Reconciliation: Key Debates & Implementation Challenges

The reference to the notion of 'reconciliation' is by no means neutral and is at the origin of many ideological debates and theoretical discussions which have concrete consequences when decisions have to be made and activities are to be conducted. The first part of this section attempts to present the main issues discussed by scholars and practitioners alike:
  • Reconciliation has many negative overtones;
  • Many expectations are convened through the notion of reconciliation and need to me managed;
  • There is not always a 're' in reconciliation;
  • Individual versus collective reconciliation;
  • It is important to acknowledge the religious connotations of 'reconciliation';
  • Reconciliation versus forgiveness;
  • Reconciliation versus justice.
At the implementation stage, reconciliation processes are complicated, full of paradoxes, and concrete challenges. These are presented in the second part of this section. They have to do in particular with:

  • The conditions and sequencing of reconciliation processes: how to plan a reconciliation policy and sequence the steps in its various dimensions;
  • The necessity to conceive reconciliation as a priority, not a peripheral activity, and the difficulties associated to this;
  • The necessity to combine top-down and bottom-up approaches;
  • The importance of considering local cultures and contexts;
  • The necessity of fostering local ownership of the entire process.

Key conceptual debates and their concrete implications

Reconciliation and its negative overtones

Reconciliation has acquired negative overtones from specific historical contexts, particularly when reconciliation with some groups was promoted at the expense of others. One such example is the privileging of reconciliation of Southern whites at the expense of African-Americans in the half-century following the United States Civil War.1 In other contexts, the term reconciliation was used and promoted by political elites with links to earlier, repressive regimes in the interest of promoting stability and amnesia, or at least silence, about the crimes of the past (for example, in Spain, as well as some Latin American and Asian countries).2 Reconciliation has been then "considered a codeword for those who wanted nothing to change or is equated with a 'forgive and forget' policy."3 In more recent post-conflict contexts, the term has also often been overly charged. "For example, in post-genocide Rwanda the word was taboo for many years. In Kosovo the very term 'reconciliation' is so charged within the Albanian community that it is simply not used publicly."4

Managing expectations of reconciliation

Scholars themselves have sometimes considered reconciliation, particularly in post-genocide contexts, a simply unrealistic goal.5 As the scholar Elizabeth Cole notes, "it might [...] refer to such an unrealistic state of affairs that it can be easily dismissed as Utopian, or set a standard for defining reconciliation that cannot be met."6 It has been so because reconciliation is often understood and presented as a search for 'harmony' and 'consensus,' whereas it may rather be more useful to conceive of it as a way to engage and manage difference. Indeed, as some analysts have noticed, such a state of affairs "does not exist in any society, and certainly not in a postwar period. A so-called common belief is neither necessary nor even desirable for remedying the real problem: a long, contradictory process of defining a new social contract. Historians and sociologists have shown us that such processes rarely unfold in sanctified harmony but are rather the outcome of successive negotiations or, indeed, of concrete struggles. Neither can they result from 'dogmatic voluntarism' alone."7 Historian Timothy Garton Ash noted that "taken to the extreme, the reconciliation of all with all is a deeply illiberal idea."8

Not always a 're' in reconciliation

The implication of 're' in reconciliation may also be problematic. As the scholar Elizabeth Cole notes, "many historical conflicts involve parties whose relations were never harmonious or close, certainly not in the individualistic sense in which the word would be used between friends or family members who have quarreled."9 In reference to the reflection of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, Andrew Schaap, political scientist, calls 'agonistic reconciliation' the process "oriented toward constitution rather than restoration in that it seeks not to restore an imagined moral order that has been violated but to initiate new relations between members of a polity. Agonistic reconciliation does not concern harmonizing pre-existing moral identities. Rather, it involves 'calling something into being which did not exist before' [...]. A reconciliatory moment is not construed as a final shared understanding or convergence of world views, but as a disclosure of a world in common from diverse and possibly irreconcilable perspectives. This disclosure is a momentary and contingent achievement that must be continually resought through partaking in the public business of judging, arguing and persuading over the significance of public events."10
Go to Memorialization, historiography & history education

Individual versus collective reconciliation mechanisms

The term reconciliation can refer to a process between groups and individuals as well, and the two processes are often conflated. Leading scholar John Paul Lederach explains that reconciliation requires that people not only decide what to do about particular issues, but also address and reconsider their understanding of self. Indeed, building a relationship with a mortal enemy is always accompanied by a change in how you perceive yourself and your community, and how you perceive the other and their community. Batrice Pouligny, a scholar and practitioner, goes further, stating that the reconciliation, both at the individual and collective level is "a reconciliation with oneself. The stake, in effect, is to 'think' together, that is to (re)construct a representation of the collective 'self,' until then organized on the basis of negation."11 In the process of demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, this is part of identity formation and change. "These changes are firmly linked to the process of reconciliation. Reconciliation is, in this respect, an individual process triggered by group activities."12

