In Vincent Chetail, Post-Conflict Building: a Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 2009


Reconciliation is a process through which societies go from a divided past to a shared future. This process consists in former enemies finding a way to live next to one another without necessarily liking or forgiving each other and without forgetting the past in any way. Reconciliation thus aims at peaceful coexistence with one’s former enemies by developing the necessary degree of cooperation with them.

 I.      Concept

History and Context: the Emergence, Origins and Evolution of the Terms.

In French, the term réconciliation (reconciliation) first appeared around 1350 before being borrowed by English. According the French dictionary Petit Robert, réconciliation is used to refer to the action by which friendship is restored (between persons who have fallen out) (Petit Robert, 2006). The New World Dictionary’s definition of reconciliation is (1) to restore to friendship, (2) to settle a feud, (3) to restore to harmony. However, the definition of reconciliation has gradually moved from the field of individual relationships and has increasingly applied to a much larger scale, i.e. peoples or communities in the context of peacebuilding or in the aftermath of an internal or international conflict.

Traditionally, in order to bring back civil peace, reconciliation between enemy citizens has implied the adoption of amnesty measures – a word derived from the Greek amnistia, i.e. oblivion. In the Athenian Constitution, Aristotle was the first to talk about a model of amnesty to achieve reconciliation when he mentions a decree promulgated after the victory of democracy over the oligarchy of the Thirty in 403 B.C. The decree banned anyone from recalling the evils of the past; anyone who did so would be cursed. Oblivion is thus seen to be vital for the refounding of the city after the ordeal of division. Paul Ricoeur underscored the fact amnesia and amnesty are more than just phonetically or semantically similar. According to him, such similarities highlight the existence of a secret covenant with the denial of memory (Ricoeur, 2000). Amnesty, i.e. oblivion by both memory and the judiciary, seems necessary to unite the restored city or nation. Many contemporary authors have underlined the paradoxes of amnesty, which aims at removing punishment from crimes whose scope have particularly offended the national or international community (see international crimes). On the contrary, such crimes deserve an exemplary sentence, even though mass crimes are crimes that can neither be punished, nor forgiven, as Hannah Arendt had underlined, thus breaking with the notion of proportionality between the sentence and the gravity of the crime committed.

Nowadays, the term “reconciliation” is used in the context of modern politics to refer to various situations:

National Reconciliation

Firstly, national reconciliation occurs after part of the population has collaborated with the defeated occupant. This was the case in France after World War II, when, after a short period of violent cleansing, amnesty laws marked full reintegration into the bosom of the nation of those who had sided with the enemy.

Secondly, national reconciliation is called for after the end of a bloody dictatorship (e.g. Chile, Argentina) or a racist regime (South Africa). Thus, in order to restore national unity, the authorities of Uruguay adopted an amnesty law in 1986 which covered acts of repression by the military and police forces during the dictatorship (1973-1975). On April 16th 1989, a majority of voters (60%) rejected the referendum meant to challenge the amnesty law. They justified this oblivion of the past in order not to endanger Uruguay’s fragile democraticinstitutions (see democratic governance; rule of law).

Interstate Reconciliation

In this context, reconciliation means bringing together and normalizing the relations between countries that have been at war. In July 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle and the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer thus met in the city of Rheims to seal officially the “reconciliation” between their two countries, and hence signal that friendly relations had been restored between these two states.

Reconciliation in the Post-Cold War Period

After the Cold War, the term “reconciliation” started to take on even more importance in the political lexis. The brief revival of the United Nations and the emergence of a new discourse on human rights and political liberalism contributed to the emergence of a more ethical strand of international relations which superseded the pessimistic realpolitik approach which had, up till then, prevailed (see responsibility to protect). This shift in perspective gave reconciliation a predominant role. Up till then, reconciliation had been considered as a mere proactive attitude on the part of governments. It then started to be interpreted by the United Nations and human rights NGOs not only as a top-down process, but, more importantly, as a bottom-up process initiated by civil society. This change in approaches has also reflected the emergence of new types of internal conflicts – in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, etc. – which have been characterized by mass crimes and ethnic cleansing policies (see international crimes; transitional justice; reparations).

At the beginning of the 1990s, new judicial and extra-judicial institutions were set up in order to undertake national or regional reconciliation:

  • The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1994), the International Criminal Court (whose statutes were drafted in 1998) and internationalized courts in Sierra Leone, Bosnia-Herzegovina, East Timor, Cambodia and Lebanon (underway).
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which aim to ensure seamless transition towards democracy in countries that have experienced bloody repression or internal strife.

