscriminately—for no other reason than being a member of a particular ethnic or political group, for example—then tribal, racial or political polarisation tends to occur, and you can get these cycles of revenge and repression. You get this situation where collective identity and collective punishment become normalised, and where individual culpability and individual rights evaporate.

The long and the short of it is that there are always major impacts that flow from major acts of violence, and these manifest themselves in many complex ways, from the individual through to the national level.

Ok, so you’re talking here about how historical violence and a lack of consequences has a very real and continuing impact on the present—but how is mere research going to change anything?

Truth is the first consequence for a perpetrator. That’s something every perpetrator of violence understands. That’s why, without fail, in all cases of mass violence, there are strenuous efforts to suppress the truth. The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing is a reminder of that. The Chinese government has gone out of its way to airbrush those events and the subsequent massacre.

Fear of the truth should provoke a determination by others to reveal it. A mass murderer may continue in power, but if you’ve stripped off the mask, exposed him for who he is and what he’s done, you’ve left him naked. You’ve removed the façade that he had made for himself and others. Even if that’s all you ever achieve, you’ve left him exposed. And there’s a significant measure of justice in that. That’s something the victims also understand and in which they take a significant measure of satisfaction.

Beyond that, exposure can have a deterrent effect—and there are also many instances where exposure eventually leads to justice in its fullest sense.

One thing’s for sure, you’re never going to get justice if you don’t begin with the truth. You can’t even start the process unless you’ve begun to unearth the truth. It’s the foundation on which any society is rebuilt. But you have to invest in research. The truth doesn’t just ‘come out’ when active steps are being made to hide it, and when time is eroding the evidence.

If sustained research into mass violence is so important, why does it tend to drop off so soon after it occurs?

A lot of that is driven by external players and their perception of what matters. The reality is that victims and survivors don’t usually have the resources or opportunity to investigate these things on their own. And, of course, the perpetrators do everything they can to stifle investigations. So assistance and cooperation from the outside is essential in most cases. And yet external donors are driven by their own external constituencies, which—unlike those impacted by mass violence—generally have a short attention span and lose interest pretty quickly.

That’s part of the disconnect I was talking about earlier. You have this flurry of activity and then it drops off a cliff. Human rights organisations do good work in many cases, but they also must heed donor pressure to follow in the wake of the latest crisis. They’re also not trained to look at things with the historian’s eye—with the long view in mind. Within a year or two they’re gone, and they won’t be back unless there’s another serious outbreak. We’re already seeing that with the Rohingya situation in Myanmar. It was global news in 2017 and 2018, and you had a stage where there were some preliminary investigations, but the some of that is already beginning to run aground. This is a crisis involving hundreds of thousands of victims, and yet momentum has already started to slow.

We’re not saying that human rights groups shouldn’t focus on the immediate or that they should be doing something else. It’s horses for courses. But what we’re saying is that critical, long-term follow-through is often non-existent. There’s no way around this until there are more donors and researchers who are prepared to recalibrate—who look at things from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.

So could ICH be classified as a human rights organisation that’s taking the long view?

We’re taking a long-term perspective—but, no, ICH isn’t a human rights organisation. We aren’t an activist organisation. We don’t make policy recommendations and we don’t engage in public advocacy on behalf of particular groups or individuals. There are any number of organisations out there that do that, so we don’t see that as area where there’s a critical deficit.

The other for reason for taking such a line is that we see a greater degree of impartiality as being important to the quality of our work and our reputation. We’re going to do a better job of telling the truth if we aren’t advocating for certain policy positions—and, as a result, we’re hopefully going to be more trusted and have more impact. A lot of the lessons that emerge from a clear analysis of violence are pretty obvious and you’re often going to have a greater impact if you don’t lecture or prescribe. People in countries affected by such kind of violence are smart enough to think for themselves, but often lack information.

Are you more of an academic entity, then?

The answer to that is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We intend to produce stuff that’s academically rigorous. We won’t be taking shortcuts with our research or our quality controls. But a very important aspect of our work is the presentation of findings in forms that are accessible and understandable for everyone. Academic material is generally hidden behind paywalls and can’t be easily accessed by people who aren’t part of academic institutions. Much of it is also written for an academic audience, so the language and style of presentation can be difficult to decipher for ordinary people. So what we’re doing is to have rigorous research alongside a bunch of innovative multimedia outputs that will be digestible for any reasonably educated person. Short documentaries, interviews, podcasts—that kind of thing.

In other words, we’ll have high quality research and some detailed publications that will form the bedrock, but they’ll be accompanied by a significant amount of material that will explain the issues to ordinary people.

