September 2003. 2017-2020 Updates and Current Implications added in a second post.
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.
 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>.