These two types of judicial institutions – the former being a criminal institution, while the latter is restorative – are similar not only in terms of their purpose (i.e. reconciliation) but also the methodology they apply. What is considered indispensable for reconciliation is no longer silence (thanks to amnesty laws), but rather articulating the truth about the crimes committed (see international crimes; transitional justice). In the post-Cold War period, amnesty and amnesia were gradually set apart. Theoretically, this trend has marked a reversal in the way the past is dealt with, even if, in practice, there are still many exceptions. For instance, in its Resolution 955, the UN Security Council explicitly gave the ICTR the goal to contribute to “reconciliation” after the genocide of the Tutsis. In 1995, South Africa set up its “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. By adding the word “Reconciliation” to the name of the “Truth Commission” that had been established in Argentina and Chile, the new South African authorities wished to express their will to unite the nation and create the necessary conditions for social peace and internal peacebuilding (see state (re-)building; capacity-building; transitional justice; reparations).

Reconciliation is now considered an essential feature in post-conflict peacebuilding. In theory, reconciliation goes hand in hand with other elements, such as the return to democracy, establishment of the rule of law, free and fair elections, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of combatants, recognition of victims and protection of human rights (see responsibility to protect). Because the UN General Assembly was convinced of the need to promote such an integrated approach to peace processes, in its resolution A/RES/61/17 of November 20th 2006, it declared 2009 as the international year of reconciliation.

Didactic Presentation of the Different Possible Meanings

It is difficult to define reconciliation because it refers both to the end and the means to attain that end. In fact, there is no agreement about its definition, the social changes it entails, or the conditions necessary for reconciliation to be achieved.

In addition to the vagueness of the concept, reconciliation carries moral and even religious connotations which, for some, imply purification or even restoring the bond between the individual and God. Some authors argue that the symbolic content of the term is such that it should be avoided. Thus, Eric Stover and Harvey Weinstein have suggested replacing it by the more neutral term “social reconstruction” (Stover and Weinstein (eds.), 2004: 13-18).

Definitions Used by the Different Actors

Many organizations and researchers have tried giving an operational definition of the concept of reconciliation. However, whatever the definition adopted, using the term “reconciliation” remains problematic.

First of all, the scope of the term is so broad that it leaves room for a wide range of interpretations with regard to its links to other key concepts of peacebuilding, such as transitional justice, democratic governance and the rule of law.

Secondly, reconciliation cannot be measured: there exists no metric to assess the degree to which a society is reconciled.

Thirdly, the concept has sometimes been entirely misappropriated. The term “reconciliation” has such an aura that it is sometimes used by some regimes to justify impunity (such as the amnesties General Pinochet provided for himself in Chile) or to pressure victims into dropping their legal claims (see reparations).

Yet, despite or because of these ambiguities, the term “reconciliation” has become one of the key notions  in the vocabulary of transitional justice, as used by the United Nations and many NGOs.

The definitions developed or used by the actors are the following:

The reference handbook Reconciliation after a Violent Conflict (International Institute for Democracy and International Assistance, 2004) essentially defines reconciliation as the process by which former enemies manage to coexist peacefully. This definition stresses the dynamic transformation of a society where enemy groups go from conflict to mutual recognition, as well as recognition of the new institutions. IDEA lays the emphasis on coexistence, which does not entail forgiveness (see conflict transformation).

Contrary to this first trend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, insists on the need for forgiveness which he clearly illustrates with the title to his book: No Future without Forgiveness (2000). There are several different ways to forgive, e.g. moral forgiveness, which is similar to a unilateral gift, and strategic forgiveness, which result from a cold-blooded analysis of the balance of power.

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) gives a negative definition of reconciliation to avoid abuses in the way the term is used:

  • Real reconciliation should not be used as a substitute for justice.
  • There cannot be significant inequities in the reconciliation burden required from all social actors. Responsibilities may not be transferred from perpetrators to victims.
  • Reconciliation efforts do not focus on wiping the slate clean. It would not be reasonable to try to attain an ideal social harmony.
  • Reconciliation cannot boil down to a state of mind. A radical transformation of former enemies should not be expected.
  • Reconciliation should be articulated in a way that it is not only the expression of a specific set of religious beliefs.

