Originally Published September 2003, Current Implications section added by Heidi Burgess in April 2017 and a response and update added by Chip Hauss in July 2018 with a further reply by Heidi posted simultaneously. (See the "Current Implications" section for the full dialogue.
In the last few years, reconciliation has become one of the "hottest" topics in the increasingly "hot" field of conflict resolution. It refers to a large number of activities that help turn the temporary peace of an agreement which ends the fighting into a lasting end to the conflict itself. Through reconciliation and the related processes of restorative and/or transitional justice, parties to the dispute explore and overcome the pain brought on during the conflict and find ways to build trust and live cooperatively with each other.
What is Reconciliation
Reconciliation is a rather new concept in the new field of conflict resolution. It is not mentioned once in a book I wrote in 1995. In the one I published in 2001, it was the most frequently cited concept.
As is the case with any new concept, there is no standard definition that all scholars and practitioners rely on. However, almost everyone acknowledges that it includes at least four critical components identified by John Paul Lederach -- truth, justice, mercy, and peace.
Lederach's use of the term "mercy" suggests that the ideas behind reconciliation have religious roots. It is a critical theological notion in all the Abrahamic faiths and is particularly important to Evangelical Christians as part of their building a personal relationship with God. For those who ask "what would Jesus do," reconciliation is often not just an important issue, but the most critical one in any conflict.
In recent years, reconciliation has also become an important matter for people who approach conflict resolution from a secular perspective. For them, the need for reconciliation grows out of the pragmatic, political realities of any conflict resolution process (see the next section).
Conflict resolution professionals use a number of techniques to try to foster reconciliation. By far the most famous of them is South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that held hearings into the human rights abuses during the apartheid era and held out the possibility of amnesty to people who showed genuine remorse for their actions. Since the TRC was created in 1995, as many as 20 other such commissions have been created in other countries, which experienced intense domestic strife. These projects bring people on both sides of a conflict together to explore their mutual fear and anger and, more importantly, to begin building bridges of trust between them. Despite the violence in the region since 2000, some of the most promising examples of this kind of reconciliation have occurred between Israelis and Palestinians. For more than a decade, Oases of Peace (Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam) have been bringing together students and teachers from both sides of the divide. Similarly, the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Otisfield, Maine (U.S.) has served as a "safe place" for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to spend extended periods of time together. Yet others have tried more unusual strategies. At Search for Common Ground, we make soap operas with conflict resolution themes for teenagers aired on radio in Africa and on television in Macedonia. Similarly, Benetton sponsored a summer camp for teenage basketball players from the former Yugoslavia, one of many examples in which people have tried to use sports to build bridges, ironically, in part through competition. Last but by no means least, it should be obvious from the above that many people have used religion as a vehicle to help forge reconciliation. Thus, the Rev. John Dawson has made reconciliation between blacks and whites the heart of his 20-year ministry in South Central Los Angeles. Similarly, Corrymeela is an interfaith religious retreat center, which has spent the last 25 years facilitating meetings between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Additional insights into reconciliation are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.
There is at least one common denominator to all these approaches to reconciliation. They all are designed to lead individual men and women to change the way they think about their historical adversaries. As a result, reconciliation occurs one person at a time and is normally a long and laborious process.
Why Reconciliation Matters
Reconciliation matters because the consequences of not reconciling can be enormous. In 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 take the parties toward what Kenneth Boulding called stable peace, which can only occur when the issues that gave rise to the conflict in the first place are addressed to the satisfaction of all.
Without reconciliation, the best one can normally hope for is the kind of armed standoff we have seen in Cyprus for nearly 30 years. In 1964, the rival Turk and Greek forces agreed to a cease fire, a temporary partition of the island, and the introduction of United Nations Peacekeeping forces. Since then, little progress has been made toward conflict resolution; in fact, it is all but impossible for Greek Cypriots to visit the Turkish part of the island and vice versa.
At worst, without reconciliation, the fighting can break out again, as we have seen since the tragic beginning of the second Intifada in Israel/Palestine since 2000. Despite Oslo and other agreements and despite some serious attempts at reconciliation at the grassroots level, the parties made little progress toward achieving stable peace until 2000 when Palestinian frustrations finally boiled over in a new and bloodier round of violence.
Most examples fall somewhere between Cyprus and Israel/Palestine. For instance, because Catholics and Protestants have not made much progress toward reconciliation, every dispute between them since 1998 has threatened to undermine the accomplishments of the Good Friday Agreement which put at least a temporary end to "the troubles" in Northern Ireland.
