Transitional justice and reconciliation

In peacebuilding, reconciliation incorporates the search for truth, justice, forgiveness and accommodation between conflicting groups or people.

Reconciliation is generally understood to be the reestablishment of friendly relations, though it assumes different forms and roles in different contexts. In the case of armed conflicts, reconciliation incorporates the search for truth, justice, forgiveness and accommodation between conflicting groups or people. It is therefore widely seen as very closely related to peacebuilding, though whereas some suggest it is the ultimate goal of peacebuilding, others argue it is better seen as a process.

It is unsurprising that there is some confusion over the definition of reconciliation in peacebuilding, since it can apply to very different levels and activities, ranging from individuals trying to re-establish trust, to dialogue between small groups, to larger social or political processes such as truth and reconciliation commissions. Some writers therefore recommend making a distinction between inter-personal understandings of reconciliation and ‘political reconciliation’ at a national level.

Different types of reconciliation can address and fulfil particular aspects of a peacebuilding process. ‘Top down’ approaches to reconciliation tend to be high-profile and situated at the national level, and involve mechanisms attempting to create reconciliation by bringing atrocities to public awareness through truth telling, confession, apology, retribution and the rule of law, and making recommendations regarding the prevention of further abuses.

However, meaningful reconciliation in post-conflict environments also requires ‘bottom-up’ approaches that focus on the past trauma of individuals and communities so as not to pass on intergenerational anger and cause violent recurrences. This can be achieved through traditional forms of counselling and other healing processes, but also through creative spaces such as the arts, education and literature which directly work to change relationships and alter negative stereotypes, beliefs and attitudes towards the enemy.

Because of their different aims, both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to reconciliation can co-exist and are in fact complementary. Bottom-up processes have the advantage of being able to begin whilst violence continues, whereas top-down processes typically require some form of conflict settlement. However, once established, top-down processes may offer a framework for grassroots, bottom-up reconciliation activities to flourish.

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