Transforming broken relationships: making peace with the past
Graeme Simpson stresses the need to place reconciliation at the heart of political processes and transitions in conflict-affected or fragile societies. Reconciliation must be understood as transforming both horizontal relationships, between people and groups in society, and vertical relationships, between people and institutions.
This understanding has three strategic implications for policymakers and practitioners: that adopting binary strategies of 'bottom-up' or 'top-down' reconciliation is problematic; that reconciliation cannot simply be seen as a post-conflict activity divorced from other peacebuilding strategies; and that reconciliation should not be seen as synonymous with transitional justice and strategies for dealing with the past.
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Transforming horizontal and vertical relationships
Reconciliation is the process of building or rebuilding relationships damaged by violent conflict: horizontal relationships between people and groups in society; and vertical relationships between people and institutions, both within and outside the state. This understanding places reconciliation programmes and strategies at the heart of political processes and transitions in conflict-affected or fragile societies. Too often reconciliation is seen as supplementary or peripheral: an exotic distraction or utopian aspiration.
Such an approach also stresses the pragmatic value of reconciliation at the intersection of peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts, conceived not merely as technocratic exercises to build the capacity of ‘strong’ rather than ‘fragile’ states, but rather as essentially political endeavours to transform tainted relationships between state and society – or the cultivation of ‘civic trust’, as some have coined it. As noted by David Bloomfield, this perspective salvages reconciliation from the realm of the ‘fluffy’ or ‘soft’ dimensions of peacebuilding, or as exclusively localised or intimate. On the contrary, reconciliation programming is pivotal to sustaining peace and preventing new or re-emerging violent conflict.
Strategic implications for building peace
Understanding reconciliation as transforming both horizontal and vertical relationships has three main strategic implications for practitioners and policymakers. Firstly, it is resistant to crude, binary strategies of either ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’: bottom-up, which ties reconciliation to local politics and geography, based on simplistic assumptions that rebuilding relationships must be driven from the local or community level, up to the national or global level; and top-down, which exclusively values elitist or state-centric processes. National or regional dynamics can all too easily undermine even the best-laid plans for local-level relationship building. And, equally, national peacebuilding or peacemaking can be unravelled by the ignition of local conflict.
‘Middle out’ approaches to building reconciliation are also important and may be effective: intermediaries that span different layers in society, such as civil society organisations capable of both ‘listening down’ and ‘speaking up’; distinct social constituencies who cut across diverse levels, like women, youths or victims; or even the potential of social and state institutions as platforms for building reconciliation, which similarly straddle and operate across levels. Clearly top-down, bottom-up and middle-out approaches should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.
The rich and complex country case studies examined in this volume contribute creative insights, strategic options and conceptual challenges based on these different levels of engagement and the diverse tactical points of entry that they offer for transforming damaged relationships. Each respects the fundamental importance of context-specificity (and conflict-specificity), but also provocatively challenges us to think across contexts and different timeframes, about how we connect and reinforce diverse strategies and levels of engagement, and appreciate their potential cumulative effect.
Through this lens, there is great value in applying systems thinking to the field of reconciliation. This demands that practitioners move beyond the notion of working discretely or sequentially at different levels, or even multi-track engagement – important as this may be. Rather, it requires attention to the ‘connective tissue’ or ‘social fabric’ that connects and integrates these diverse engagements, and the spectrum of tactical points of entry within a wider understanding of reconciliation strategies as systemic and multi-faceted, as well as non-linear in both cause and effect.
Secondly, a systems-based approach to vertical and horizontal reconciliation challenges assumptions about a segmented temporal frame, which consigns reconciliation exclusively to phases of ‘post-conflict social reconstruction’, and which divorces reconciliation from other peacebuilding strategies. Understanding the peace and conflict continuum as a system acknowledges cyclical patterns of conflict in which the boundaries of pre- and post-conflict phases are inevitably blurred. But it also offers a range of different and innovative points of engagement for building or supporting reconciliation efforts at different points in the conflict cycle.