There may be similarities or overlap between the process that two individuals go through when they reestablish a relationship and the process of building a more lasting peace between groups, but they are not the same thing.13 One key difference is that these processes may operate along different time lines. Most scholars and practitioners consider that individuals may take much longer to become reconciled as compared to the group or national level.14 Many analysts are also skeptical of how individual and societal reconciliation are actually connected and may coincide.15 Nation-building discourses on reconciliation also often subordinate individual needs to collective imperatives. "Truth commissions and individual processes of healing work on different time lines. Calls for reconciliation from national leaders may demand too much psychologically from survivors, and retribution may be just as effective as reconciliation at creating symbolic closure..."16 These difficulties explain that, in an attempt to delineate the limits of a notion which tends to be all-encompassing, some practitioners tend to limit the emphasis of peacebuilding programs to the collective level. For instance, on its website, the International Center for Transitional Justice states that in its view, "Reconciliation is something that occurs in the civic or political sphere, rather than at the level of individuals."17 More empirical research is actually needed to better understand how these processes work both at the individual and collective level and how, in particular, reconciliation and healing processes work and interact for individuals.
Go to Trauma, mental health and psycho-social well-being- Individual vs. community perspectives
and The difficulty in assessing impact of programs

Acknowledging the religious connotations of reconciliation

Many have questioned the strong religious roots of the notion of 'reconciliation.' It is a critical theological notion in all the Abrahamic faiths (for Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike). It is generally more associated with Christianity, even though the emergence of the notion in the political sphere is relatively recent and has been traced back to only the nineteenth century.18 The reference to notions such as 'mercy,' 'forgiveness', 'pardon' or 'repentance' is often pointed out as an illustration of strong Christian roots. In South Africa-- whose experience with the TRC has been often portrayed as a model for many other countries-- this religious connotation has been perceived all the more as the commission was chaired by Desmond Tutu, a black clergyman, who developed a strong religious discourse, while its vice president was Alew Boraine, a white pastor.19

Academics and practitioners have considered two main dangers in using the word 'reconciliation': "one is that it will be seen, and resented, as having Western, colonial overtones by predominantly non-Christian societies. The other is that it will be seen as always implying certain processes, particularly forgiveness, which is central to the Christian tradition, and not others, such as justice, and this will be too narrowly understood to be flexible enough for the variety of cultural and historical settings in which more stable, constructive relations with former enemies are being sought. The close link between forgiveness and reconciliation in the Christian tradition reduces the importance of justice in reconciliation, especially retributive justice. Yet justice is a process which many victims in many settings world-wide call for in powerful language, which is widely believed to be necessary if a culture of impunity is to be avoided, and which is now mandated by international law, particularly through the creation of the International Criminal Court."20

In reality, almost every religion has its own view and interpretation of suffering and atonement. As a consequence, each can be seen as setting the stage for some form of forgiveness.21 "According to Judaism, only the perpetrators themselves can approach the victims they have hurt, take official responsibility for the deed and ask for apology or forgiveness. After the victim accepts this plea, then reconciliation can take place. No one can do it for the perpetrator."22 The Islamic tradition and practices (like Sulha, Hudna or Musalaha) are said to be closer to the Jewish tradition than they are to the Christian one with respect to the notions of forgiveness and reconciliation.23 Buddhists begin from a sense of self that wishes to be free from suffering and deemed worthy of experiencing happiness. Followers identify the causes of both suffering and happiness, and actively pursue the ones leading to happiness.24

An interesting counter-point has been suggested by scholar Daniel Philpott who has argued that those religious voices have helped pushed forward a paradigm of reconciliation different from the human rights discourse.25 Two key assets of religion approach would be "connectivity"-- i.e., the ability of religious actors to extend their reach into a very wide range of sectors of society; and "holism"-- i.e., an ability to conceive of transformation as a project for the whole of a society and its members. This last dimension would, for instance, constitute a distinct feature, contrasting the prevailing "liberal peace" approach.26
Go to Religion and Peacebuilding

In any case, it seems difficult to escape the fact that reconciliation is a morally-loaded concept and different people will bring their own ideological bias to the subject. As some scholars have noticed, "an individual's definition or understanding of reconciliation is generally informed by their basic beliefs about the world."27 Part of the uneasiness in the debates about reconciliation is linked to the fact that many feel "that there is also something inherently patronising in the idea that international actors should seek to promote it. Instead, in the context of discussions about the ICTY and reconciliation in the Balkans, many find it more useful to speak about concepts such as 'social reconstruction.'"28

Reconciliation versus forgiveness

Notions of reconciliation and forgiveness are commonly used in the literature on reconciliation and are clearly connected.29 Academics who refer to the notion of forgiveness consider that it "involves letting go of anger and the desire for revenge. It can help in diminishing the pain that results from victimization and in moving away from an identity as a victim."30 The distinction from reconciliation is important; "forgiving, unlike reconciliation, is not always mutual but is most constructive when mutual, particularly post-conflict when victims and perpetrators continue to live next to each other."31 Indeed, many consider that forgiveness should be mutual.32 However, there is a contrast of opinions as to whether or not reconciliation requires forgiveness. Scholar Andrew Rigby notes in particular that "the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation, especially at the inter-communal level, is far from straightforward."33 There may be forgiveness without an interest in (re)building a constructive relationship, or what Rigby calls a form of 'peace through separation.' This point sensitizes us to the fact that the levels of forgiveness and reconciliation achieved over time are matters of degree and can lead to different types of coexistence.34 Go to Reconciliation is more than mere coexistence