It follows that reconciliation is linked to the notion of “civic trust” which includes:

  • Political reconciliation, i.e. “vertical” confidence between citizens and their institutions. This requires setting up or restoring credible institutions which have to be recognized by the population (see democratic governance; rule of law).
  • Social reconciliation, i.e. the establishment of “horizontal” confidence by which citizens trust each other. This means that all citizens wish to share common standards and values for their institutions, that they have sufficient trust in the leaders of such institutions, that they have sufficient trust in their fellow-countrymen’s ability to abide by the same set of fundamental values and standards (

The aim of social reconciliation is to change beliefs, values and attitudes among a given population. It seeks to redefine the relationship between former enemy groups, and, at the bottom line, rehumanize members of the former enemy group. This is what Weinstein and Stover argue. They underline that identity and memory are social constructs of realities which may be worked on and modified. From their point of view, the stakes of reconciliation policies consists in devising social, political and memorial strategies which modify individual and collective identities and, subsequently, the identity of oneself and of others. This, in turn, makes it possible to move from a rationale based on exclusion and violence to one of integration and recognition (see reparations). Such a process, by which a new national identity is gradually elaborated, participates in peacebuilding. Reconciliation must be redefined according to the specificities of each society.

Without fundamentally challenging the idea that reconciliation is both a social and political process, some authors have nonetheless underlined specific issues:

Audrey Chapman has highlighted the way public authorities may intervene to improve ethnic, racial, economic and political relations (Van der Merwe, Baxter and Chapman, 2007). From this vantage point, reconciliation means restoring civic peace but without implying that society or the victims have “healed” or that they have established a cordial relationship with the perpetrators. Mark R. Amstutz adopts a similar pragmatic approach in stating that reconciliation is never guaranteed, including in situations when justice in fact administered (Amstutz, 2005) (see transitional justice).

To James Gibson, who has studied the South African context, reconciliation is defined by the four following traits: interracial tolerance, political tolerance, legitimacy of the new political institutions and protection of human rights (Gibson, 2004).

II.     Concept

Reconciliation is a multidimensional concept. It involves a whole range of actors, at both the local and national level (political authorities, political parties, victims’ associations, NGOs – non-state actors – churches, the army, the police, justice, etc.) sometimes with the support of international actors (the UN, regional organizations, international NGOs). It also entails an integrated approach to peacebuilding which often includes free and fair elections, as well as reform of political institutions, the judiciary, security forces, the educational system and the economic sector (see security sector reform; capacity-building; human security).

Reconciliation, understood today in the sense of transitional justice, includes two main principles. This first principle involves seeking the truth about the crimes committed. It translates into many different actions: drafting and circulating fact sheets about past abuses; exhuming victims from mass graves and organizing dignified burials; recognizing the suffering endured by the victims; opening up the archives.

The second principle also implies that justice be rendered by stigmatizing the perpetrators, either through the administration of criminal or restorative justice, or a combination of both (see international crimes; reparations).

This second point raises the thorny issue of sanctions: which of criminal sanctions or symbolic sanctions are better able to achieve reconciliation in a society? The nearly simultaneous establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave rise to a heated debate between 1995 and 2000. In fact, those who supported the TRC and those in favor of the international criminal courts were able to experience both the limits and the complementarity of the models they were advocating.

Put in economic terms, there is an excess supply of people who have committed crimes against humanity that national or international justice systems do not have the means to process. The ICTY and ICTR are the perfect illustration of this: they have only tried a few dozen people, whereas thousands, and, in the case of Rwanda, tens of thousands of people committed abuse. Similarly, it is unacceptable to see the impunity enjoyed by people responsible for the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The promoters of Truth Commissions do acknowledge this (see reparations). In fact, the principle of complementarity between the Commissions and criminal procedures has been established in order to achieve the ultimate goal of reconciliation.

III.     Implementation

Challenges, Operational Aspects and Positive or Negative Experiences

The challenges associated with the reconciliation process are many and varied. First of all, the populations must be convinced that political elites are actually determined to put democratization in motion and to put an end to repression and/or civil war. This first issue presupposes new elites that are strong enough, from both a political and a military point of view, to succeed in restoring the rule of law and freedoms. The populations must also be convinced that reconciliation instruments, Truth Commissions and/or criminal courts are serious and unbiased. The reconciliation process can only attain its goals if these two conditions are met beforehand.

