An Overview of Reconciliation

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An Overview of Reconciliation

In order to frame the discussion of reconciliation it is important to understand the context from which practioners approach the practice of reconciliation. Often debated, the place of reconciliation in post-conflict settings is open to a myriad of opinions, interpretations and implementations. Below are a few questions to begin the conversation:

What is your definition of reconciliation?

How does reconciliation tie into the broader arena of peacebuilding?

Where does the process of reconciliation begin, with whom and when?

What is the value or role of reconciliation? What are areas of concern?

How do we draw lessons from the past, learning from the reconciliation process in otehr conflicts?

Where do human rights enter into reconciliation? Where is the intersection of human rights and reconciliation?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

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RE: The Definition of Reconciliation

To provide a overall definition of reconciliation is challenging.  With that said, IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) provides a useful, loosely defined definition:  "Reconciliation is a complex term...This is mainly because reconciliation is both a goal - something to achieve - and a process - a means to achieve that goal...Reconciliation is an over-arching process which includes the search for truth, justice, forgiveness, healing and so on. At its simplest, it means finding a way to live alongside former enemies - not necessarily to love them, or forgive them, or forget the past in any way, but to coexist with them, to develop the degree of cooperation necessary to share our society with them, so that we all have better lives together than we have had separately...(it) is built on respect and a real understanding of each other’s needs, fears and aspirations, the habits and patterns of cooperation that we then develop are the best safeguard against a return to violent division".

Having shared this, what are your thoughts?

the definition of reconciliation

After a number of years of working on reconciliation, I have more questions than proposed answers. There was some survey evidence from Northern Ireland a number of years ago showing that many people felt the "coexistence" model is not sufficient for a new postconflict society, and not the same as some kind of robust reconciliation. Indeed, many people from the two main communities there work in mixed workplaces than before, but the most recent data I saw said that neighborhoods remain extremely segregated and in many ways the communities are more self-segregated than ever (schools, by the way, continue to be largely segregated, an important marker of lack of social integration.) Is simply the lack of a return to major and sustained violence the same as reconciliation--some kind of departure from the old patterns and identities? Is the continuation of essentially two communities living parallel lives the same as reconciliation? What if the post-conflict context is not "moving on" to anything new, but is frozen, with the ever-present danger of violence evident every Marching Season? What would a step forward in reconciliation mean, and how would we measure it? How long should we have to wait to see it?

It seems that in Spain today people very rarely know which side of the Civil War other people's families were on--and they don't bring it up. This is a kind of reconciliation without justice, extensive truth-telling, or acknowledgment of historical events. But this was largely an ideological conflict, not an identity-based conflict. How far can reconciliation within one society progress when the groups related to older conflicts and injustices are identity-based? Think of how far we are from racial reconciliation in the US.

Is this where human rights might come in? When all groups feel confident their basic rights will be respected, is this reconciliation? This would also mean that the society and formal institutions have shown their commitment to non-repetition of acts of violence, exclusion and injustice, which is critical in most conceptions of both reconciliation and transitional justice.

I wanted to take the

I wanted to take the opportunity here to promote an important new report out from an extraordinary justice-focused, Alabama-based non-governmental organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, on lynchings in the southern US. It can be found at . Talk of reconciliation seems meaningless in many contexts--Spain, from my earlier comments, aside--without acknowledgment of what happened in the past, at the very least. It seems amazing to me that the careful work EJI has done in researching cases and sites of lynching still needed to be done--but I think the US is not alone in consigning many cases of historical violence to silence. Reconciliation, it would appear, takes many generations, and requires an archaeology of buried events. Commemoration needs to follow: EJI is initiating a program to mark the sites of lynchings with plaques--which will doubtless be met with a lot of resistance.

Reconciliation, at best, is a process that moves at a glacial pace.

Thank you so much, Lily, for

Thank you so much, Lily, for mentioning the work of the Equal Justice Initiative.  This is such important work they are doing, and yet I fear their attempt to facilitate the confrontation of such an awful past will provoke much resistance, especially given the rise of anti-civil rights incidents mentioned in another article on their website.  I was reminded of a photo in Stephen Marc's 2008 volume, Passage on the Underground Railroad.  The photo shows the commemorative plaque identifying the house of Rev John Rankin, an anti-slavery Underground Railroad activist until his death in 1863.  As plaques go, it was pretty ordinary, except that it had been perforated by some 43 bullet holes.  

