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Mediation Perspectives: Visioning the Future and Dealing with the Past

 Flag of Concert of Parties for Democracy (Concertación)

Flag of Concert of Parties for Democracy (Concertación), a Chilean political coalition founded in 1989. Image: B1mbo/Wikimedia Commons.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s 2012 film No, about the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, vividly captures the tensions between a society’s need to be forward-looking at times of political transition (be this at the end of dictatorship or at the end of violent conflict) and its need to deal with past injustice. On March 5th 1988 Chileans were asked to vote whether General Pinochet should stay in power for another eight-year term. The film focuses on the television campaign aired by advocates of the “No” vote in the days leading up to the referendum. Veterans of the anti-Pinochet opposition, many of them victims of the state’s repressive apparatus, called for a campaign that would showcase past crimes: forced disappearances, torture, and killings.

Unconvinced that the state would recognize a “No” victory, these leaders saw in national airtime a collective space in which to acknowledge and honor suffering and loss; not a medium through which to “win” votes. But a young, politically disengaged advertising executive hired by the “No” camp to energize their campaign turns this all upside down: a lugubrious campaign based on scenes of repression and testimonies of injustice is transformed into one promising a joyful future for all Chileans. “Chile, joy is on its way!” becomes the motto of a jubilant campaign reminiscent of contemporaneous TV advertisements for soda drinks and shiny house appliances. The film ends with the real-life triumph of the “No” vote, an event that took most Chileans and external observers by surprise.

Putting historical simplifications aside for a moment, what can conflict resolution practitioners learn from this cinematic snapshot of Chilean history? From a mediation perspective, the televised “No” campaign can be said to have engaged in what is known as visioning. This is a tool that mediators use to encourage parties in a conflict to be forward-looking and think about how they would envision an ideal future. Its purpose is to help parties identify common goals and to give orientation on the bridges that have to be negotiated in order to reach them. Visioning tends to make parties feel that positive change is possible and thus encourages creative thinking and greater commitment to a mediation process.

For visioning to be successful, however, the vision put forth needs to be attractive (even if it will never be ideal) to all parties in a conflict. This means it has to be inclusive. If we reconceptualise political negotiations at times of rapid political change as not only occurring among elites but as the broader struggle of needs, interests and narratives emanating from different sectors of society, then we can see in the Chilean “No” campaign an attempt to build just such a vision. The campaign called on all Chileans to imagine a more joyful future, without excluding those who at some point in the past or at the time of the referendum supported Pinochet. Visions of an inclusive society that all stakeholders can buy into can help unlock fears and pave the way for dialogue on how that future is to be reached.

However, one wonders, does visioning demand a shelving of justice for past crimes and violations? History shows that to re-establish fundamental trust and accountability in society – pre-requisites for a durable peace – there is a need to publicly acknowledge abuses that have taken place, to hold responsible those who have committed such violations, to rehabilitate and compensate victims, and to ensure that violations do not re-occur. Could visioning thus create obstacles for achieving a durable peace? How should mediators approach dealing with the past?

In peace negotiations, many context-specific factors influence how, when and to what degree aspects of dealing with the past are introduced by mediators. In general, however, mediators are advised to be sensitive to the timing in which such issues are brought onto the negotiation table. The pertinent question in peace mediation, therefore, is not whether dealing with the past should be pursued, but rather when. Mediators consequently gauge how much accountability can be secured at any given time in a peace process, conscious that introducing accountability topics too early can prove disastrously counter-productive, with one or all parties leaving the table. Although there is no magic formula to fit all processes, mediators tend to adopt an incremental approach to dealing with the past, always aware, however, that blanket amnesties can never be part of an agreement (see UN Guidance for Effective Mediation). They understand that achieving some elements of accountability might have to wait until a stable peace is secured. This is the reason why mechanisms for dealing with the past may at times be anchored in peace agreements but rarely, if ever, are they fully spelt out.

In conflict mediation there need not be an inherent contradiction between dealing with the past and visioning. It is rather a question of timing and how to fit the two aspects together. Chile is still today struggling with the legacy of dictatorship and General Pinochet has passed without ultimately being brought to justice. The same unresolved legacies trouble many of Chile’s neighbours. Nevertheless, not all is bleak as signalled by the most recent episode in the region’s fight against impunity. On March 5th of this year a trial began in Buenos Aires for those responsible for Operation Condor, a secret network through which dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil cooperated in hunting down political opposition across state borders. Three decades on, Latin American countries are still dealing with their past; but they do so in societies whose (still imperfect) freedoms and respect for human rights make it difficult to believe that not too long ago military dictatorship was the continental norm. As societies today struggle to collectively negotiate a violence-free future, it might be useful for those pushing for change to devote themselves first and foremost to the construction of a vision in which all can feel included. This is no easy chore and truth and justice will ultimately be required for durable peace. But without giving people a project to work towards, it might prove difficult for them to abandon fear and muster the courage to say “No!” to more violence.


Sabina Stein is a program officer in the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.


“Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. 


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Strengthening the EU’s Peace Mediation Capacities

Making Deals for Peace

Mediating to Governments of National Unity


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