Reconciliation: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

The term 'reconciliation' is frequently used both in the literature and practice of peacebuilding but it is rarely defined. It is used to address very different points and also has a tendency to hold a range of underlying assumptions, depending on the actor employing the term. This can at times create contradictions. However, from the study of a large variety of sources, it is possible to identify a number of elements on which most academics and practitioners agree in terms of the definition of reconciliation. This section highlights those key elements as well as related expressions used such as 'social reconciliation', 'political reconciliation', and 'national reconciliation'.

Reconciliation and its different assumptions

The absence of a standard definition

Though term 'reconciliation' figures prominently both in the literature and practice of peacebuilding, there is no actual consensus about what it specifically means, which activities it encompasses, or how it can be achieved.1 At best, reconciliation can be considered "as a spectrum, rather than a fixed definition."2

Most actors in the field, in particular non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations and state actors do not actually make explicit their own understanding of reconciliation. At the policy level, the open debate organized at the United Nations Security Council on January 26, 2004 on the subject of post-conflict reconciliation is very revealing: over forty speakers shared their views during a day-long debate; none of them defined or even explained what he or she understood as 'reconciliation.' Reflecting upon the minutes of this meeting, it becomes clear that participants actually had differing assumptions on the subject.3 This can be problematic when concrete policies and programs are discussed and is likely to lead to some argument and confusion.

In post-conflict environments, 'reconciliation' as a word or a concept is also often totally alien to the local culture. However, use of the term may be widespread because of its prevalence on the peacebuilding agenda and the presence of mechanisms such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. As a consequence of the foreign nature of the term reconciliation, local populations may invoke local concepts and terminology that reflect their own understanding. For instance, in the case of Sierra Leone, field research has outlined four interlinked concepts that help frame local understandings of 'reconciliation': 'kol hart'/'warm hart' (cool heart/warm heart), 'wan word' (one word), 'forgetting', and economic status.4

For all these reasons, the term 'reconciliation' tends to be used in very different ways and with varying assumptions by different actors, at times creating contradictions. These myriad understandings may also lead to programs that are not necessarily appropriate if they are not coinciding will local populations systems of reference.

Reconciliation as a process

Reconciliation is increasingly understood as a dynamic, complex, difficult, long-term and unpredictable process, not an event, isolated act, nor even an end-point or a remote goal to be achieved when war has ended.5

However, some academics, practitioners and policymakers alike believe that reconciliation can be understood both as a goal and a process.6 Recognizing when reconciliation has been achieved may however be problematic, and must always be context specific.7

Many also stress the fact that it is not a linear process as the various steps and stages it entails may not follow logically in any sequential order.8

Others still prefer to speak of a 'multidimensional phenomenon,' encompassing several processes of addressing conflicting and fractured relationships and including a range of different activities.9 As Louis Kriesberg, a scholar who has written extensively on the subject summarizes, "Reconciliation can refer to actions that sometimes help transform a destructive conflict or relationship, the processes by which that transformation occurs, or the outcome of such processes."10

Reconciliation is between two or more persons or collectivities

Reconciliation encompasses processes as well as "particular aspects of relationships between two or more persons or collectivities."11 In other words, it refers to relations between social groups or political entities which were formerly part of the conflict but also between individuals that constitute those groups; it has to do both with the way a society reconciles with its past as well as with the way groups and individuals reconcile with each other.12 However, this double understanding is not shared by all actors, and forms the basis of an important conceptual debate. Also, such disagreement may result in different policy and practical approaches.

'Thin' or 'thick' reconciliation

As suggested by scholars David Little and Elizabeth Cole, dictionary definitions can sometimes be a good place to start, in particular to understand the varying depth of the processes involved.13Roget's Thesaurus provides two definitions, which, according to Little, can be related to a minimum level of peacebuilding soon after the end of a violent conflict, also known as 'thin' or minimal reconciliation:

(1) "resignation," as in "to be reconciled to"; "to put up with"; "to bear"; "to tolerate"; and
(2) "pacification," "meeting half-way," "laying down ones arms," "coming to terms," "settling," "accommodating."