The dialectic between forgiveness and justice is also important. Scholar Marcia Byrom Hartwell considers that forgiveness "neither overlooks justice nor reduces justice to revenge, [but] insists on the humanity of enemies even in their commission of dehumanizing deeds, and...values the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it."35 Donald Shriver argues that "precisely because it attends at once to moral truth, history, and the human benefits that flow from the conquest of enmity, forgiveness is a word for a multidimensional process that is eminently political."36 Walter Wink, another academic, notes that "forgiveness does not mean that we condone or accept the behavior of the perpetrator. The victim does not turn a blind eye to the crime, but rather frees herself from ongoing psychological torture, thus clearing a path by which she can seek justice that is not motivated by revenge, but by the pursuit of the universal change and transformation."37 Yet, in concrete cases, some may feel a tension between forgiveness and justice. In a report prepared for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, it is noted: "The readiness to forgive and forget, sometimes referred to as a 'conspiracy of silence,' should [...] be interpreted as a pragmatic stand when access to justice and reparations is very limited."38

Reconciliation versus justice

Reconciliation is part of the growing literature on transitional justice. The two are often perceived as being in tension: retributive justice is often seen as an adversarial process which impedes the process of rapprochement and the building of trust between enemies. In addition, a process called 'national reconciliation' has often been promoted by those who would be implicated by many of the processes mentioned above, primarily justice but also truth-telling, acknowledgement and reparations. This has been seen by victims, understandably, as a thinly-veiled call for continued impunity for perpetrators and silence from victims, and has contributed to distrust of the word reconciliation in many cases.39 The balance between reconciliation and justice processes is therefore difficult to maintain and is seen by many as requiring much pragmatism.40

Debates between justice and reconciliation have very concrete consequences at the implementation stage; in particular individuals and groups may have different priorities in relation to reconciliation. "For some people an apology is a critical first step, while for others forgiveness and even reconciliation may be possible without such acknowledgement of the harm perpetrated."41 Justice and reconciliation have often been seen as competing objectives in the process of making and building peace. The political elites, in particular, may have an interest in crafting a number of arrangements with alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses; something that victims and survivors will perceive as being 'unjust' and therefore "detrimental to postwar stability and reconciliation."42

Most scholars, practitioners and activists now agree that there cannot be reconciliation without justice. Therefore, the central question in reconciliation is not whether justice is done, but rather "how one goes about doing it in ways that can also promote future harmonious and positive relationship between parties that have to live with each other whether they like it or not."43 In other words, reconciliation takes the concern for justice a step further and "is preoccupied with how to rebuild a more livable and psychologically healthy environment between former enemies where the vicious cycle of hate, deep suspicion, resentment, and revenge does not continue to fester."44 In the same vein, scholar-practitioner Vern Neufeld Redekop, defends a vision of justice much more in line with reconciliation processes. "The root concepts out of which 'justice' emerged, also produced the concepts of righteous, virtue, and goodness. These suggest a paradigm of justice called relational justice in which the goal is first and foremost to produce good, mutually empowering relationships. Within this paradigm, justice as seeking a balance, becomes a part of a bigger process of reconciliation. As such there are specific justice-making aspects of the process in line with restorative justice and there are broader dimensions of justice-making as reversing hegemonic structures, laws and customs that may have contributed to victimization are adjusted for long-term achievement of justice within larger relational systems."45
Go to Transitional justice

Democratic theorists have also debated issues of justice and reconciliation, but present different arguments as they conceive of reconciliation mainly in its political dimensions. Some liberal theorists accept the legitimacy of reconciliation as a political objective, provided the demands of justice are first satisfied. Since justice is considered the fundamental task of the state, they view the 'first justice, then reconciliation' strategy as the only satisfactory way to reckon with past regime atrocities. But others have found that approach problematic. "First, it is an unrealistic strategy, consigning the quest for national unity and domestic order to oblivion. Since substantive justice is an ideal that is never fully realized, making justice a precondition for unity means that the state will never be in a position to deliberately pursue political reconciliation. Second, the 'first justice, then peace' strategy is conceptually flawed because political reconciliation is not an inevitable by-product of justice. While strict justice may be a necessary condition for overcoming deep political cleavages within society, legal accountability does not assure political order. Indeed, the quest for justice may reinforce conflict and violence, as was evident when Argentina pursued trials against military officials in the late 1980s."46

[Back to Top]

Conditions and sequencing of reconciliation processes

Reconciliation, as much as peace, is not a static outcome but rather "a set of dynamic processes embedded in the real-life context of peoples lives and relationships, perceptions, hopes, and fears."47 It is likely to be gradual and progressive,48 but also not linear, but rather cyclical and iterative.49 Given both the complexity of these processes and the volatility of post-conflict context, "time management in processing reconciliation is an extremely important, but difficult, dimension in the search for a shared future. Policies must not come too soon or too late and questions and challenges abound..."50

How to plan a reconciliation policy and sequence the steps in the various dimensions of the process is probably one of the most challenging issues. At times, it may also feel contradictory to the vision of reconciliation, given its broad and complex nature, encompassing so many different dynamics and all at once. Yet, in different 'models,' scholars and practitioners have tried to conceive progressions and even pre-requisites.

