Reconciliation and Conflict Transformation

July, 2008
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Since the 1990s, the issue of reconciliation has gained such an international salience that the last decade is even widely called "the age of reconciliation."[1] The conventional wisdom is that reconciliation can only begin once peace agreement has ended, at least temporarily, the conflict. However, if one adopts the perspective of conflict transformation, rather than conflict resolution, then reconciliation becomes a crucial part and parcel of conflict transformation. Along that line of thinking, this essay aims to examine how reconciliation can fit into the framework of conflict transformation. For that purpose, the essay is divided into three main sections. First, it briefly discusses the concept of reconciliation and the perspective of conflict transformation. The next section examines the relationship between reconciliation and conflict transformation. Third, the essay suggests how different forms of reconciliation efforts could contribute to transforming intractable conflicts in the world.

Conflict Transformation

The approach of conflict transformation was first proposed by John Paul Lederach as an alternative to the conventional perspective of conflict resolution.[2] Terminological differences aside, there are some basic contrasts between the two approaches. Conflict resolution implies the goal of ending undesired conflicts in a relatively short timeframe, focusing on the content of conflict as something that is disputed and which gives rise to conflict in the first place. Conflict transformation, however, professes the goal of transforming the conflict into something desired in a longer timeframe, focusing not only on the content of the conflict but more importantly on the context and relationship between the actors involved. Compared with the conflict resolution perspective, the crucial innovations of the conflict transformation approach include, therefore, (1) adding to the goal of solving undesired disputes a more important one of building something desired, (2) shifting the focus from issue/content of the conflict onto contextual relationship that underlies the conflict, and (3) expanding the relatively short period of time to deal with the conflict into a longer timeframe.


As there is currently no universally agreed-upon definition of reconciliation, it may mean different things to different people in various contexts. In common parlance, reconciliation means some kind of agreement between disputants or adversaries. The conflict resolution meaning of the term, however, goes deeper than that. It can be argued that reconciliation, at its core, is about restoring the right relationship between people who have been enemies. Reconciliation, as De Gruchy observes, 'implies a fundamental shift in personal, and power relations.'[3]

Reconciliation may become a desired goal in its own merit in divided societies. It may also represent a pragmatic way to deal with profound changes involving past injustices in order to achieve some other desired purposes such as building peace, nurturing democracy, promoting human rights, and delivering justice, among others. Thanks to the great currency that reconciliation has gained recently, there is already a very rich literature on different efforts for reconciliation. They mainly involve truth acknowledgment, reparations, retributive justice, apology, and forgiveness. No single form of reconciliation effort is perfect or satisfactory to all circumstances and parties involved. Sometimes hard choices have to be made in deciding whether one form is preferable to another, depending on the specific and temporal circumstance of each conflict and society.

Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation

From the brief discussion above, one could possibly explore a great overlapping area and high degree of complementarity between the two. These commonalities would serve as a basis to integrate reconciliation into the conflict transformation approach. In fact, in his later book named The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, Lederach himself incorporates many components of reconciliation into his framework for peacebuilding such as public truth telling, restorative justice, "re-storying," and collective healing.[4]

First, reconciliation shares with conflict transformation perspective the same focus on human relationship, rather than on immediate contents or issues that give rise to the conflict. As Lederach observes, reconciliation "is built on and oriented toward the relational aspects of a conflict [...] and create[s] an encounter where people can focus on their relationship."[5]

Second, because reconciliation is mainly concerned about the right relationships between victims and perpetrators, as opposed to immediate issues of injustices, it usually takes a longer time to achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation is never an easy task that awaits a quick solution.

Third, though reconciliation may require different efforts to deal with grievances and injustices in the past, it is very much forward-looking in nature. As argued above, reconciliation also aims at achieving desired purposes in the future such as promoting human rights, fostering democracy, and building the rule of law. Even the definition of reconciliation as restoring the right relationship between people should not be (mis)interpreted as going backward to a pre-conflict situation. Instead, restoration in this reconciliation context can be understood as restoring some transcendental, Platonist concept of justice and right relationship. To reconcile in this sense means to build relationships based on certain norms. This understanding is also a particularly distinctive feature of religious conception of reconciliation. In the secular world, reconciliation as such becomes much like restorative justice.[6] In short, this forward-looking nature of reconciliation well complements the transformation component in the conflict transformation framework.

Fourth, like the conception of change in the conflict transformation perspective, reconciliation can be present and necessarily prescriptive at all personal, relational, structural, and cultural levels. At the personal level, for example, repentance and apology from perpetrators have psychological effects and discourse impacts on the self-perception, thus shaping the identities, of both victims and perpetrators.[7] Apology also serves to build the unity between victims and perpetrators, a change desired in the relational dimension of conflict transformation. At the structural and cultural dimensions, other efforts for reconciliation such as restitution in the forms of negotiated discourse and constructed narrative could contribute to building new cultural mechanism that can handle conflicts.

In sum, the concept of reconciliation can fit into the framework of conflict transformation and has great potential to complement practices for transformational strategies. The next section provides a brief survey of crucial reconciliation efforts and how they could contribute to conflict transformation.