Little relates this definition to the tasks of the early stage of peacebuilding, especially provision for basic security and securing mutual adherence to the terms of the cease-fire.

However, there is another set of definitions of reconciliation which yields both its problems and its potential richness:

3.a. "forgiveness," "pardon," "propitiation," "absolution" (Roget's Thesaurus); and
3.b. "the action of bringing to agreement, concord, or harmony; to bring (a person) again into friendly relations to or with (oneself or another) after an estrangement; to set (estranged persons or parties) at one again."

In the words of political philosopher David Crocker, this might refer to what is called 'thick reconciliation,' as opposed to the 'thin,' or minimal, reconciliation implied by the first two definitions.14 Most academics and practitioners refer to this 'thick' understanding of the notion of reconciliation. It is within this set of definitions that most variations in meanings appear.

Reconciliation is more than mere coexistence

The notion of 'co-existence' has sometimes been suggested as a substitute for reconciliation, and sometimes even conceived of as synonymous with it.15 It coincides with the first Roget's Thesaurus definition of reconciliation as 'to put up with'; 'to bear'; 'to tolerate'. The scholar Elizabeth Cole considers that such a definition "implies only the thinnest understanding of reconciliation, in which former enemies desist from trying to destroy each other."16

Some NGOs and research centers refer to this understanding for practical reasons.17 For instance, David Bloomfield, former director of the Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, explained, "Where we at Berghof...use the term reconciliation, it's a much more pragmatic thing about building working relations in politics and society. It doesn't mean loving anybody. It doesn't necessarily mean stopping hating anybody. It just means we have to work together minimally to make politics work without killing each other." In the long run, Bloomfield added, it is arguably possible that these "minimal grudging relations" could give rise to some kind of reconciliation. "If you set those habits in process, then gradually they develop; degrees of cooperation and trust and - who knows - even respect," he said. "And maybe down the line, after a few years, or a few decades, it does become peace and love."18 Along the same lines, Andrew Rigby, from the Committee for Conflict Transformation Support, notes: "The deeper the levels of co-existence (reconciliation with) targeted as the goal of any reconciliation process, the greater the degree of reconciliation to past loss required of the parties to the process. As Michael Ignatieff has observed, 'You can coexist with people without forgetting or forgiving their crimes against you. Cold peace of many kinds does not require reconciliation of a personal kind.'"19

Inspired by the writings of two other scholars, Louis Kriesberg and David Crocker,20 Andrew Rigby, has suggested distinguishing three types or levels of co-existence that help better understand this notion and its connection to reconciliation:

  • "Surface coexistence of separate lives, where those that have been and remain divided continue to live apart from each other in a form of social apartheid, informed by the general ethos of 'You leave us alone and we shall leave you alone.' In such circumstances interaction between the two is often by arrangement, with very little casual social interaction.
  • Shallow coexistence of parallel lives, where people live alongside each other by mutual preference and cross-community interaction tends to be quite role-specific (as in the exchange of various types of goods and services) with only a limited amount of casual social interaction, although the spaces and occasions for cross-community conviviality are generally recognized and respected.
  • Deep coexistence of community, where people from different identity groups and networks live with and amongst each other, and where everyday interaction is rich and multi-textured."21

Reconciliation involves changes in attitudes and building constructive relationships

Reconciliation also involves deep transformations of attitudes and behaviors, from destructive to constructive.22 Most scholars and practitioners insist on this dimension which both defines the nature of the process and its main goal. In the words of Vern Neufeld Redekop, academic and practitioner, "the first part of the goal is to get out of mimetic structures of violence. At this stage, people can co-exist without hurting one another and without fear of attack. The second part of the goal is to establish a mimetic structure of blessing."23 There is a sense of a long process which involves various steps and stages. "Each move demands changes in attitudes (e.g., tolerance instead of revenge), in conduct (e.g., joint commemoration of all the dead instead of separate, partisan memorials) and in the institutional environment (e.g., integrating the war veterans of both sides into one national army instead of keeping ex-combatants in quasi-private militias)."24 In other words, "reconciliation is the process of addressing conflictual and fractured relationships" and restoring- or building- constructive ones.25 This process is also part of the transformation of beliefs and narratives at both personal and collective levels so that they can support constructive relationships and sustainable peacebuilding.26
Go to Reconciliation and Conflict Transformation