For instance, in their handbook on reconciliation,David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse have suggested three major steps:

1. Replacing fear by nonviolent coexistence;
2. Building confidence and trust when fear no longer rules;
3. Towards empathy.51

In his model, Vern Neufeld Redekop, identifies a number of 'pre-requisites':

1. "Vision and mandate: either one of the parties or a third party has a vision and desire for reconciliation and obtains a mandate to work to that end." 52
2. "Safety: the safety of the parties needs to be assured. This means that overt violence must be halted. Sometimes a legal framework needs to be in place to assure the safety of potential victims. Safety also means that the parties do not intimidate each other."53 The idea that the environment must be safe is emphasized by most scholars and practitioners as a key condition for people to start talking about what happened. 54 In the case of Rwanda, where over 20,000 village tribunals (called gacaca), involved the entire population through mandatory participation, the issue of public testimony was carried to an extreme. Indeed, in this process, testifying witnesses have been surrounded by the neighbors and families of the accused as entire villages gather to hear the proceedings. Research on this experience suggests the centrality of the security dimension: "If security is threatened, this may lead to a number of outcomes: physical injury, psychological anxiety and ill-health, an increase in violence in order to silence the truth, acts of revenge from either group, or skewed testimonies leading to a distorted picture of the past which may lay grounds for renewed conflict."55 Practitioners have also suggested that people need "to feel an adequate level of control over the process, when they escape the powerlessness imposed by violence."56 This requires that not only a minimum of physical security is ensured in the society but that specific safe spaces for reconciliation are created.57
3. "Immediate survival needs: reconciliation processes can be demanding both cognitively and emotionally. Hence, it is important that parties are assured of having their immediate physical and emotional needs sufficiently met to function through the process."58 This means that, in addition to concrete physical support to include food and shelter, psychological security must also increase. Reconciliation can provide this, but the beginning of healing would also enhance the possibility of reconciliation. 59

This illustrates how inter-related these processes are and how difficult prioritizing may actually be in practice. In fact, reconciliation defies reduction to a neat set of rules. "It is more than theory. There are no simple 'how to' steps involved [in reconciliation]. [...] It is about making what seems impossible possible. It is about the complex business of real people engaging one another in the quest for life. It is an art rather than a science."60 As noted by scholar Louis Kriesberg on a recent piece of the subject, "The levels of reconciliation achieved are not static, but remain in flux. Different aspects of reconciliation have their own dynamic of change and also affect each other. Furthermore, various social conditions affect the workings of the many processes of reconciliation. This complexity may appear discouraging since foreseeing all the consequences of pursuing one strategy rather than another is unlikely. On the other hand, the complexity is such that many actions can make useful contributions. There is reason to believe that better information and understanding of how different sequences of steps can contribute to reaching a fuller reconciliation can help formulate and implement more effective reconciliation policies."61

[Back to Top]

Reconciliation as a priority, not a peripheral activity

For those who conceive peacebuilding as 'conflict transformation,' reconciliation is not a peripheral activity to sustain a peace process but one of the fundamental ingredients that make up the ecosystem in which peace must live.62 Yet, the reality of post-conflict aid is that programs that aim at supporting the reconciliation process and targeting specific elements of it often look marginal in comparison to the large focus put on structural and economic development.63 Several difficulties explain the lack of specific attention actually paid to reconciliation in the peacebuilding agenda, beyond public discourses.

A costly and long term task

The task of reconciliation is hugely challenging and costly; it may take decades to achieve. Indeed, one of the lessons that outsiders in particular have often drawn from those processes has been the need to be cautious and take time.64 Reconciliation has to be approached from multiple angles and over an extended period of time.65 Though these elements are well known and accepted, interventions with these goals in mind are usually constrained by time and inadequate resources on the part of donors whose practices dont match what is needed.66 There might also be a tendency on the part of policymakers and donors in particular to consider that, because reconciliation is a long term process, it is not something that requires immediate attention and that the mere passage of time will ultimately engender reconciliation; however, this is simply not the case.67

The need for preparatory measures at an early stage of the process

Some reconciliation measures may also need preparation to take place at many levels: for instance, refugees and displaced persons returning to their communities, communities anticipating returnees, or preparing ex-combatants during the pre-discharge orientation phase.68 There will be some pre-requisites for reconciliation activities such as ensuring security. In addition, targeted supporting mechanisms need to be crafted early enough in the process to ensure that reconciliation objectives are taken on board at all levels of the society and in all aspects of the peacebuilding process.

The difficulty in assessing impact of programs

The difficulty in assessing the outcomes of reconciliation programs is a key challenge that in part explains the lack of resources actually devoted to reconciliation activities. First, it is not always easy to separate tools of reconciliation from evidence of reconciliation's progress. For example, is the organization of workshops and focus groups in which ex-combatants from opposite parties as well as victims meet and share their experience an indication of the reconciliation process or a mechanism to further it? Should the revision of history textbooks to include both unflattering parts of one's own history and the formerly ignored experiences of victims be seen as the result of reconciliation at other levels of society, or is it a mechanism for further, more wide-spread reconciliation?69

Moreover, the identification of indicators to assess the impact of these activities is not easy. Is the number of individuals who attend seminars and trainings, or a street theatre performance...a sufficient indicator or are more qualitative in-depth parameters needed? How can transformation in beliefs, attitudes, perceptions of other groups and relationships be assessed? What should the indicators be and how can they be measured?

Another difficulty is the attempt to measure the 'impact' in one or two years, for projects that are actually working on generational change.70 Indeed, in deeply divided societies, transformation of perspectives on 'others' is a long-term process. Therefore assessments of initiatives in the immediate term may not be adequately representative of a comprehensive reconciliation scenario. Yet, donors will require short term results and statistics that will prove, after one or two years, that the program they have supported has had an impact.