The main obstacles are the following:

  • At the end of an internal conflict, many countries often have a hard time carrying reconciliation through because the authorities are confronted simultaneously with a whole range of problems without having the necessary resources at their disposal to solve them. The Report of the UN Secretary-General on transitional justice (UNSG, 2004) highlights the accumulation of such difficulties: these countries must simultaneously administer justice, undertake political and institutional reform, rebuild public services, guarantee the existence of an independent ministry of justice, etc. (see state (re-)building; democratic governance; rule of law; capacity-building). Despite the short supply of financial resources and qualified staff, their populations are divided and partly traumatized and their fundamental human rights have often been violated over a long period of time. Despite the fact that such an integrated approach is difficult to apply, it is the best way of guaranteeing successful reconciliation.
  • Because of an unfavorable balance of power, governments may opt for a policy of impunity. By means of illustration, on March 12th 2007, the government of Afghanistan proclaimed an amnesty law for those commonly referred to as “warlords”, many of whom, in all probability, are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity (see non-state actors; international crimes; reparations). Such a law is due to the determination to fight against the Taliban and the weakness of the central government in Kabul. Yet the Afghan independent commission for human rights conducted a study which involved thousands of Afghans and showed that the population wanted justice to be done in a country which, over the past decades, experienced several conflicts with a total death toll of above one million, countless massacres and millions of refugees (see return and reintegration). The Commission highlights the fact that, instead of reinforcing the government, such a law undermines its action as well as the reconciliation process and may thus end up jeopardizing the country’s future.
  • In other countries, the authorities have launched reconciliation processes which have not had the expected results for lack of political will on the part of governments. In Serbia, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in 2002 by President Kostunica was dismantled before the end of its mandate. In Haiti, the report drafted by the Truth Commission was hardly circulated at first. When it finally was, it was mainly handed out to foreign diplomats. These two examples underscore the need to apply an integrated approach to reconciliation. The instruments that are set up – especially Truth Commissions and/or criminal courts – only have an impact to the extent that they are part of a more global process aiming at political changes and if the populations takes over the process (see local ownership).
  • Striking a balance between the search for peace and the search for justice is one of the most acute challenges which faces reconciliation. Some argue that peace without justice is an illusion; that it can only fuel the conflict instead of giving way to reconciliation. This is, for instance, the opinion voiced by David Crane, Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, who made Charles Taylor’s indictment public on the exact day the former Liberian president finally set off for peace negotiations. Later on, Mr. Crane did not hide his ulterior motive: he wanted to torpedo the peace process because he did not believe a man allegedly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths would be a credible partner to restore peace and, more importantly, lead to reconciliation. On the contrary, others think that the search for justice delays peace and thus leads to new abuses, which, in turn, undermine the peace process and hence reconciliation. The point here is not to settle the issue once and for all, but to pinpoint the fact that, recently, there have been attempts to go beyond this dichotomy by spreading the achievement of peace and justice over a longer period of time.

The Lessons Drawn from Past Experiences

With hindsight, what is the track record of Truth Commissions and ad hoc courts in terms of reconciliation? The issue is a complex one. Indeed, we have shown that reconciliation is a notion that is hard to grasp and even harder to assess. In addition, justice mechanisms can only be effective if they are part of an integrated approach. Time is a crucial factor: reconciliation, and more specifically social reconciliation, is a slow process.

Let us first consider the two UN courts. They are symptomatic of an exit strategy and, as such, belong to the past: they are too expensive (approx. USD 100 million per annum per court), too slow (since 1994, the ICTR has tried about twenty people and has cost hundreds of millions of dollars) and they have not managed in the shorter term to convince all the populations whom they were aimed at. For example, a majority of Serbs are hostile to the ICTY and a majority of Rwandans have access to very limited information about the ICTR (Stover and Weinstein). This is due not only to the political obstacles which these courts have had to overcome, but also to the weak communication policy they implemented and the setbacks the Prosecutors have had to stomach with regard to their strategies. To this day, the ICTR Prosecutor, for instance, has been unable to indict FPR members who are suspected of war crimes, despite the fact that this was a recommendation of UN Security Council Resolution 955. Nonetheless, in the middle and long term, the track records of these institutions, especially the ICTY, will probably invite less criticism and will prevent denial of the crimes committed by the different parties involved (see international crimes; transitional justice; reparations)

Similarly to the UN ad hoc courts, Truth Commissions have also had mixed results. On the one hand, the report framed by the Commission in Argentina has had a profound social impact and the public hearings conducted by the TRC in South Africa have resounded both at the national and international level. On the other hand, other countries have had mixed results (e.g. Serbia, Uganda, Haiti). In societies where criminal courts and Truth Commissions have worked fairly well, these instruments were able to trigger off social and institutional changes: they opened new forums for dialogue within society, broken with impunity, supported change and democratic reform and contributed to creating institutional guarantees and a human rights culture meant to prevent that such crimes be repeated (see democratic governance; capacity-building). In such cases, they have constituted the backbone of reconciliation.

