Summary of "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts

Summary of

Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts

By Louis Kriesberg

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Louis Kriesberg, "Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, Eugene Weiner, ed. (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 182-198. 

Kriesberg considers the role that reconciliation plays in establishing ethnic coexistence after destructive conflict. Coexistence may be defined broadly as "relationships between persons or groups in which none of the parties is trying to destroy the other."(p. 183)

Coexistence has both structural and subjective aspects. Structurally, coexistence may be characterized by degrees of integration or separation between groups. Kriesberg is most interested in coexistence between integrated groups, which are interdependent and interact with each other. Coexistence may also be characterized by different degrees of equality and inequality. Under conditions of severe inequality coexistence may be achieved by suppression of the weaker group. Kriesberg will focus on coexistence between groups which are roughly equal. Subjectively, coexistence may be characterized by degrees of tolerance and mutual respect and dehumanization. Generally groups tend to value their own members more highly than others, and so to devalue members of other groups. Groups may still be able to extend tolerance to one another despite the tendency to devalue others. This tolerance is fostered by identities which cut across group boundaries.

Reconciliation generally refers to "a relatively amicable relationship, typically established after a rupture in the relationship involving one-sided or mutual infliction of extreme injury."(p. 184) Reconciliation has at least two different connotations. First, it may suggest submitting to circumstances. Second, it may suggest bringing people back into harmony with each other. Kriesberg uses the term to mean "relationships with relatively shared views of who bore what losses and who bears what responsibility."(p. 184)

Reconciliation is characterized by a number of aspects. Reconciliation may occur between individuals, nations, governments, or families. In order to be reconciled, both groups must acknowledge the injuries and suffering that occurred, must redress injustices, must acknowledge the humanity of those who inflicted injury, and must look forward to shared security and well-being. Reconciliation may be one-sided or symmetrical. When groups are unequal the dominant group may be able to simply ignore the injuries done to the other group. Kriesberg notes that "coexistence and reconciliation are most likely to be equitable when there is no clear victor and each side must attend to the concerns of their adversaries."(p. 186) The degree of reconciliation may vary as these aspects differ. However some degree of mutual acknowledgement is essential.

Kriesberg argues that reconciliation emerges from equitable, integrated coexistence, and helps to sustain that coexistence. Coexistence by separation does not lead to reconciliation. Coexistence between grossly unequal groups may lead to the suppression of conflict rather than reconciliation.

Conflicts emerge, escalate, de-escalate and end. Actions that foster equitable coexistence and reconciliation may be taken at any stage of a conflict. For example, recognizing the humanity of the opponent can help foster reconciliation at any point in a conflict. Some aspects of reconciliation can however interfere with de-escalating and ending conflict--demands for justice and punishment for example.

Kriesberg identifies a number of factors which affect opportunities for coexistence and reconciliation. The opportunity for reconciliation may be affected by the degree and nature of the losses suffered, and by an asymmetry in losses between the groups. It may be affected by the "extent to which one party is the winner and the other the loser in the outcome of previous intercommunal struggles."(p. 188) The relative strength of the groups, the continuity of leadership, and the degree of integration or separation also affect opportunities for reconciliation. Popular sentiments such as loyalty, pride, and distrust of others may present obstacles to achieving equitable coexistence. Ideologies which pit groups against one another, such as racism or nationalism, may also block coexistence. Finally, opportunities for equitable coexistence may be blocked by parties with vested interests in continuing the conflict.

There are also a number of resources which support coexistence and reconciliation. Sympathetic or empathetic individuals present an excellent resource, and are generally motivated toward reconciliation. Social roles and religious beliefs may reinforce these feelings. Structural resources include shared interests in restoring peace and security. Ideologies which promote tolerance or support human rights may also encourage reconciliation.

Kriesberg suggests some general policy approaches for promoting coexistence and reconciliation. Structural approaches would include reducing inequalities, encouraging ties to form across group boundaries, creating superordinate goals, and taking measures to secure human rights for all. Experiential approaches might include convening public trials or truth commissions to satisfy appeals for justice, education emphasizing people's common humanity, social institutions and events that bring members of different groups together, offers of forgiveness, and making mediation and trauma counseling available. Interpersonal approaches could include individual and group therapy, workshops, or personal meetings between leaders.

Strategies for promoting reconciliation and equitable coexistence can emerge from any level. Top down strategies may be pursued by powerful or high-ranking officials. Top down approaches may come from the groups' own leaders, or may be imposed by external sources such as the United Nations. Lateral strategies arise from the mid-level leadership. Internal sources include business or religious leaders, the media, or academics. External sources include international NGOs, and refugee or diaspora communities abroad. Bottom up strategies arise from the grassroots level and its local leadership. External sources of grassroots strategies include transnational social movements, and twin-cities programs. Kriesberg notes that strategies pursued at only one level are likely to be ineffective. To be effective, reconciliation strategies must be pursued at a variety of levels, and must be designed to reinforce one another.