Last but not least, if achieving reconciliation is conceived as a dynamic process rather than a static condition that unfolds from different interventions over time, it may evolve depending on the circumstances, and may look very different depending on one's individual perspective, and from one community to the next. Indeed, "the social and political stability that arises from real reconciliation encompasses both interpersonal and wider social relationships within and among communities. It requires accommodation among former antagonists, coming to terms with past injustices and violence, the development of new social and political relationships, and the readjustment of group identities. But these relationships and identities, by definition, are fluid, and their transformation may be more complete in some communities than in others..."71 For all these reasons, assessing the effectiveness and impact of reconciliation programs is extremely difficult. More empirical research is needed to inform these issues and support the identification of actual monitoring and assessment tools.

[Back to Top]

Bottom up versus top down approaches

Because of its very nature, reconciliation is generally considered to be a 'bottom up' process that cannot be imposed by the state or any other institution. However, the role of governments and political leaders cannot be overestimated. How to maintain a balance between the two is the subject of many debates, even though most scholars and practitioners alike would agree that the approach must be top down and bottom up at the same time.

The role of political leadership

"The importance of political leadership can be explained by the fact that heads of state and other high officials represent the body politic; and their actions convey the message that the state acknowledges past wrongs, that it has disassociated itself from the actions of its predecessor, and that henceforth it will be committed to justice. Without these top-level assurances, [...] reconciliatory gestures and projects from non-governmental and less highly-placed officials will be viewed with suspicion."72 The South African example is often mentioned as an illustration of how much governments can do to promote reconciliation and provide opportunities for people to come to grips with the past.73 But appreciation of what really happened there is debated. For instance, scholar Luc Huyse notes that "the rhetoric of the former president, Nelson Mandela, about forgiveness is still a source of considerable frustration in large parts of South Africa's black community."74 As a consequence, he considers that "it is an illusion to believe that reconciliation imposed from the top will automatically engender individual steps toward trust and empathy. No political or religious authorities can reconcile/forgive in the name of the victims."75

The limits of top down approaches

One concrete limit of top down approaches lies in the way the 'national reconciliation' discourse can be manipulated by some political leaders. For instance, in Cambodia, the government used the term 'national reconciliation' to describe the process of accommodation of the Khmer Rouge; as a consequence, Cambodians may be more likely to regard reconciliation as some kind of political compromise. 76 In Rwanda, 'national reconciliation' as a state policy has been criticized by many observers both because it tends to manipulate history and is used in a pretty closed and controlled political environment.

In many cases, 'national reconciliation' has been promoted by those who had been implicated in human rights violations and crimes. Therefore, survivors and victims have, understandably, perceived reconciliation as a thinly-veiled call for continued impunity for perpetrators and silence from victims, contributing to distrust of the word reconciliation in many cases.77 Political processes of reconciliation also run the risk of "watering down the concept of personal reconciliation by adding a deadline for the process, as well as potentially co-opting the term as a label for a process that actually does not change the structural realities that produced violations in the first place."78 Finally, national processes of reconciliation main also remain largely peripheral to the daily lives of people living in areas most affected by political violence "unless these processes articulate with and are informed by local logics and practices," as pointed out by the anthropologist Kimberly Theidon in the case of Peru.79

The conditions and difficulties of grassroots reconciliation

For all these reasons, an important challenge of reconciliation is to institutionalize it beyond the elite level and make reconciliation a lived reality at the level of local and grassroots organizations. Reconciliation also needs to be meaningful at that level to enable communities to work together and achieve development goals more effectively. Such an approach involves strengthening and empowering local actors of change and peace and includes meetings between grassroots leaders and their communities with the aim to build collaboration and eventually understanding between former enemy groups.80

This may also require focusing not only on immediate preoccupations such as the debate about reparations (i.e., monetary compensation), but starting to address deep underlying fractures in communities. Indeed, "these fractures have implications for communities' ability to work together and engage in participatory development processes that actually accomplish community goals. Thus, reconciliation efforts must include not only exhumation processes, attempts at justice through reparations, and individual healing, but a commitment to other mechanisms, such as dialogue and mediation, that would better stabilize the fragile equilibrium of communities that have been shattered by war."81 Local and grassroots efforts also require close attention to the way reconciliation processes may differently affect different groups in a community; "advancements for one group in a complex set of social relationships may be accompanied by setbacks for another."82

Ultimately, the goal is to reach the individual level, although, as some have pointed out, "reconciliation may never be internalized by many individuals."83 To this end, Ron Kraybill has suggested distinguishing between reconciliation of the head and that of the heart. Sometimes there is an intellectual (head) desire to reconcile even though there is not yet emotional (heart) readiness. In workshops and focus groups, people may talk about reconciliation, but it is frequently a quick and intellectual form of reconciliation.84

Reconciliation is a voluntary act

The fact that reconciliation must be seen as a voluntary act that cannot be coerced is stressed by all practitioners.85 Even at the level of the elites, "the essence of reconciliation is the voluntary initiative of the conflict parties to acknowledge their responsibility and guilt... In both reconciliation and other conflict resolution mechanisms the process of dialogue is expected to generate change and transformation. In reconciliation, however, the forces for change are primarily internal and voluntary; while in the other approaches they are external and to a certain extent coerced." 86 This is even truer at the level of the society. Even if, under pressure, one group or one individual reluctantly accept some level of responsibility or guilt, it is questionable that this will serve as a force for significantly altering the future conduct and relationship between the adversaries.87

