New ICTJ Paper Explores Role of Reconciliation in Transitional Justice


NEW YORK, June 29, 2017—When armed conflict or atrocities have torn a society apart, it can be difficult for people to regain trust in the government and reconcile with those they see as their enemies or abusers. While the idea of reconciliation has been closely linked to transitional justice, misunderstandings of the term have sometimes led to superficial, even harmful approaches to addressing the past. A new paper from the International Center for Transitional Justice looks at different understandings of reconciliation and its place in transitional justice.

The 16-page paper, The Place of Reconciliation in Transitional Justice: Conceptions and Misconceptions, explains that local context shapes reconciliation and how transitional justice can contribute to it. The paper points to experiences in Argentina, Chile, Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia, where reconciliation has been identified as an important feature of their transition to a better society. The paper also affirms that it is not too soon to think about what “reconciliation” might someday look like in places like Syria, where conflict is ongoing, if only to counter lazy or manipulative uses of the concept.

“Reconciliation has a checkered history in some places where the word was seen as a code for impunity or denial of the past,” said Paul Seils, author of the paper and Vice President of ICTJ. “It is also sometimes used unthinkingly or superficially as a political tool short on substance or policy. But in other places it has been a real and meaningful idea, even if it has taken different shapes according to the local context.”

In recent years, the physical and psychological impacts of violations on victims have received growing attention. Many victims talk of the need for some form of healing or coming to terms with what has happened to them. Understanding this process as a kind of “individual reconciliation” and a necessary step for broader reconciliation is important.

The paper identifies three other levels of reconciliation, which can happen alone or in combination — and to greater or lesser degrees. “Interpersonal reconciliation” is often based on religious traditions that seek acknowledgment from perpetrators and can encourage forgiveness from victims. “Institutional reconciliation” refers to courts and other arms of government regaining the public confidence they lost by failing to protect citizens from violations in the past.

The “socio-political” level is built around accepting that a peaceful future depends on respecting the differences between groups and at a minimum resolving disagreements without violence. For instance, in Chile after dictator Augusto Pinochet was voted out of power, reconciliation was needed between the political left and the right for the country to move forward.

“Reconciliation means different things to different people,” explained Seils, “and different things in different places. In some places it might mean little more than a commitment not to use violence to resolve disputes. At the other end of the spectrum, it may include a much richer process of recognizing victims’ dignity and allowing for meaningful respect for differences.”

Added Seils: “If reconciliation is to be something meaningful beyond the comfort zone of sound bites, we need to understand what we mean by the term and develop approaches that deliver something practical.”

Local justice and reconciliation practices have played an important role in countries such as Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste and Uganda, where programs have helped former fighters reintegrate back into communities. They have also helped some perpetrators recognize and atone for violations they committed. Although research suggests that such collective and spiritual reconciliation ceremonies can increase social ties, they may have a negative effect on participants’ mental health.

For countries like Syria, where millions of people have fled violence either internally or across borders, securing long-term peace will likely depend on the return of the displaced and reconciling returnees and the state institutions that failed to protect them. It will also likely require efforts to address tensions between those returning and those who stayed behind, who may harbor feelings of resentment and betrayal.

The paper explains that while criminal trials and truth commissions are critical elements to restoring confidence in institutions and respect for victims’ rights, in some settings they can further polarize society, especially if parts of the public view them as illegitimate or biased. The public may also refuse to participate in any reconciliation efforts that are imposed on them by government or powerful actors as a trade-off for benefits or substitute for accountability. For instance, in Tunisia, an “Economic Reconciliation” draft law that would grant amnesty to corrupt business people and former regime officials has faced widespread opposition as promoting impunity.

“Transitional justice is about how societies address massive attacks on the rights and dignity of people in fragile political contexts,” said Seils. “It is easy for politicians and others to call for reconciliation without explaining what that means in practice. Such calls in the absence of credible attempts to address massive abuses are likely to be little more than posturing. Reconciliation is an entirely legitimate and noble objective, as long as we are clear about what we mean by it and serious about trying to get there.”

The paper was funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development.

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Refik Hodzic, ICTJ Communications Director E-mail: Tel: +387 603575250

PHOTO: Members of the Women’s Advocacy Network’s Rwot Lakica group in northern Uganda conduct an adult literacy training, July 2016. The group also works to confront pervasive stigma in their communities against children born of wartime rape and their mothers. (Oryem Nyeko/Justice and Reconciliation Project)