Re-establishing Social Cohesion and Healing

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Re-establishing Social Cohesion and Healing

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

How can groups such as women, indigenous people and the economically disadvantaged be integrated into reconciliation efforts without becoming tokenized?

What is the role of faith communities in furthering reconciliation?

What are the community and national strategies for engaging with trauma?

Is forgiveness necessary for a reconciliation process?

What is important, post-reconciliation, to maintain the healing process and continue the restoration of social cohesion?

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

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.

Sometimes the "re" in

Sometimes the "re" in reconciliation is misplaced: there is no original state of cohesion to go back to in many conflict contexts--think of race relations in South Africa. In those contexts, a new vision of society, or a social transformation, is needed. From a research project mapping reconciliation practices that is underway at USIP, we can see that many funders and practitioners are investing in shared projects for economic development that is intended to help all in the community while fostering experiences of collaboration between former enemies. We have documented many projects like this but don't yet know much about how they are being evaluated or what the impact is. We hope to have a report on the mapping out soon, but a study of the impact of projects like these on inter-communal reconciliation is a longer-term project.

Future orientation

I definitely agree with this, Lili, and would probably argue that the goal in most contexts would not be to recreate or return to a past version of social relationships, which likely contributed directly or indirectly to the rise of violence. Rather, I think a future orientation is much more appropriate, and helpful. How do we imagine a collective future? What might peaceful social relationships look like?

(In practice, I do think this is recognized, so I wonder if perhaps the use of "re-" has become just a habit or default...?)


after truth, healing is another pre-requisite for reconciliation

In the case of Timor-Leste, victim’s rehabilitation was integrated into the work of the truth and reconciliation commission (Comissão de Acolhimento,Verdade e Reconciliacão or CAVR, operating in 2002-2005), a special program for vulnerable victims was implemented with funding from the World Bank under a program for “highly vulnerable groups.” Although the number of victims reached by this program was modest (around 700 persons, or 10% of the number of victims who provided statements to the commission), this ‘urgent reparations program’ provided a sound base for potentially providing long-term services and reparations to victims. However, as the parliamentary debate on implementing the recommendations of the CAVR became deadlocked, victims’ right to rehabilitation was sidelined. The dismantling of the existing infrastructure developed by the CAVR to care for victims at the end of CAVR’s mandate was a lost opportunity to transform the victim support unit into a new entity that could have provided on-going rehabilitation to victims. A small initiative under the Ministry of Social Solidarity, implemented together with NGOs, have provided some assistance to victims. Sadly, more than a decade after Timor-Leste’s independence, after a plethora of transitional justice mechanisms, victims right to rehabilitation remain unfulfilled. 

This on-going neglect, colours how victims perceive their experience of this nation-wide truth and reconciliation initiative. For example, as evident from a participatory action research project AJAR conducted with the National Victim's Association, women who chose to speak out about their experiences of sexual abuse to the CAVR, feel bitter about how their stories were documented but then they were left to survive on their own. One woman victim of sexual slavery and torture asked why she had never heard back from the commission, and whether her testimony was gathering dust in some government agency. She stated rhetorically, “Did my suffering entertain you?” Another woman who spoke at a CAVR public hearing about her experience of sexual slavery expressed her deep disappointment. Although she gave birth to two children out of these rapes, one who is disabled, she received almost no assistance since she spoke on national media about the discrimination she faced. She has struggled on her own to raise her two daughters. Tragically, her disabled daughter became a victim of sexual assault that took place in their community.  The full report "Remembering My Beloved" can be downloaded from

I am more and more convinced that the short-term, ad-hoc processes for truth, reconciliation and justice, are no longer enough for rebuilding societies gutted by conflict. We have to change the way we work, to ensure that long-term rehabilitation for victims (including supporting them to implement their life plans) continues to be a core concern of nation-building, among other concerns and pressing agendas. 

I like Lili's example of economic projects between "former enemies", although without truth and some kind of reckoning, it would be hard for me to imagine working side by side with someone who harmed my family, for example. But maybe these programs are devising different ways to overcome these issues?

As for the question of forgiveness, I think this is something that is very individual. Each victim has the right to forgive or not to forgive. Community reconciliation processes can create a community process to enable this to happen, but it should never demand forgiveness from victims. [In Indonesia, a law establishing a truth commission in 2004 was struck down by the Constitutional Court because it required victims to forgive their perpetrators in order to get compensation. But that is another long story....]

A "rights" framework

Galuh, you have written so poignantly about the ways that offical, often short-term, truth and reconciliation mechanisms can fail to address the needs of victims or survivors for healing, reparation, rehabiliation.

I'd like to ask you about the rights-based framing of some of your ideas: "right to rehabilitation" or "right to forgive or not to forgive." To what extent do you find it useful to frame rehabilitation, healing, forgiveness, and so on as "rights"? I don't often see human rights language used in these contexts, but more often in the transitional justice side of things, particularly when it comes to trials, etc. I'm intrigued by using a human rights discourse here. Do you find it helpful in your work? Does this articulation give more leverage or weight to claims? Are there any legal frameworks that you might use to assert these types of rights?