I was also reminded of the content of the United States's formal  apology for  slavery, issued by Congress in June 2009.  While  it rightly acknowledges 'the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jiim Crow  laws', it then 'calls on the people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from society.'  Indeed, the onus for such work is placed squarely on 'the people', stopping well short of articulating a governmental commitment to working towards these aims.  The apology ends abruptly, with the following statement:  'Nothing in this resolution a) authorises or supports any claim against the United States; or b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.'  In other words, the government appears to have washed its hands of any further work towards promote racial equality.  As attempts at reconciliation go, it seems half-hearted at best.    


reconciliation needs truth as a foundation

For many communities affected by conflict, speaking about reconcilitation can be a "red button" word. Unfortunately, the word is often used by those in power to brush over what has happened, to skip an honest (and may be painful) reckoning at the root causes of violence, to punish or sanction those who committed crimes, and recognize those who suffered. Instead, they want to fast-forward to peace, co-existence, development, progress. Those are all important goals, and I don't think anyone would want to deny those goals, especially after a long protracted conflict. However, we need to also look at the foundations needed in order to begin the generational journey for reconciliation.

In Indonesia, 50 years ago, trigerred by the abduction and killing of 7 military officials, a state-sponsored pogrom against the left led to the brutal killing of 500,000 to 1 million people, anyone vaguely associated with the communist party and various organizations linked to it (teachers’ unions, artists collective, you name it.) Another 1 million people were incarcerated for more than a decade without trial. These political detainees were all released under the Soeharto regime by the lates 1970s, but discrimination and exclusion remains intact until today. Part of the main reason is because the truth about these killings are still being denied. The mainstream narrative, produced by the Soeharto regime, has never been officially changed. Although there are many academic, civil society and survivor publications presenting a closer to truth versions, the national curiculumn (and museums) are still teaching the story that the army saved the nation from evil. A few years ago, there was an attempt by the children of the military officials killed in 1965 to “reconcile” with children of the victims. It was an important move, however, without a national (and official) effort to reform how we teach this history, there is continuing discrimination and backlash.

Last year, civil society in Indonesia organized a “Year of Truth” (see that organized 10 public hearings across the country and produced a final report [an English version being translated as we speak] on 40 years of violence, 1965-2005. Because the government has yet to fulfill its promise to establish the truth, NGOs and survivors took it upon ourselves to get it started. However, we are feeling a backlash today. In the last few months, local “mobs” backed by security forces have disbanded meetings organized with survivors, and state officials (members of our human rights commission, agency for victim and witness protection, and other NGOs) in different cities. It's a complicated context, but my point is when the truth is contested, then reconciliation is difficult to achieve.

Both Lili and Galuh provide

Both Lili and Galuh provide great insights reminding that reconciliation, in many cases, is a generational process – not an instant or quick fix.  Galuh’s comments about the narrative and the “truth” remind me of hearing a child’s comments in Brčko, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2001.  The district of Brčko was, as a result of international arbitration, created as a neutral, yet shared territory between the two Bosnian entities in 1999. One of the (many challenging) tasks was to unify the school system.  It is still (as far as I know) the only Bosnian community with integrated schools.  Other communities, where mixed ethnics groups reside, continue the policy of  “two schools under one roof”.  On the first day of the new integrated schools in Brčko, a child came home and proclaimed of his new school mates: “they are just like me”.  This child was born into a divisive narrative of the conflict so was surprised that children of a different ethnicity were not, in fact, different.  Based on experience, not empirical evidence, the longer the conflict and the more separated diverse communities become, the longer reconciliation will take and the more painful the truthful narrative will to accept.

