Illustration showing people working together to re build a bridge.

Reconciliation involves transforming relationships damaged by violent conflict and oppression. It focuses on improving both horizontal relationships, between people and groups in society, and vertical relationships between people and institutions. It is often thought of in the context of formally mediated settlements, and as primarily relevant after periods of crisis. Yet as the example above illustrates, working towards reconciliation is not exclusively a post-conflict endeavour. 

The practical experience of Conciliation Resources, its partners and others shows that initiatives to transform relationships are relevant before, during and beyond a formal peace process – in its immediate aftermath and long after. 

Reconciliation during ongoing violent conflict

During ongoing or protracted conflicts, a range of activities can be pursued that can lay the foundations for future progress. These include archiving work – such as collecting testimonies, mapping grievances, documenting abuses, and searching for missing persons. In the South Caucasus, the long-running Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is far from an agreement. Despite this, work to develop parallel archives containing original personal testimonies and historical materials that document the violent history of Georgian-Abkhaz relations, is creating a basis for understanding the past. Other initiatives are possible too during conflict, including efforts to build trust and provide support to victims and survivors. 

Admittedly, in the absence of political will at the national level, there are clear limits as to what can be achieved. Yet even during violence and in fractured and highly unstable political settings, community-level dialogue and reconciliation initiatives can and do happen. In Libya, wide-reaching resolution of the underlying causes of conflict is difficult to achieve in the absence of a functioning state. However, informal mediation processes there are managing to de-escalate tension, contain violence, and build bridges between different groups, resolving immediate issues to enable coexistence. 

Within ongoing formal negotiation processes 

Where formal mediation processes are continuing, reframing narratives at an elite level may become possible. This can enable relationships to be sufficiently built to continue along a path of non-violent politics towards a mutually-acceptable, interdependent future. 

In Northern Ireland, during the negotiations that eventually led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the notion of reconciliation helped to promote inter-community partnership. As the UK and Irish governments started to collaborate in the negotiations process, political elites of the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland began to see a need to work together. Over time, a common aspiration to reconciliation emerged, with a shared interest in freedom from sectarian harassment. 

Within negotiation processes, parameters can also be set for formal, national processes of reconciliation and addressing the past. This presents both opportunities and challenges: a peace process that is responsive to immediate priorities can either open up or close down prospects for future reconciliation, depending on how it is crafted.

Following violent conflict

A post-settlement context can allow for the widest range of reconciliation initiatives. An agreement provides the basic levels of security, stability and political will for parties to pursue their interests and goals using political rather than violent means. Even so, working on post-settlement reconciliation remains challenging, since the political will that enabled a settlement may start to recede. 

Most of the activities that are possible in earlier stages remain highly relevant and can be developed more easily or sustainably after a settlement. In the conditions that follow the signing of peace agreements, new activities also become possible, such as reparations, institutional reform, or developing a national reconciliation framework. 

Following the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996, measures were taken to end the militarisation of the state which evolved during 36 years of armed conflict. These included the dismantling of the counter-insurgent framework that had supported the state’s violent oppression of dissent, which caused systematic human rights violations during the war. Such measures also involved the creation of a new civilian police to replace the highly corrupt national police, and the development of a new military doctrine rejecting the ‘internal enemy’ hypothesis that had long guided military operations.

Entry points for reconciliation can also be found long after the signing of peace agreements, in the context of peacekeeping, DDR, stabilisation, long-term development and prevention. 

Reconciliation takes time and adaptation

Ultimately, designing an approach to reconciliation requires a strategy tailored to context and rooted in local political dynamics and relationships. Reconciliation processes progress and mutate over time, as what is possible, prioritised, or most needed in a context changes. 

How this work is approached is key. To be effective, it needs long-term commitment, with efforts often spanning generations. Whatever path is taken, an important step is the recognition that reconciliation work is not only possible but needed, at every stage of conflict.

This article was written by Rachel Clogg and Michelle Parlevliet, authors of our new report, Reconciliation in focus.