Galuh, in response to your

Galuh, in response to your comment "I like Lili's example of economic projects between "former enemies", although without truth and some kind of reckoning, it would be hard for me to imagine working side by side with someone who harmed my family, for example. But maybe these programs are devising different ways to overcome these issues?": I am not sure at all that these projects are devising much of anything. We are still analyzing the data we found through the mapping project, which relied on information either project implementers sent to us or that we found reported online, while trying to assess impact is another whole project. But I sense the logic behind these projects is largely context- and substance-free, in the sense that they work on a rather simple contact theory logic: get people together to accomplish something together and they'll get to know each other, overcome stereotypes and build their abilities to collaborate--and then reconciliciation will be working! The strategy is largely process-focused. Evaluating its longterm impact is very difficult and doesn't seem to be taking place.

As you clearly sense, discussions of the "grievances" themselves, ie, the experiences of past violence and injustice, either aren't present or aren't being reported. The logic also relies on the belief that people are largely economic actor, and that dissipating "irrational" prejudices and stereotypes plus serving everyone's economic interests are enough to drive people towards conflict-free futures. I must say I find this all rather dubious. Why should these projects be sufficient to re-establish basic trust among citizens? It seems that some of the projects we documented are intended to lay a foundation for future discussions of the difficult past, while those discussions are still too difficult to have, by getting people used to working together again in a "history-free" space. But history-free rarely exists. So once again we come back to truth-telling, justice and some form of dialogue about the past as the real key to reconciliation. In many, if not most, contexts, this dialogue may not be possible in the generation of those who committed the acts of violence, especially with high-level responsibility, and those who suffered from them.

One thing these projects do clearly acknowledge is the importance of development, the improvement of the economic situation of those left in poverty following conflict, for reconciliation.Just truth and justice aren't enough. That's an important insight, and your testimony above about the situation of victims bears it out. Should some limited cooperation and modest economic development be the first steps in a sequence of levels of reconciliation?

On "healing" and the other terms related to reconciliation

I have a question for everyone participating in the Conversation: Is "healing" separate from reconciliation? I tend to think it's largely the same thing but slightly clinicized/ medicalized, and tilted toward the individual level of analysis. How would we tell if a society is healing? It's pretty hard to tell if a society is "reconciling" but there are Barometers of reconciliation, the ancestor of which is probably the annual South African one, based on surveys  (for a general description, see and to download the 2014 findings, see ). So there are some tools to measure societal reconciliation, but not healing. There are a lot of terms that are used in place of or in combination with reconciliation, quite often as a rejection of associations with "reconciliation" itself as a concept. Does anyone have others they prefer in place of reconciliation? 

By the way, the U.S. Institute of Peace's reconciliation research project is interested in studying and comparing the existing Barometers on reconciliation and closely linked terms like trust, and fostering discussions of how to do better research and find better or new models.

Reconciliation and healing

I think I share your conceptualization of healing as more individualized, and also more medicalized--an individiual healing from trauma, torture, other abuse. On the other hand, reconciliation, at a very basic definitional level, requires more than one person, it is a collective process of healing. So perhaps reconciliation is a social healing process.

I do also think that healing can mean more than reconciliation. They are both processes, but reconciliation implies an active process. While individual-level healing also does include an active process, there is also a more inactive or organic process ... think of a body healing itself from a physical wound. So what is the equivalent of this at the level of the community? In addition to active processes of reconciliation, perhaps there also needs to be a more organic process of healing. This may be something that can only happen with the passage of time and generations. It may be something that happens when people work beside one another in economic development projects, as you describe. In my work in northern Uganda, I find little daily interdependencies or interactions to be key in this healing process, as distinct from more explicit reconciliation efforts.

In terms of measurement, I've found Lgonman, Pham, and Weinstein's (2004) operationalization of reconcilation in Rwanda to be useful:

1. Community: Do individuals, social groups, and institutions "develop a shared vision and sense of collective future"?

2. Interdependence: Do individuals, social groups, and institutions "establish mutual ties and obligations across lines of social demarcation"?

3. Social Justice: Do individuals, social groups, and institutions "accept and actively promote individual rights, rule of law, tolerance of social diversity, and equality of opportunity"?

4. Non-Violence: Do individuals, social groups, and institutions "adopt non-violent alternatives to conflict management"?

I'd love to hear more about the USIP reconciliation research project!

Shannon, your comments about

Shannon, your comments about healing and reconciliation make me wonder if healing has to occur before reconciliation can happen.  Taking your analogy of physical healing – an amputation requires physical healing, but then reconciliation to adjust to a new way of living without that limb or with an altered physical condition (once the wound has healed) is also needed.  Both are different processes but it seems to me that one needs to happen before the other.  In post-conflict communities, do we try and force the reconciliation before the wounds are healed well enough to adjust to new realities?