[Back to Top]

Local cultures and contexts

The specificity of local contexts and cultures is an important concern in the development and implementation of reconciliation activities. Many, including among policy makers, now agree that "a starting point in addressing post-conflict reconciliation issues must be that no post-conflict situation [is] equal to another and that there [is] no one-size-fits-all solution. But the opposite [is] also true: it [is] not necessary to reinvent the wheel at every occasion, but there [are] a few standard parameters and model procedures that could usefully be defined and applied."88

The way the Truth & Reconciliation Commission model was diffused, in particular after the South African experience in 1995, is particularly revealing of that delicate balance. From country to country, a process of diffusion of experiences and ideas followed, even though "each place was also unique, influenced not only by international advisors and donors but by the strength of its own human rights movement, of opposing political forces and the nature and extent of the conflict."89 Yet, local actors, in particular among local civil societies, often complained that outsiders were trying to impose on them a model which did not necessarily coincide with their own situation and culture.

Dealing with paradoxes in reconciliation processes

Reconciliation can be seen as dealing with three specific paradoxes. First, in an overall sense, reconciliation promotes an encounter between the open expression of the painful past, on the one hand, and the search for the articulation of a long-term, interdependent future, on the other hand. Second, reconciliation provides a place for truth and mercy to meet, where concerns for exposing what has happened and for letting go in favour of renewed relationship are validated and embraced. Third, reconciliation recognises the need to give time and place to both justice and peace, where redressing the wrong is held together with the envisioning of a common, connected future.

Source: John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, 1997), 20.

Cultural sensitivity is, indeed, essential and "local customs must be respected in order not to suppress indigenous values and identities, which tend to be weakened by armed conflicts."90 Of course, this is easier to state than to do. "Local actors are certainly the best positioned to do so. Local policy-makers and civil society groups should be encouraged to identify, examine and build upon their own political and cultural resources, such as coping and healing mechanisms."91 In fact, in different countries, communities have mobilized their own resources to design for instance healing and reconciliation rituals that would make sense to them. These may vary from one region to the next as local cultures and contexts are themselves diverse; therefore, even at the nation level, "there is no magic formula for reconciliation. [...]Hearing the survivors and the community is essential in all initiatives for development and reconciliation."92

A key related issue entails who decides what the local 'cultural resources' and norms are and presents them to outsiders. Outsiders in particular need to be vigilant in that assessment and put in place processes that allow such identification and find ways through which these can be discussed at the community level. Some of the local 'cultural resources' may have also been tainted in the process of war and they must be subjected to scrutiny by communities seeking to re-assert a reality that is not war-based. Without some outside tools and perspectives, "local communities may remain trapped in the power of war-based structures of thought, with little to move them to another perspective."93
Go to Psychosocial responses within the context of culture

[Back to Top]

Local ownership

Factors such as the genuineness of the reconciliation initiatives which may in turn be affected by how the conflict ended 94 and the sense of local ownership influence how reconciliation initiatives are perceived by the people, and thus how they will affect actual reconciliation. Participatory methods and processes are necessary as they enhance ownership of decisions and actions. The need for safe and confidential forums to address people's concerns and help transform conflicts is also stressed by practitioners as an important factor.95 Reconciliation processes require from outsiders a particular sensitivity to make sure that they play their limited but important roles as facilitators of a particular delicate process.96

1. See, among others, Cecilia OLeary, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
2. See, for example, on Latin American associations with reconciliation, Elizabeth Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), xvii.
3. Luc Huyse, "Theory and Practice," in Reconciliation: Rhetoric or Relevant? eds. Grainne Kelly and Brandon Hamber (Belfast : Democratic Dialogue, February 2005), 7.
4. Ibid.
5. Rene Lemarchand and Maurice Niwese, "Mass Murder, the Politics of Memory and Post-Genocide Reconstruction: The Cases of Rwanda and Burundi," in After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2007), 184.
6. Elizabeth A. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," in Teaching the Violent Past: History Education and Reconciliation, ed. Elizabeth A. Cole (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 6-9.
7. Batrice Pouligny, "Civil Society and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Ambiguities of International Programmes Aimed at Building New Societies," in Security Dialogue 36, no. 4 (December 2005), 499-500.
8. Timothy Garton Ash, "True Confessions," The New York Review of Books 44, no. 12 (17 July 1997), 37.
9. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 6-9.
10. Andrew Schaap "Guilty Subjects and Political Responsibility: Arendt, Jaspers and the Resonance of the German Question in Politics of Reconciliation," Political Studies 49 (2001), 762.
11. Beatrice Pouligny, "UN peace operations, INGOs, NGOs, and promoting the rule of law: exploring the intersection of international and local norms in different postwar contexts," Journal of Human Rights 2, no. 3 (September 2003), 369.
12. Colin Gleichmann, Michael Odenwald, Kees Steenken, and Adrian Wilkinson, Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration A Practical Field and Classroom Guide (Germany, Druckerei Hassmller Graphische Betriebe GmbH & Co. KG, 2004), 86-87.
13. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 6.