In essence, we see public education rather than public advocacy as another area of neglect. People in countries affected by mass violence have an intense interest in what happened but, as I noted before, they’re often left in the dark. Not only is the research lacking, but what is known is often insufficiently explained. The dissemination of information—and its translation into understandable forms—is often lacking. Even uneducated people are capable of understanding complex events and ideas, but they can’t interpret such complexities if they are expressed in complex language or complex forms.

How far back in time will ICH investigations go?

A defining factor in that regard is the ongoing impact of particular episodes of violence. So a cut-off date—one that’s applied across the board—would be arbitrary. Roughly speaking, our selection criteria involve a combination of impact and the existence of surviving perpetrators and victims. Major acts of violence within ‘living memory’ would be a ballpark formula.

On the question of scale, we aren’t in the business of investigating so-called footnotes to history because the issues have got to be ones that have had major societal consequences. That said, our definition of what’s ‘major’ is made with reference to the reality rather than broader perceptions of which issues are important. External or global perceptions of whether something is important are often driven by fashion or ideology, rather than by more impartial judgements on the basis of impact.

Ok, so you won’t be looking at relatively minor events or beyond living generations. What other types of violence are excluded from your research?

We’ll be avoiding long, grinding socio-cultural problems that lack defining episodes of organised mass violence, though the distinction is somewhat rubbery given that something like state-sponsored violence is always fed by cultural or sub-cultural conditions. And it’s also true that mass violence helps to create certain cultural conditions. Large-scale, systematic violence is always fed by a wider considerations, and understanding the long and broad context is a critical part of our job description.

But, yes, we’re not going to be looking at disaggregated, grassroots violence like gun violence in Chicago or gang violence in the favelas—that kind of stuff.

Do you have a particular geographic focus? Will you be limiting yourself to certain regions?

No. Our mandate is global. We can pick projects anywhere in the world. The only limiting factor is that our emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. We’re different to other organisations in that our staff have got to be highly specialised and we don’t drop cases once we open them. You can’t do that if you spread yourself too thin, if you’re trying to cover everything.

In other words, we drill down deep, and we keep drilling, so we can’t have hundreds of projects on our books. That’s one of the main elements that distinguishes us from others. We’re not a ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none’. We’d rather master a few issues and neglect the rest.

What are some of the projects ICH is working on?

Because of the sensitivity of the issues involved, we don’t generally publicise the issues that are under active investigation—at least in the early phases of research. A lot of organisations these days are going all out for maximum publicity right from the start—and there’s pressure to become a publicity hound in order to generate funding—but you can’t engage in those kind of antics if you’re serious about original research into something as dangerous as state-sponsored violence. Remember that we’re often dealing here with regimes and individuals that are still in power. If you’re making a lot of noise about this kind of work at the same time as you say you’re investigating, you’re either blowing hot air or you’re going to be ineffective. So I’d say that the approach an organisation takes to publicity—for this kind of work—is a test of authenticity. Are we in this to generate views on YouTube and to recycle old news—or are we serious about excavating the truth?

Obviously, there is a time for maximum publicity—once you’ve done your groundwork, your foundational research on an issue, and you’re ready to present your findings. But in the meantime, we need to quietly go about our business and resist the temptation to morph into something else—to become defined by funding streams rather than by what we had set out to achieve.

We’re more than happy to be transparent with trusted donors, or trusted potential donors, but those are private conversations.

Another thing I’d add is that  I’m talking here about the core of the institute’s investigative work. There will be other, broader aspects of our public education function that don’t involve the same sensitivities—for example, short films and the like on issues that are already fairly well researched but have been, until now, inadequately presented to a wider audience.

In a nutshell, what do you hope the Institute will have achieved, say, a decade from now?

I hope we’ll have greatly expanded our understanding—in some cases, transformed our understanding—of the way in which some of worst instances of mass violence have occurred. And we hope to have exposed many perpetrators who were previously living quiet lives. We intend to be relentless. Both relentless and focused. As I said, we’re not like other setups that take a lateral approach, moving from one issue to another. Our approach will be linear and it’ll be focused. We’re going to choose particular events and particular perpetrators, we’re going to develop staff who are genuine specialists with world-class expertise, and we’re going to be unrelenting in our investigations. Long after others have gone home, we want to remain on the case.

Looking at the big picture, we’re optimistic. We think there’s real opportunity for progress. Yes, these issues are tough; by their nature, the intimate details are hidden. They’re not only hidden—they’re aggressively defended; they’re hard nuts to crack. But we think we’ve got the requisite experience to make a start. And because so many of these issues have been enormously neglected, we think equally big strides can be made.

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