The idea that victims and society may heal by articulating the truth (the slogan of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was “revealing is healing”) rests on a questionable presumption which no scientific proof has come to back up. Limited studies have evinced various attitudes and reactions amongst victims who had testified. Some were extremely glad to have had the opportunity to testify publicly, but others often regretted having testified because they had had to remember painful and even traumatic experiences. In addition, the use of pseudo-medical and psychoanalytic terminology is problematic when it is applied at a collective scale: can “coming to terms” with the past help “heal” a nation by “exorcizing” its past? However, there is no supporting data proving that policies of impunity have helped the victims in any way or contributed to reinforcing national cohesion (see reparations).

It is nonetheless difficult to step back and appraise, even temporarily, reconciliation processes. Civil peacebuilding is a process that takes place over a long period of time, sometimes over several generations. The example of the inter-Allied military tribunal in Nuremberg comes as a good illustration: it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that West Germans stopped considering the Nuremberg trials as the manifestation of a justice of the victors, but rather as a mechanism whereby Nazi crimes and the sanctions that punished them were integrated into the German nation’s collective memory (see international crimes; transitional justice). Without the necessary historical distance, it is therefore difficult to appraise the impact of public reconciliation policies.


Since public reconciliation policies are fairly recent and are, each and every time, the object of intense political haggling, they lack conceptual precision. In addition, it is difficult to issue specific recommendations because of the sheer scope they encompass and the very different contexts in which they are implemented. However, past experiences make it possible to formulate some general principles.

Need to Set Up Control Mechanisms

At the national level, the first challenge is to ensure that a given society gets a sense of ownership (see local ownership), that it can identify with such reconciliation processes which imply determining responsibilities for the crimes committed. Unfortunately, there often is no such local ownership. As observers, NGOs and the international community have a crucial role to fulfill in assessing the validity of the reconciliation policies implemented. It is essential for them to denounce clearly transitional justice mechanisms that are dysfunctional or merely serve as an excuse for a lack of action.

Need to Set Up Follow-Up Mechanisms

In their reports, Truth Commissions almost always include suggestions as to political and institutional reform. More often than not, state authorities do not follow up. Once again, NGOs and the UN could play a role by following up on these reform proposals.

Protecting Existing Standards

A further major challenge has to do with the erosion of legal standards and international humanitarian law ever since September 11th 2001. Such an erosion has been justified by the so called “war on terror” and international security. However, it jeopardizes the entire reconciliation process. As was previously pointed out, Afghanistan is the perfect example of a country where neither the national authorities, nor the UN, nor even the United States (despite the presence of all these actors) have opened a single inquiry against the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity (see international crimes; reparations). In January 2005, the United Nations even shelved a report it had commissioned which accused Afghan parliamentarians of being responsible for massacres and torture (Declan Walsh, 2006). When, for tactical reasons, major international players tolerate and even encourage impunity, reconciliation processes end up being weakened and – what is worse – endangered.

Selective Bibliography

Boraine, A., Lévy J. and R. Scheffer (1994), Dealing With the Past, Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Cape Town: Idasa.

Brody, R (2001), “Justice: The First Casualty of Truth”, The Nation, No. 30.

Chapman, A. R., (forthcoming 2007) “Approaches to Studying Reconciliation” in Assessing the Impact of Transitional Justice: Challenges for Empirical Research, Van der Merwe, Baxter and Chapman.

Derrida, J. (1999), “Le siècle et le pardon”, Le Monde des Débats 9.

Garapon, A. (2001), Des crimes qu’on ne peut ni punir ni pardonner, Paris: Odile Jacob.

Gardner Feldman, L. (1999), “The Principle and Practice of ‘Reconciliation’ in German Foreign Policy: Relations with France, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic”, International Affairs, 75.2, 333-356.

Gibson, J. L. (2006), “The Contributions of Truth to Reconciliation: Lessons from South Africa”,  Journal of Conflict Resolution 50.3, 409-432.

Gibson, J. L. (2004), Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hazan, P. (2006), Morocco: Betting on Truth and Reconciliation Commission, United States Institute of Peace, Washington D.C., Special Report No. 165.

Kritz N. (Ed) (1995), Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, 3 Volumes, Washington D.C., United States Institute of Peace Press.

Stover, E. and Weinstein, H. (eds) (2004), My Neighbor, My Enemy, Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur P. (2000), La mémoire, l’histoire et l’oubli, Paris: Seuil.

Tutu D., in Bloomfield D., Barnes T. and L. Huyse (2003) Reconciliation After Violent Conflict, a Handbook, Stockholm: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

UNSG (2004), Report on the “rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies”, off. doc. UNSC S/2004/616 (August 23rd, 2004).

USIP (2006) Working Group on Social Reconstruction and Reconciliation, Defining Terms: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Social Reconstruction, non-published, Washington D.C, United States Institute of Peace, 2006.