Reconciliation Measures for Conflict Transformations

Truth Acknowledgement and Truth Commissions

According to the survey of Priscilla Hayner, there were 21 truth commissions in the period from 1970s to early 2001. Most of them were established in Africa and Latin America.[8] Among them, some truth commissions were established when the conflict were still going on such as those in Nepal and Sri Lanka. In terms of size, impacts, and functions, major truth commissions were all in Latin America and Africa.

Establishing truth commissions is a very popular reconciliation effort, for it aims to meet the public demand for truth telling from the victims. In this aspect, truth commissions could contribute to conflict transformation by creating spaces where people feel safe and can honestly talk about their fears and hopes, hurts and responsibilities. A truth commission, if carefully designed and properly mandated, can have considerable psychological impact, not only on the victims and perpetrators at the personal level, but in the structural dimension as well. As archbishop Desmond Tutu argues, a truth commission was probably the most appropriate mechanism to reconcile the people in South Africa and, more importantly, to transform the country given its specific political and social circumstances.[9]

It should be noted, however, that people very often place excessively high expectations for the outcomes that a truth commission can deliver. Time and again, victims may expect a truth commission to dispense justice and make reparations in addition to simply seeking and making public the truth. As a result, those expectations are not generally met, because the mandates and performance of truth commissions very much depend on other factors such as political will of the government, social environment, the remnant power of wrongdoers, and levels of economic development. If people grow frustrated and disappointed with truth commissions, they may lose their trust in the overall reconciliation process. It is, therefore, necessary to combine a truth commission with other reconciliation efforts including reparation and restorative justice, among others.


Although most cases of reparation and restitution take place after a conflict ends, restitution can still function in a conflict situation by, as Barkan argues, providing a dialogue that focuses on mutual recognition of identity and perceived histories.[10] Lederach rightly observes that a central challenge for transformation is to 'encourage people to address and articulate a positive sense of identity in relationship to others.'[11] Reparation and restitution, therefore, can open up the possibility of using dialogues on restitution as an alternative to conflict. In Barkan's words, restitution may become a force in resolving conflicts and promote reconciliation.[12]

Retributive Justice: Trials or Amnesty

In the popular sentiment, retributive justice is probably the most common response to injustices and wrongdoings. The propensity for retributive justice since time immemorial is also reinforced by the liberal human rights tradition that dates back to as early as the Enlightenment. Based on several central concepts of desert, the rule of law, human rights, and democracy, advocates of the liberal human rights tradition 'place a premium on the punishment of perpetrators and the vindications of victims in response to large scale crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other human rights violations.'[13]

Since retributive justice mostly focuses on the past wrongdoings of individual perpetrators, it is not mainly concerned with either relational context of the conflict or the forward-looking goal of conflict transformation, except perhaps for its marginal deterrence effect. As political scientists Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri argue, the motivation to achieve retributive justice through trials and tribunals may backfire in terms of building the rule of law and democracy. They maintain that historical evidence suggests well designed amnesty may prove more effective in promoting the rule of law, at least in the transitional period.[14] Retributive justice, therefore, should be carefully pursued, in combination with restorative justice and other reconciliation efforts, to enhance its contribution to conflict transformation.

Apology and Forgiveness

Apology and forgiveness can occur at the private level only or may also affect the interpersonal relationship. As Barkan and Karn observes, apology can help 'bridge the victim's need for acknowledgment and the perpetrator's desire to reclaim humanity.'[15] The same function can be said of forgiveness, which may be defined not only as a form of acknowledgment but also an obligation toward the repentant offender.[16] Conceived as such, both apology and forgiveness may contribute to restoring the relationship between perpetrators and victims that were served because of injustices and injuries inflicted by the conflict. The causal mechanism involved is that they helps define the past in a mutually agreed-upon manner between the victims and the perpetrators, thus shaping the identities of both through a process called re-negotiating history. It should be noted here that mutually redefining the past, re-negotiating the history, and shaping each side's identity by both sides are crucial to any attempts to address the 'root causes' of social conflict.


This essay argues that, despite the conventional wisdom that reconciliation can only begin after a peace agreement ends a conflict, various efforts for reconciliation can be integrated into the framework of conflict transformation. It begins by examining the concept of reconciliation and the perspective of conflict transformation. It goes on to argue that there is a great consistent overlapping area between the two, reflected in a shared focus on contextual relationship, a similar longer timeframe, an identical forward-looking nature, and the same level-crossing presence. Therefore, reconciliation can and should be integrated into different steps of conflict transformation. In fact, implementation of some crucial efforts for reconciliation including truth acknowledgment, reparation, apology, forgiveness, and even retributive justice could make different contributions to realizing the goal of conflict transformation.

[1] Endnote forthcoming.

[2] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington D.C.: USIP, 1997).

[3] John W. De Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

[4] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 143-7.

[5] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, 30.

[6] Daniel Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field," SSRC Working Papers, October 2007.

[7] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 4-8.

[8] Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (New York: Routledge, 2001), 32-71.

[9] Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (NY: Doubleday, 1999).

[10] Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustice (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2000).

[11] John Paul Lederach and Michelle Maiese, "Conflict Transformation," Beyond Intractability, eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003.

[12] Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustice (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2000).

[13] Daniel Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field".

[14] Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri, "Trial and Errors," International Security, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 5-44.

[15] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[16] Solomon Schimmel, Wounds Not Healed by Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 46.