See this excellent study

See this excellent study ( on children, education, socialization, and intergroup tensions in Croatia. Great work by a team at Notre Dame and University of Zagreb.


profile of a "reconciler" who just died in Northern Ireland

Just an interesting note for our discussion this week: I just found out that a woman considered a quiet leader in reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Maurna Crozier, just died. She is credited with promotion of a "public culture of pluralism" through her work in cultural activities, reaching out to make Northern Ireland more inclusive of minority communities (ie, neither Protestant nor Catholic, in the traditional political division), and creating programs for the province's mainly segregated primary schools. You can read about her here: . It's interesting how many different roles people working for reconciliation can fill.

RE: Maurna Crozier

Lili, thank you so much for sharing Maurna Crozier's work.  It is so often those compassionate rebels who are the silent change makers.

Engaging with the Truth

The challenges of race reconciliation brought up by Lili in the United States I think might provide an opportunity to delving deeper with resistance towards reconciliation efforts and their shortcomings. In the United States Race Reconciliation would require honestly and visibly addressing injustices of the past.  It might also require providing mediums for African American communities to bring claims for reparations given the multi-generational span of inequality.  Some opponents argue that addressing racial traumas of the past is divisive and fruitless since the past can’t be changed.  

How have reconciliation efforts engaged with resistance to revisiting the past and exposing the truth?  When does addressing inequality and human rights transition from Reconciliation to Peacebuilding?

Most certainly

I agree completely and the entire process of reconciliation should be from the standpoint of acceptance and honesty. Unless the honesty is prevalent, the process will once again be a tug of war between ordinary people with limited resources against the State with all its might and power and this uneven power balance feeds into impunity for perpetrators and furstration for victims. 

Reconciliation for Healing and Progress

Reconciliation is never used enough in terms of conflicts, issues of systemic torture, discrimination etc. Justice is often denied when delayed and thus reconciliation plays a pivotal role in the healing process. Not only does it heal but it also paves a way to move forward and progress. The systems we as human beings have placed to ensure justice and fair treatment are often flawed. The systemic processes we have developed often depend on evidence, facts and proof beyond reasonable doubt. But often in situations of conflict and the chaos that ensues, it is almost impossible to insist on the situation to be conducive to the aftermath and the process of seeking justice. Conflict and violence are often the antithesis of justice and peace and in my opinion to hope that there will be a infallible process of redress at the end is naive. 

I come from a country that has seen its fair share of systemic torture and incarceration and violence in the name of political crimes and/or religious issues. I come from a country that has often let bygones be bygones without much consideration to the pent up anger and hatred that has all but destroyed our country. But since the end of the thrity year rule of the third President of the country, there has been no attempt to at least acknowledge the allegations of systemic torture and human rights abuses. The allegations were viewed mostly as attemts to defame the former President and the victims were often ridiculed and their complaints were never addressed. During my time at the Human Rights Commission one of the tools that was developed was a framework to address the complaints that were lodged at the Commission. For a long time the aim was to not entertain any complaints relating to the former regime and to file those cases without much notice attributed to them. I propsed a framework not just for the sake of the integrity of the Commission but also to ensure that the culture of impunity to those who perpetuated torture did not engulf the country in a whirlwind of hatred and violence that emanated from the inaction of the State. The framework was developed with the simple notion that addressing torture and initiating a process of reconciliation was not simply the right thing to do but also the productive thing for the future. Because most torture cases lacked proper documentation and identification of the perpatrator, we developed a mechanism where the collecive cases were examined to identify and note similarities as far as the methods of torture were concerned and to see if there arose similar names in more than one complaint. The idea was to identify perpetrators by looking into the multiple cases and identifying similarities. It was also meant to get the alleged perpetrators and the victims to try the idea of reconciliation. It was meant to acknowledge the fact that torture had occured and that the State was trying to do away with the silence and impunity. We were convinced that there was no way to heal unless there was redress to the victims. That ignoring their claims as simply political wasnt going to work. Discussions were also held with the Prosecutor General's Office to try and see if some of the investigations can yeild prosecutable information against perpetrators. But the reality was that the cases on their own lacked prosecutable proof beyond reasonable doubt. This made proper reconciliation even more important. 