Here too, the case studies discussed in this volume highlight and offer creative insights into the strategies for engaging in reconciliation programming in very different ways in a given context, depending on the point in the peace and conflict cycle, the particular nature of the political process or transition, and the ‘politics of the possible’ that this implies. A more systemic approach offers opportunities for innovation through a compendium of diverse initiatives and opportunities that can be applied in different societies at different times: for early intervention or pre-emption; for strategies for building reconciliation in the course of ongoing conflicts; for the range of mechanisms to address the legacies of violence; and for anticipating new or recurrent patterns of conflict.
Thirdly, policy and programming for reconciliation have been significantly impaired by increasingly normative associations with transitional justice and strategies for ‘dealing with the past’. Transitional justice measures can make creative and highly important contributions to reconciliation. But the assumption that reconciliation can be reduced to the ‘right mixture’ of the component approaches of a transitional justice template (or of a specific transitional justice mechanism, such as truth seeking) is problematic. It implies a significant disservice to both the primary function of transitional justice mechanisms and – more importantly – to the diversity of approaches that might contribute to reconciliation in a particular society or community. It may well set transitional justice mechanisms up to fail if it is assumed that, in the right sequential combinations or proportions, they will automatically achieve reconciliation.
There are at least three risks of associating reconciliation too narrowly with these other approaches. First, transitional justice establishes a normative blueprint that is shaped more by the objectives of compliance and accountability (important though these are), than by the goals of transforming relationships damaged by conflict. A key dimension of reconciliation strategies as a peacebuilding endeavour must be how they reach beyond these normative obligations to the transformative objectives at their core. Second, dealing with the past frames a narrow objective and focus that is essentially retrospective, and that consequently undermines the critical preventive function of reconciliation strategies in making peace sustainable. This includes anticipating the changing and evolving (rather than static) character of conflict and violence, as well as patterns of marginalisation and exclusion in any society. Third, ready-made templates for ‘best practice’ for transitional justice may be less useful to the development of appropriate reconciliation strategies in any particular context than a compendium of practitioner innovation and experience.
For these reasons, it is imperative that policy and practice discussions about reconciliation are emancipated from the constraints of a transitional justice paradigm, or from similar reconciliation toolboxes or blueprints. Many of the case studies in this volume acknowledge the value of particular transitional justice activities to reconciliation, but they do so without reducing them to articulations of a uniform reconciliation approach applied in each country.
Rather, the case studies offer an important contribution (or perhaps starting point) in building a portfolio of the diverse set of initiatives – locally, nationally or regionally. They powerfully illustrate that it is simply wrong to presume that reconciliation is one thing, or a neatly applicable universal set of interventions or processes. Reconciliation is highly context-specific, particular to moments in unique and dynamic peace and conflict cycles. Its commonality lies in the quest to redress the damage done to both vertical and horizontal relationships in any conflict-affected society.
Reconciliation is, therefore, very difficult to measure or assess by reference to typical results frameworks. This is especially true when the aspiration is not just redress, but prevention of violent conflict and the sustainability of positive peace in situations where both the nature of conflict and patterns of marginalisation and exclusion are themselves moving targets. On one hand this means that reconciliation practice is essentially about high strategy (rather than high principle) regarding how, where and when to intervene. But a focus on relationships also has vital relevance and implications for current policy debates and priorities: to the controversial discourse on preventing ‘violent extremism’; to resilience for peace, or positive peace; to the shape, role and meaning of ‘leadership’ in fragile and conflict-affected societies; to circumnavigating the dysfunctional siloes associated with different agencies or segmented fields of peace practice; and how to implement Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
This study does not claim to provide all the answers. But it begins the process of asking the right questions through the spectrum of case studies – capturing innovative experience and practice; helping to create an authentic voice; and opening the conversation about what reconciliation is for, rather than looking to have the last word.