What Individuals Can Do
At the most basic level, reconciliation is all about individuals. It cannot be forced on people. They have to decide on their own whether to forgive and reconcile with their one-time adversaries.
Nothing shows this better than the remarkable documentary, "Long Night's Journey Into Day" which chronicles four cases considered by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The final one involves a young black man who had been a police officer and helped lure seven activists into a trap in which they were all killed by the authorities. The last scene of the sequence shows a meeting he held with the mothers of the seven boys in which he begs for their forgiveness. It is clear that, unlike one of his white colleagues who is interviewed earlier, his confession and his remorse are heart-felt. Still, at first the mothers, whose pain remains raw more than a decade after the murders, 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.
What States Can Do
By its very nature, reconciliation 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 and provide opportunities for people to come to grips with the past.
In South Africa, the TRC heard testimony from over 22,000 individuals and applications for amnesty from another 7,000. The TRC's success and the publicity surrounding it have led new regimes in such diverse countries as East Timor and Yugoslavia to form truth commissions of one sort or another. The idea of restorative justice, in general, is gaining more widespread support, especially following the creation of the International Criminal Court. And, truth commissions need not be national. A number of organizations in Greensboro, North Carolina, have come together to try to achieve reconciliation in a city which has been at the forefront of many violent racial incidents since the first sit-ins there in 1960.
What Third Parties Can Do
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 teams of "locals" from both sides of the divide. Thus, 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 made certain to include whites who had been supporters of the old regime until quite near its end.
The one exception to this rule is the role that NGOs can play in peacebuilding. The Mennonite Central Council, in particular, has focused a lot of its work in Central and South America on reconciliation. And even though it rarely uses the term, Search for Common Ground develops news programs and soap operas with conflict resolution themes in such countries as Macedonia and Burundi.
Resolution Isn't Cozy
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 emotionally. Victims have to forgive oppressors. The perpetrators of crimes against humanity have to admit their guilt and, with it, their arrogance.
But perhaps the difficulty of reconciling can best be seen in the case of the former police officer and the seven mothers mentioned above. Most of them broke down and had to be escorted out of the room during the hearing at the TRC on the request for amnesty by two of their killers. And, their pain and anger are inescapable at the beginning of their meeting with the officer. It is clear that it is not easy for them to forgive him; but it is also abundantly clear how far doing so relieves them of the pain they have carried inside them for years.
In 2017, this essay, sadly, seems to me to be one of the more outdated ones in the Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base--but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it! My reason for saying that is Hauss's observation, made in 2003, that reconciliation had recently become a "hot topic." It is not such a hot topic any longer, although it badly needs to be. So I urge people to read this essay, thinking not that it is out of date, but rather it is something we need to re-learn!
For example, living in the United States in 2017, there is a crying need for reconciliation between the various political, religious, and cultural groups. If we keep growing the divides between these groups further, the future is very dark for everyone. The same can be said for European democracies, which seem to be torn by intractable identity and economic conflicts just as the U.S. is.
The Middle East, too, has abandoned the notion of reconciliation implied by the initial hope of the "Arab Spring," and has fallen prey to deep-rooted and terribly violent identity conflicts in many different places.
Despite the crying need around the globe, "reconciliation" is a concept I hear less and less. In the U.S, by far the loudest talk is about "winning and losing," "destroying the establishment" (meaning "the other") and "resistance." If we keep going down this path, it is hard to see how we will solve any problems, or indeed, even prevent large-scale violence. Perhaps that is what it takes before reconciliation can seem a desirable goal. But I certainly hope not!
-- Heidi Burgess. Feb. 11, 2017.
On July 2, 2018, Chip wrote a blog article about his original essay and my comment that it was out of date. He gave us permission to include his blog here as well.
Reconciliation -- Thanks to Heidi Burgess by Chip Hauss, July 2, 2018
As Doug Irvin-Erickson and I get deeper into writing our textbook, we find that reconciliation is a term we keep coming back to—and for good reason.
We are also finding that it is one of the most loosely-used terms in the field.
To see why both of those statements are true, I returned to a short article on reconciliation that I wrote for the Beyond Intractability web site fifteen years ago. When I opened it, I discovered that the site’s co-director, Heidi Burgess, had called it one of its most outdated articles.
I was surprised, but when I read her comments, I realized that she’s right. I had called it a “hot topic” in 2093. She makes the case that it isn’t so “hot” today but it should be. In her terms, we need to re-learn it.
So, let me do just that in our steps here in which I make a slightly different case in four steps. I think it’s one that Heidi would agree with even though I think most of what I wrote back then still.