14. Eric Brahm, "Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Stage," Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium, October 2003).
15. See in particular David Goodman, Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999); Michael Ignatieff, Articles of Faith, abridged from the article published in Index On Censorship, 5 no. 96 (September 1996); Charles O. Lerche, III, "Truth Commissions and National Reconciliation: Some Reflections on Theory and Practice," in Peace and Conflict Studies 7 no. 1 (May 2000); Tom Winslow, "Reconciliation: The Road to Healing? Collective Good, Individual Harm?" Track Two 6 no. 3 & 4 (1997).
16. Brandon Hamber and Richard Wilson, "Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-Conflict Societies," in Journal of Human Rights 1, no. 1 (March 2002).
17. "Reconciliation," International Center for Transitional Justice (February 2006).
18. Daniel Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field" (New York: Social Science Research Center, October 2007), 38.
19. Brandon Hamber and Hugo van der Merwe, "What is this Thing Called Reconciliation?" Reconciliation in Review 1, no. 1 (1998); See also Hugo van der Merwe, "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Community Reconciliation: An Analysis of Competing Strategies and Conceptualizations," diss., George Mason University (1999).
20. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 10-11.
21. John Bowker, Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970): 46-47, 101, 254-257.
22. Dan Bar-On, "Reconciliation Revisited Part II, Along with the TRT Experience," Newropeans Magazine, 15 March 2006; Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff discusses the possibility of secondary reconciliation. But he does not represent the more orthodox view of Judaism that is not yet prepared to accept such flexibility in the implementation of reconciliation. See Elliot N. Dorff, "Individual and Communal Forgiveness," in Autonomy and Judaism, ed. Daniel Frank (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992): 193-217.
23. George E. Irani and Nathan C. Funk, "Rituals of Reconciliation: Arab-Islamic Perspectives," Occasional Paper #19 (Notre Dame, Indiana: Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2000).
24. Daniel Goleman, Healing Emotions: Conversations with The Dalai Lama On Mindfulness, Emotions, And Health (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 170.
25. Daniel Philpott, "What Religion Brings to the Politics of Transitional Justice," Journal of International Affairs 61, no. 1 (2007): 93-110.
26. Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field."
27. Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly, "A Working Definition of Reconciliation," (Belfast:Democratic Dialogue, 2004), 5.
28. Merdijana Sadovic, Michael Farquhar, Caroline Tosh, and Janet Anderson, "The Hague Tribunal and Balkan Reconciliation," (The Hague, Ahmici, and London: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Global Policy Forum, July 2006.)
29. See for instance Michael E. McCullough, Frank D. Fincham, and Jo-Ann Tsang, "Forgiveness, Forbearance, and Time: The Temporal Unfolding of Transgression-- Related Interpersonal Motivations," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 3 (2003): 540-557.
30. Ervin Staub, Laurie Ann Pearlman, Alexandra Gubin, and Athanase Hagengimana, "Healing, Reconciliation, Forgiving, and the Prevention of Violence after Genocide or Mass Killing: An Intervention and its Experimental Evaluation in Rwanda," Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24, no. 3 (2005), 301. See also Hizkias Assefa, "The Meaning of Reconciliation," European Platform for Conflict Resolution and Transformation.
31. Ibid. See also Walter Wink, When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1998), 14.
32. See for instance Donald W. Shriver, Jr., An ethic for enemies: forgiveness in politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
33. Andrew Rigby, "Dealing with the Past: Forgiveness and the Reconstruction of Memory in Divided Societies," in Ethical Theory in the Study of International Politics ed. Mark Evans (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2004), 109.
34. See in particular Louis Kriesberg, "Changing Forms of Coexistence," in Reconciliation, Justice and Coexistence, ed. Mohammed Abu-Nimer (Lanham, MD : Lexington Books, 2001), 47-64.
35. Marcia Byrom Hartwell, "The Role of Forgiveness in Reconstructing Society after Conflict" (3 May 1999).
36. Shriver, An Ethic For Enemies; Forgiveness In Politics, 9.
37. Wink, When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations, 15.
38. "Reconciliation Lessons Learned from United Nations Peacekeeping Missions: Case Studies Sierra Leone and Timor L'este." (Sweden: International IDEA, November 2004), 11.
39. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 16.
40. Karen Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," Study Prepared for Workshop 8 'Reconciliation.' International Conference, Building a Future on Peace and Justice, (Nuremberg, 25-27 June 2007), 5.
41. Wendy Lambourne, "Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Meeting Human Needs for Justice and Reconciliation," in Peace, Conflict and Development 4 (April 2004), 8.
42. Ibid, 5; David J. Francis, "Tortuous Path to Peace: The Lom Accord and Postwar Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone," in Security Dialogue 31, no. 3 (September 2000), 364.
43. Assefa, "The Meaning of Reconciliation."
44. Ibid.
45. Vern Neufeld Redekop, "A Post-Genocidal Justice of Blessing as an Alternative to a Justice of Violence: The Case of Rwanda," in Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies, ed. Barry Hart (Maryland: University Press of America, 2008), 216.
46. Mark R Amstutz, "Is Reconciliation Possible After Genocide? The Case of Rwanda," Journal of Church and State 48, no. 3 (July 1, 2006): 541-565.For a further discussion of these issues, see also Mark Amstutz, The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 104-05.
47. John Paul Lederach, "Civil Society and Reconciliation," in Turbulent Peace The Challenges of Managing International Conflict, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2001), 854.