While the Commission was still grappling whether to accept the framework or not, the first democratically elected government was overthrown by the police and the millitary and more allegations of fresh torture began to surface. More and more people began to foster a relationship of hate with their own country where their voices were never heard and no attempts were made for reconciliation. Over the last year as the Vice Chair, there were several allegations of torture which were never properly addressed and the culture of impunity continues to this day and development and peace have taken a back seat because of the inherent fear, hatred and dissatisfaction of the people. There is currently an Anti Torture Act which mandates the Human Rights Commission to ensure the investigation allegations of torture within three months of recieving the complaint. However the process of investigation is still not from a human rights perspective to determine the balance of probability but from a criminal standpoint to identify the occurence beyond reasonable doubt which is often impossible. I believe the most important intesection of human rights and reconciliation is in the way one approaches cases of torture. It is to accept that torture is a human rights violation that cannot always be seen in the same light as the criminal justic system views criminal cases. Unless the human rights aspect is used in the reconciliation process much will be planned but little will bear fruit. 

Reconciliation is only as simple as the will of both parties to find an amicable solution and the biggest and the most vile hurdle to such a solution is denial by the State. That denial acts as a barrier between dialogue and negotiation. That denial feeds impunity and promotes hatred. That denial has made Maldives what it is today. 

Reconciliation often begins with the State and the will of the State to move forward and the denial by the State simply freezes the process. 

Comment on reconciliation and torture

I am not sure what you mean by reconciliation. Why in the world would a torturer care about finding an amicable solution to his relation to the tortured? He tortured because he granted his victim no humanity. The examples of torturers who have shown contrition are very, very few, particularly when amnesty is not on offer. And what if some damage is irreparable? And what if some crimes are unforgivable? Reconciliation in general, if not carefully defined, would seem to leave the burden of compromising with the victim--who have suffered enough already.


In an ideal world, tortured will never have to find a compromise between finding unambiguous justice and getting a deal that simply addresses the issue of torture within a framework that may often not see the perpetrator incarcerated. When I talk about reconciliation I do not talk about an ideal situation. I talk about a situation that is required to at least move forward. The aim, I do not believe, is to once again place an undue burden and a stagnant onus on the victim. Rather the objective is to begin a process of justice by acknowledging the act of torture, which in my country is one of the bigger challenges. When countless victims appeal to at least acknowledge the injustice, it seems like a good place to begin. I agree that reconciliation, if not started from an equal footing, and if not proceeded with the understanding that the purpose is to provide the victim with an initial idea of justice, will undoubtedly be a slippery slope. But take the example of Rwanda, where the entire international community with all its international law at their disposal failed to stop a mass genocide. Eventually the Rwandan's complemented the conventional legal process with the Gacaca Courts that acted to provide a traditional system of justice that was more about reconciliation than retribution. With all the critiicsm of the Gacaca Courts, even Rwandans themselves believe that they played a significant role in ensuring some level of closure to the victims and their familes. Reconciliation, like the international legal system is flawed and often faced grave challenges. But what is certain is that torture is particularly heinous in it that survivors are rarely afforded justice and perpetrators rarely see their day in court. This is because torture is often perpetrated by the State or sponsored by the State and finding perpetrators and affording justice is hindered by their power and prevalence of influence throughout. Therefore, I talk of reconciliation as a means of at least acknowledging and moving the process of justice forward. I do not intend it to be an opportunity to procrastinate and burden victims of further responsibility. If the international human rights mechanisms and international customary law is flawless, then we shouldnt be seeing such a widespread occurence of torture when we all know that torture has been considered a crime as part of all the international human rights mechanisms and international customary law. Reconciliation isnt a soft process. If done correctly, it is just as potent as a process of justice as the criminal justic system. But what is needed is the understanding that reconciliation is the begining of a process of healing and justice and not the end. 

Comment on reconciliation and torture

I am not sure what you mean by reconciliation. Why in the world would a torturer care about finding an amicable solution to his relation to the tortured? He tortured because he granted his victim no humanity. The examples of torturers who have shown contrition are very, very few, particularly when amnesty is not on offer. And what if some damage is irreparable? And what if some crimes are unforgivable? Reconciliation in general, if not carefully defined, would seem to leave the burden of compromising with the victims--who have suffered enough already.