I have no doubt that reconciliation still matters. We can never approach anything remotely like a permanent end to a dispute unless and until we address the four characteristics of reconciliation John Paul Lederach includes in his classic definition—truth, justice, mercy, peace.
In that sense, reconciliation involves more than parties to a dispute sitting down with each other, talking things out, and somehow magically finding ways to get along. That is part of it. But only part.
In Lederach’s terms, reconciliation also requires achieving justice which includes addressing the issues that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.
I’m currently writing about Northern Ireland and South Africa. Progress has been made toward reconciliation in both places.
However, it will always be limited as long as the social and economic injustices that have limited the options of Catholics in the former and Blacks in the latter continue. Indeed, the peace in those two countries is still fragile to the degree that they haven’t made good on the policy implications of reconciliation desite all the progress they have made on the interpersonal and communal levels.
It Isn’t Cozy—Or Easy
Next, I have to reinforce one of the key points I made in the original article in which I used a phrase that Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently used to describe the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he co-chaired. On dozens of occasions, he said “reconciliation isn’t cozy.” To see why, all you have to do is to watch the film on his role in the process.
And that’s before you get to the substantive inequalities that persist both in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Leaders in both countries have yet to summon the political will needed to address those inequalities, especially in South Africa where the economic gap between black and white may be larger than it was the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
It Isn’t Always Appropriate—Yet
I’ve been sitting in on Doug’s classes on genocide prevention and human rights for the last couple of years. In that time, he has begun convincing me that reconciliation and many of the other tools my kind of peacebuilding relies on may not always be appropriate.
In one respect, Doug is right. Reconciliation is not a panacea that will heal every wound.
Two questions he poses are worth posing: How can survivors reconcile with the perpetrators of mass atrocities while they are still going on? And why should they?
On the other hand, we eventually have to get to reconciliation because we do eventually have to heal those wounds.
But, doing so often requires dealing with the substantive injustices (to use a Lederach term) first. That may mean using retributive rather than restorative justice in dealing with the perpetrators of mass atrocity. It may also involve pushing harder on the kinds of redistributive policies Tutu and his colleagues downplayed in the short term in South Africa.
That leads to the final point that—I think—that underlies Heidi’s comment about the original essay being out of date. Among other things, she says:
For example, living in the United States in 2017, there is a crying need for reconciliation between the various political, religious, and cultural groups. If we keep growing the divides between these groups further, the future is very dark for everyone.
On one level, I couldn’t agree with her more. We do have to talk with each other and understand the raw emotions that have led us to the political impasse we find ourselves in today. In that respect, I absolutely love the work of Living Room Conversations and other members of the Bridge Alliance.
On another level, I keep coming back to Doug’s concerns which I know my friends in the Bridge Alliance share. We can’t get to reconciliation unless we commit ourselves to the policy changes Lederach had in mind when he used the term "justice." That goes way beyond equality before the law and extends to the structural inequalities along racial, economic, social, environmental, and other lines that we all worry about today.
The hard part in doing so is remaining in relationship with those we disagree with so that we don’t drive each other farther apart in the process and deepen the mutual antagonisms. I wrote about that a few weeks ago by talking about the value of improv, but I know I’ve just scratched the surface.
Also published on Medium.
Also July 2018 (Heidi) And thanks, Chip! And you are right--I do agree with your most of your observations. But I think perhaps the most important one of them all is your last--that we have to work to provide justice "while remaining in relationship with those we disagree with." I'm not sure that we, in the U.S., can "remain in relationship" with "the other side" at this point because we aren't in any relationship with "the other" (other than mutual disrespect and even (I hate to say it) hate. So that suggests Doug is right--this isn't the time for reconciliation.
But just as Bill Zartman wrote in his essays on Ripeness on BI -- ripeness can be promoted, I would hope that the opportunity for reconciliation could be promoted in the same way Zartman talks about promoting ripeness for negotiation. Because I stand by my assertion that "If we keep growing the divides between these groups further, the future is very dark for everyone." So, indeed, the time may not be ripe for reconciliation anymore than it is ripe for negotiation. But we must work right now on making it ripe because the future, if we do not, is grim.
 Fen Osler Hampson, Nurturing Peace: Why Peace Settlements Succeed or Fail (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1996).
 Kenneth Boulding, Stable Peace Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
 Long Night's Journey Into Day, a documentary film written and directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann, produced by Frances Reid, Iris Films. Information about the film and a lot of associated information can be found at https://www.irisfilms.org/longnight/index.htm
Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Reconciliation." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/reconciliation>.