Reconciliation is both a backward-looking and forward-looking process

Reconciliation (as with transitional justice) has sometimes been criticized as being excessively backward-looking. However, most of the literature insists that it is also a forward-looking process. "As a backward-looking operation, reconciliation brings about the personal healing of survivors, the reparation of past injustices, the building or re-building of non-violent relationships between individuals and communities, and the acceptance by the former parties to a conflict of a common vision and understanding of the past. In its forward-looking dimension, reconciliation means enabling victims and perpetrators to get on with life and, at the level of society, the establishment of a civilized political dialogue and an adequate sharing of power."27

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Specific forms of reconciliation

Social reconciliation

Reconciliation is sometimes qualified as a 'societal process' to reflect the fact that it is a collective effort concerning a society as a whole.28 In the same spirit, the expression 'social reconciliation' is generally used to refer to the spectrum of processes, initiatives and activities that concern different groups in conflict in the society, or particularly mobilize the local civil society.29 The expression is also sometimes used to contrast that process with political reconciliation. It may help put an emphasis on the fact that the process then "includes ordinary members of society, those who benefited or got victimized as part of the logic, the outcome, of an ongoing system, regardless of agency; the embrace of social reconciliation includes the vast majority, in a word, beneficiaries and victims."30

Political reconciliation

'Political reconciliation' is used by some academics in contrast to 'social reconciliation' as a process "limited to the political elite, to political activists on this side and to state agents on the other side; its embrace is limited to a minority."31 However, this elite-centered understanding of political reconciliation is not necessarily shared by all academics. Political reconciliation processes generally need to happen at all levels of the society. There is often dissonance at the local level, for instance, between traditional authorities and newly elected leaders.  In the context of electoral processes, pacted negotiations may be used to settle electoral disputes; similar arrangements may be needed when drafting or revising constitutions, in particular with regards to the structures of government.

All those elements may form part of political reconciliation and require that a certain number of processes be initiated in the political space. As the scholar Andrew Schapp suggests: "Political reconciliation is initiated not by invoking an ideal image of community that should be restored, but by conceiving the present as the moment from which a future community might understand itself to have originated. As such, political reconciliation is impelled by an anticipated remembrance that becomes available by constituting a space for politics within which conflicting memories and expectations can be brought to bear on each other."32  Go to Democracy, governance and democratization processes

National versus State Reconciliation

Definitional distinctions are also sometimes made between 'state' and 'national' reconciliation. Holly Ackerman, a scholar, suggests the following distinction: National reconciliation is "a process of accommodation and reintegration by a previously divided, unique people." State reconciliation is "a process of accommodation and reintegration by a government." She also suggests a distinction between the notions of 'reconciliation' and 'transition,' commonly used in political studies, in particular in reference to democratic processes. "In general, reconciliation is a more protected process than transition. It is frequently associated with individual transformation and local action as well as institutional, collective processes."33

1. Judy Barsalou, "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies" (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 2005) 5; John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 1998); Charles Hauss, "Reconciliation." Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium, September 2003); "Reconciliation," International Center for Transitional Justice.

2. 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), 18-19.

3. "In Presidential Statement, Security Council reaffirms vital importance of United Nations role in post-conflict reconciliation," UN Press Release SC/7990, 26 January 2004.
4. Johanna Boersch-Supan. "What the Communities Say: The Crossroads between Integration and Reconciliation. What can be Learned from the Sierra Leonean Experience?" PhD diss., Oxford Univserity, 2008, 26.

5. Barsalou, "Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies," 5; Branka Peuraca, Can Faith-Based NGOs Advance Faith-Based Reconciliation? The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 2003); 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; Susan Dwyer, Reconciliation for Realists, in Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999), 96; David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse, Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2003), 19; Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 18-19.

