What is reconciliation, and what is its potential role in helping to build peace in the aftermath of violent conflict? There is a long history of ethical reconciliation initiatives understood in a variety of ways, including in religious terms, which focus on reconciliation as an outcome of acts of individual or collective forgiveness. Equally prevalent today are political approaches, within which reconciliation is viewed primarily as the process of rebuilding fractured societal structures in general, and human relations in particular, in the aftermath of violent conflict. This, moreover, is a process that does not necessarily involve or imply individual acts of forgiveness – even if it certainly does not exclude them.
Political reconciliation is specifically focused on the healing and transformation of relationships in order to enable a society to function effectively. As David Bloomfield observes
, it recognises the need for transforming relationships at different levels: both vertically (between state and society) and horizontally (at the inter-community and inter-elite levels). The type of society political reconciliation strives to create is not necessarily one characterised by social harmony. As Gonzalo Sanchez Gomez, Director of the Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory, said in a discussion on memory and reconciliation in May 2016:
Reconciliation…take[s] the form of a new pact rebuilding the institutions and the rules of democracy. …Make no mistake: a politically reconciled society is not a harmonious society, but rather a society that is militantly diverse.
How does reconciliation relate to other strategies for addressing the challenges confronting societies recovering from a violent past? Perhaps the strongest juxtaposition is between human rights and reconciliation. The two notions are sometimes presented as fundamentally contrary. While human rights might be seen to lean towards ‘naming and shaming’ for crimes committed, courtrooms, and the punishment of perpetrators to combat impunity, reconciliation might be thought of as pointing towards amnesties, ‘strategic forgetting’ and other measures that prioritise conflict resolution.
‘Transitional justice’ (TJ) emerged in the 1980s in recognition of the fact that post-violence societies, particularly those undergoing political transition (from dictatorship to democracy, for example), require specific, contextually tailored approaches. Linked to the development of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs), initially in Latin America and later in South Africa, by the late 1990s TJ had moved to centre stage in the international inventory of strategies for addressing the past. While the TRC model suggested a degree of harmony and complementarity between its two conceptual poles of ‘Truth’ and ‘Reconciliation’, the reality, however, remained somewhat more fractured.
In the last decade, a further category of practice has developed: ‘Dealing with the Past’ (DwP). Most of DwP’s proposed instruments – justice, acknowledgement, accountability, reparation, an end to impunity, and ensuring non-recurrence – are to varying degrees shared with reconciliation and TJ. What renders DwP distinct is its specific emphasis on the past – to the potential exclusion, as some argue, of strategies that promote present and even future co-existence within a society recovering from violent conflict.
Today there is an increasing focus on the ‘democratisation of reconciliation’, including in countries such as Colombia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines (Mindanao) that are in the process of shaping their post-violence truth and reconciliation architecture. In all three cases, as well as the earlier process in South Africa, a primary civil society demand is for an officially sanctioned TRC and other related mechanisms to be designed with the needs – and participation – of ordinary victims at the forefront. This is a hopeful development, not least because it directly addresses a key challenge for peace processes: promoting and securing popular participation and ownership of institutions and mechanisms.
This publication is concerned with how efforts to address the legacies of past violence contribute to more inclusive and peaceful futures in conflict-affected and divided societies. A key challenge is that understanding of reconciliation and dealing with the past is highly contextualised, and varies for different people in different cultures and conflict environments. A core practical role for reconciliation in building peace is to create the space needed to transform, restore and (re)create relationships affected by violence, and to enable complexity with respect to issues and identities – complexity otherwise closed down by armed conflict – to thrive within society.