Reconciliation programs of one sort or another are currently being pursued in at least 100 countries worldwide. There have now been almost 90 Truth Commissions (while not all truth commissions aspire to reconciliation, the two are often grouped together—especially by policymakers). Despite the increasing prominence of reconciliation, it remains a concept that is hard to pin down, as its meaning varies hugely across different places, cultures, faiths & languages, and depending on the level (principally state versus community) at which it is being sought.
Given that the notion of reconciliation has morphed into a nebulous and unwieldy whole, researchers and practitioners are increasingly convinced that clarity can be found by contextualizing and locating reconciliation. There are numerous examples of local efforts to foster reconciliation, which appropriate challenges and employ an iterative approach, but there is little space for knowledge from this to be transmitted and scaled up. Learning spaces are thus important to harvest this learning potential. So far, the importance of storytelling, rituals & education stands out.
It is also critical to consider how to prepare people for the challenges of facilitating reconciliation. Without an understanding of trauma, reconciliation risks doing more harm than good. The same is sometimes true of good intentions, which do not necessarily translate into practical and effective reconciliation, and misconstrued reconciliation efforts can be counterproductive. There is also a manifest importance of both the people who are reconciling & those supporting them to think about why they are pursuing reconciliation.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is no clear consensus on a single definition or approach to reconciliation. The concept is fluid and ambiguous, with multiple & complex cultural, social, political & economic nuances. There is also a degree of tension—& even paradox—at its heart. Elites often frame reconciliation discourse rather than the broader population. However, reconciliation is a deeply personal, multi-layered endeavor that can—& often needs—to be both bottom-up & top-down. The very act of reconciliation involves trying to live with the ambiguity of how multiple things can be true at once. It may also be an inherently fleeting phenomenon, a kind of horizon that can be seen but not touched.
There are several misconceptions & dangers related to understanding reconciliation. Despite some of the ways in which it has been conceptualized & put into practice, reconciliation is not a discrete moment that happens and endures. It is a process & not a linear one. It is also more emotional & creative than technical. There is also a danger of seeing reconciliation as an ultimate cure when in fact, the pain & suffering caused by conflict may be something that people have to learn to live with & mitigate for the rest of their lives.
All of this means that in certain cases, ex-combatants, affected populations & reconciliation practitioners in various post-conflict settings may find it more helpful not to use the term reconciliation, at least initially. While overly simplifying or essentializing reconciliation is counter-productive & problematic, several paradigms have tried to distill its key aspects. Among them, there is a series of commonalities that most researchers & practitioners would probably agree on:
- Reconciliation is a means by which a society or community transitions from a divided past to a shared future.
- It involves the rebuilding of trust & social relationships.
- It is a long-term process, sometimes over generations.
- It cannot be imposed, only chosen.
- It operates across at least five different social strata: political society, institutional, community, interpersonal & individual.
One of the principal conceptualizations of Reconciliation is John-Paul Lederach’s meeting place of the (oft-competing) goals of peace, truth, justice & mercy. Conceptualizations like this help to explain why Reconciliation & transitional justice are often grouped together. While there is a significant degree of overlap between the two, there are also differences. Notably, Reconciliation is strongly people-centered—& indeed is a profoundly personal phenomenon (it is hard to imagine how someone could be reconciled by someone else)—whereas transitional justice is more focused on institutions & victims.
Reconciliation and social cohesion are sometimes used synonymously, especially at the community level; while they are inherently linked, they are distinct concepts. Social Cohesion, like Reconciliation, is a fluid concept that carries different connotations depending on context, identity, culture & social & political dynamics. Many people—including Search for Common Ground—view social cohesion as the glue that bonds society together, which is essential for peace, democracy & development. Reconciliation is sometimes thought of as a process of restoring or rebuilding the Social Cohesion that is fractured by large-scale conflict— violent conflict, armed conflict & war.
Reconciliation is an essential & necessary part of peacebuilding & political & social change, serving as a catalyst for a lot of other movement towards peace, particularly the relationship-building & social cohesion work that underpins peacebuilding. It also seems logical to assume that peace processes & peace agreements can lead to reconciliation, but it is important to be careful not to overly essentialize this fact; the Dayton Accords serve as an illustration of how peace agreements might not necessarily lead to reconciliation & may instead harden people’s positions.
Reconciliation as part of peacebuilding occurs across various temporal dimensions: past, present, & future. This can be defined as acknowledging the past, establishing new norms & relationships & developing a peaceful & inclusive society. While it is tempting to look at these processes as unfolding sequentially, both reconciliation & peacebuilding are non-linear, parallel, & co-dependent. Effectively integrating reconciliation into peacebuilding means taking into account the fact that reconciliation activities can happen at any time during the conflict cycle.
For a collection of Reconciliation resources, please visit our Resource Library. Please also see a synthesis of insider understandings of Reconciliation & a collection of testimonials on Reconciliation in practice.