6. 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), 213-216; see also the declaration by Ambassador Richard Ryan, from the Republic of Ireland, on behalf of European Union at the Open Debate UN General Assembly, January 26, 2004; Andrew Rigby, "Reflections on Reconciliation." Committee for Conflict Transformation Support, Review 29 (Committee for Conflict Transformation Support (CCTS), December 2005/January 2006).
7. Rigby, "Reflections on Reconciliation."
8. Luc Huyse, "Theory and Practice," in Reconciliation: Rhetoric or Relevant? edited by Grainne Kelly and Brandon Hamber. (Belfast: Democratic Dialogue, February 2005), 8; Bloomfield, et al., Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook, 19.
9. Louis Kriesberg, "External contributions to post-mass-crime rehabilitation." In After Mass Crimes Rebuilding States and Communities, eds. Beatrice Poulgny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2007), 243-270, 251; Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly, "A Working Definition of Reconciliation," in Democratic Dialogue (Belfast, 2004), 3-4.
10. Louis Kriesberg, "Comparing Reconciliation Actions within and Between Countries," in From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation, ed. Yakov Bar-Siman-Tov (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 82.
11. Kriesberg, "External contributions to post-mass-crime rehabilitation," 243-270, 251.
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; "Problem Solving Initiative," Alliance for Peacebuilding website.

13. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 6-9; in this paper, Elizabeth Cole refers to David Little, "Some Thoughts on the Notion of Reconciliation," unpublished paper presented at the United States Institute of Peace.

14. David Crocker, "Reckoning with Past Wrongs: A Normative Framework," Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999), 60.
15. See for instance Charles Villa-Vicencio, "A Different Kind of Justice: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission," in Contemporary Justice Review 1 (1998): 407-428.

16. Cole, "Introduction: Reconciliation and History Education," 11.

17. See, for example, the mission statement of the New York City-based Coexistence Initiative and the following paper: Jessica Berns with Mari Fitzduff, "What is Coexistence and Why a Complementary Approach?" (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Coexistence International, July 2007).
18. Merdijana Sadovic, Michael Farquhar, Caroline Tosh, and Janet Anderson, "The Hague Tribunal and Balkan Reconciliation." Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Global Policy Forum, 21 July 2006.
19. Rigby, "Reflections on Reconciliation;" Michael Ignatieff, Afterword: Reflections on Coexistence, in Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity After Violent Ethnic Conflict, eds. AntoniaChayes and Martha Minow (Boston: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 326.
20. See especially Louis Kriesberg, "Changing forms of coexistence," in Reconciliation, Justice and Coexistence, ed. Mohammed Abu-Nimer (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001), 47-64. See also David Crocker, "Retribution and Reconciliation" University of Maryland Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy (2000).
21. Rigby, "Reflections on Reconciliation."
22. See for instance Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), 182-198, 184; Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," 5.
23. Redekop, "A Post-Genocidal Justice of Blessing as an Alternative to a Justice of Violence: The Case of Rwanda," 213.
24. Bloomfield, et al., Reconciliation after Violent Conflict, 19.
25. Hamber and Kelly, "A Working Definition of Reconciliation," 3-4; Rigby, "Reflections on Reconciliation;" Peuraca, "Can Faith-Based NGOs Advance Faith-Based Reconciliation? The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina;" Gleichmann, et al., Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration A Practical Field and Classroom Guide, 86-87.
26. Susan Dwyer, "Reconciliation for Realists," in Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999): 96.
27. Luc Huyse, "The Process of Reconciliation," in Reconciliation after Violent Conflict, eds. David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse (Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 2005), 9.
28. Brouneus, "Reconciliation and Development," 5.
29. Marcia Byrom Hartwell, "The Role of Forgiveness in Reconstructing Society after Conflict," Journal of Humanitarian Assistance (May 1999); Robert Ricigliano, "Networks of Effective Action: Implementing an Integrated Approach to Peacebuilding," in Security Dialogue 34, no. 4 (December 2003), 447.
30. Colin Leys and Mahmood Mamdani, Crises and Reconstruction African Perspectives : Two Lectures (Sweden: Nordiska Africainstitutet, 1997), 22.
31. Ibid.
32. Andrew Schapp. Political Reconciliation. (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), 149-150.
33. Holly Ackerman, "National Reconciliation. In the Case of Cuba: Definition and Analysis," 342.

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