Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Reconciliation, written by Charles (Chip) Hauss for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess


"Reconciliation is not about being cozy; it is not about pretending that things were other than they were. Reconciliation based on falsehood, on not facing up to reality, is not reconciliation at all." -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu


A process that draws on truth, justice and mercy to turn temporary peace into a lasting end to a conflict.


Anyone dealing with lingering emotional burdens from an intense conflict. 


Through reconciliation, parties explore and overcome the pain of conflict and attempt to build trust. Because reconciliation is a relatively new concept in the field of conflict resolution, there is no standard definition of it. However, almost everyone acknowledges that it includes four components identified by John Paul Lederach: truth, justice, mercy, and peace. Lederach's use of the term "mercy" hints at religious roots. Reconciliation is present in all the Abrahamic faiths and is particularly important to Evangelical Christians.

Reconciliation occurs one person at a time and is normally a long, difficult process. However, the consequences of not reconciling can be enormous. In peace researcher Fen Osler Hampson's terms, too many peace agreements are "orphaned." That is, the parties reach an agreement that stops the fighting but does little to contribute to stable peace, which can only occur when the issues that gave rise to the conflict are addressed to the satisfaction of all. At worst, without reconciliation, the fighting can break out again--at times even more intensely than occurred before.  (The Rwandan genocide, for example, resulted after the signing of the Arusha Accords, which were intended to end the 3-year old Rwandan civil war. However, no real attempts at reconciliation were made either in the accords or  their short-term implementation, and the result was a slaughter far worse than the initial war.)

In contrast, the most famous reconciliation process is South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held hearings into human rights abuses during the apartheid era and offered amnesty to people who showed genuine remorse for their actions. Since the TRC was created in 1995, about 25 other such commissions have been created.

Reconciliation cannot be forced on people. It is a "bottom up" process and thus cannot be imposed by the state or any other institution. However, as the South African example shows, governments can do a lot to promote reconciliation. It is probably even harder for outsiders to spark reconciliation than it is for governments. Most successful efforts at reconciliation have, in fact, been led by locals. The TRC was chaired by Desmond Tutu, a black clergyman, while its vice president was Alex Boraine, a white pastor. Both were outspoken opponents of apartheid, but they also included whites who had supported the old regime. However, various NGO's have had some success with reconciliation efforts in countries like Rwanda and Bosnia.

Even though reconciliation mostly involves people talking to each other, it is not easy to achieve. Rather, it is among the most difficult things people are ever called on to do. Victims have to forgive oppressors. The perpetrators of crimes against humanity have to admit their guilt and their arrogance. It is not easy to forgive; but it is also clear that for some, doing so relieves the pain they  have carried inside them for years.


One example is the remarkable documentary, "Long Night's Journey Into Day," about four cases considered by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One involved a black police officer who lured seven activists into a trap where they were all killed by the authorities. The last scene, the movie shows a meeting he held with the mothers of the seven boys where he begs for forgiveness. It is clear that his remorse is heart-felt. At first, the mothers, whose pain remains raw, refuse to forgive him. Then, one of them asks if his first name means "prayer" and when he says it does, you can literally watch the mothers draw on their own Christianity and find the mental space to forgive the former officer. Another story from the same movie is about Amy Biehl, an American college student/anti-apartheid activist who was killed by a group of young black men near the end of the apartheid era.  The men all testified at the TRC, which was attended by Amy Biehl's parents.  Not only did they agree to forgive her killers, but they later went so far as to befriend the men who had killed Amy and actually ended up hiring them to work in the Amy Biehl Foundation to further peace and justice in South Africa!  


Reconciliation is important in any deep-rooted conflict when the parties need to live or work together in the future. Even if they do not, the apology and forgiveness necessary for reconciliation can help heal internal wounds and allow parties to recover from the trauma of the conflict and move forward more positively into their future life.

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