48. Staub, et al., "Healing, Reconciliation, Forgiving, and the Prevention of Violence after Genocide or Mass Killing: An Intervention and its Experimental Evaluation in Rwanda," 301.
49. Redekop, "A Post-Genocidal Justice of Blessing as an Alternative to a Justice of Violence: The Case of Rwanda," 213-216.
50. Huyse, "Theory and Practice," 9.
51. David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse, Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook. (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2003), 21.
52. Redekop, "A Post-Genocidal Justice of Blessing as an Alternative to a Justice of Violence: The Case of Rwanda," 213-216.
53. Ibid.
54. See for instance Reina Neufeldt, Larissa Fast, Fr Robert Schreiter, Fr Brian Starken, Duncan MacLaren, Jaco Cilliers, and John Paul Lederach, Peacebuilding: A Training Manual (Vatican City: Caritas Internationalis, 2002), 27-28.
55. Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," 10.
56. Bonnie Klassen, "Opening Space for Healing in Colombia," in Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies, ed. Barry Hart (Maryland: University Press of America, 2008), 288.
57. Neufeldt, et. al., Peacebuilding: A Training Manual, 27-28.
58. Redekop, "A Post-Genocidal Justice of Blessing as an Alternative to a Justice of Violence: The Case of Rwanda," 213-216.
59. Staub, et al., "Healing, Reconciliation, Forgiving, and the Prevention of Violence after Genocide or Mass Killing: An Intervention and its Experimental Evaluation in Rwanda," 302.
60. Charles, Villa-Vicencio, "Reconciliation as a Metaphor" (Institute for Justice and Reconciliation).
61. Louis Kriesberg, "Reconciliation: Aspects, Growth, and Sequences," International Journal of Peace Studies 12, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2007), 18.
62. Lederach, "Civil Society and Reconciliation," 854.
63. Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," 7.
64. See the declaration by Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in "In Presidential Statement, Security Council reaffirms vital importance of United Nations role in post-conflict reconciliation," UN Press Release SC/7990, 26 January 2004.
65. Judy Barsalou,"Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies" (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 2005), 11.
66. Ibid, 1.
67. Huyse, "Theory and Practice," 9.
68. Gleichmann, Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration A Practical Field and Classroom Guide, 58.
69. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 16.
70. Serena Rix Tripathee, "Measuring a Moving Target: Peace Building Soap Opera in Nepal," article presented at the 3rd Symposium Forum Media and Development: Measuring Change in Media Development, Bonn, September 2007, 3.
71. Barsalou, "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies," 10.
72. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 17.
73. Charles Hauss, "Reconciliation," in Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium, September 2003).
74. Huyse, "Theory and Practice," 9-10.
75. Ibid.
76. Lambourne, "Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Meeting Human Needs for Justice and Reconciliation," 17-18.
77. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 16.
78. Neufeldt, et al., Peacebuilding: A Training Manual, 32.
79. Kimberly Theidon, "Intimate Enemies: Reconciling the Present in Post-War Communities in Ayacucho, Peru," in After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2007), 119.
80. Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," 6.
81. Riva Kantowitz and Abikk Riak, "Critical Links between Peacebuilding and Trauma Healing: A Holistic Framework for Fostering Community Development," in Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies, ed. Barry Hart (Maryland: University Press of America, 2008), 23.
82. Kriesberg, "External Contributions to Post-Mass-Crime-Rehabilitation," 265.
83. "Teaching for Reconciliation: Can Tolerance Towards Former Enemies Be Taught?" Report on an International Faculty Development Seminar, Lublin, Poland, June 3-5, 2001.
84. Ron Kraybill, "From Head to Heart: The Cycle of Reconciliation," Conciliation Quarterly 7, no. 4 (1998).
85. See for instance Bloomfield, et al., Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2003).
86. Assefa, "The Meaning of Reconciliation."
87. Ibid.
88. Speech of Gunter Pleuger, Representative of Germany at the United Nations, endorsing the European Union position, "In Presidential Statement, Security Council reaffirms vital importance of United Nations role in post-conflict reconciliation," UN Press Release SC/7990, 26 January 2004.
89. Naomi Roht-Arriaza, "The New Landscape of Transitional Justice," in Transitional Justice in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Truth versus Justice, eds. Naomi Roht-Arriaza and Javier Mariezcurrena (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 5.
90. Gleichmann, et al., Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration A Practical Field and Classroom Guide, 58.
91. Huyse, "Theory and Practice," 10.
92. Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," 13.
93. Roberta Culbertson and Batrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining Peace after Mass Crime: A Dialogical Exchange Between Insider and Outsider Knowledge," in After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Pouligny, et al. (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2007), 281-284.
94. Karen Brouneus, Reconciliation and Development (Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, November 2007).
95. Alliance for Conflict Transformation.
96. Culbertson and Pouligny, "Re-imagining Peace After Mass Crime: A Dialogical Exchange Between Insider and Outsider Knowledge," 281-284.

The news, reports, and analyses herein are selected due to there relevance to issues of peacebuilding, or their significance to policymakers and practitioners. The content prepared by HPCR International is meant to summarize main points of the current debates and does not necessarily reflect the views of HPCR International or the Program of Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. In addition, HPCR International and contributing partners are not responsible for the content of external publications and internet sites linked to this portal.