When finishing a conflict, it is not sufficient that people stop fighting with each other. What is crucial is that each person comes to understand that each has equal status before the law. To take place, reconciliation requires moral repair expressed in a change of attitude so that people have a modicum of trust in each other.1 At a personal level, when conflict ceases and people keep on living together, reconciliation is assumed, as long as they are able to trust each other again. In political reconciliation, additional mechanisms for assuring that legal rights will be respected are necessary. If reconciling two people can be highly difficult sometimes, the level of complexity for promoting and reaching reconciliation on communities, societies, and nations is paramount. Roles actively or passively played by people during wars or mass violence tend to make everybody responsible for what happened in a certain way. Understanding what happened, and why, is a powerful tool for societies to learn from past and change behavior to prevent, stop, or ameliorate conflict and violence in the future. This understanding transforms people into agents for starting a way to reconciliation. When combined with a positive attitude for peacemaking the road is clearly open.
Communal or national identities are strong determinants in the alienation of people. The demarcation between we and they is frequently a determinant for exacerbated violence against those who are different or think in a different way. To foster reconciliation, a strong sense of humanity and humility is necessary in order to move away from attitudes leading to separation, and follow new ones moving toward a universal understanding of togetherness, the human condition of being equals and able to cohabit peacefully and thrive. After a profound conflict, a more expansive and comprehensive definition of fairness is commonly at use. Following the emotional and physical exhaustion that peoples suffer during conflict, an emergent state of favorable disposition for ceasing hostilities is usually embraced for antagonistic parties if proper messages are conveyed through adequate messengers. Whether keeping on warring costs exceed the net benefits that might come from an eventual “victory”, conditions are given to open channels for alternative ways of dealing with conflict, de-escalation, and transformation to a potentially negotiated solution. When pain and suffering have been pervasive and shared as burden for the conflicting parties, fairness conception needs a modified interpretation to give reconciliation a chance. If a shared future is a necessary condition for the disputants, retributive and distributive justice may be substituted by restorative approaches based on more humane interpretations of right and wrong, good and evil, instead of claiming absolute conditions to be met for reaching compromise and stop the conflict. In order to heal the wounds, transcend conflict and move ahead, warring parties frequently must be open to assimilate pain and suffering, and transform individualized visions of the conflict for a shared narrative. This third story is fundamental to envision a shared future, the common ground for everybody.
Nevertheless, in multiple circumstances and conflicts, historical wounds have been carried as collective burdens for centuries, leading cultures to waves of conflict and truce, war and “reconciliation”, as the potentially belligerent accrued energy within a people reaches exploding levels and disseminates in violent ways. Triggering factors and tipping points are diverse and abundant. Poverty, subjugation, unfairness, alienation, and marginalization of the social benefits and common goods, are some of the most commonly factors on which messianic or charismatic leaders rely to ignite people and start new intractable conflicts that evolve into war or massive-violence forms.
Limited Forgiveness and Coerced Reconciliation
When a war has been fought and ceased, there are two fundamental conditions or “normative principles” that may lead to reconciliation in a more attainable way:
1. There is an obligation to treat those against whom war has been waged as deserving equal basic respect, regardless of which side of the war a person is from.
2. There is an obligation to initiate and conduct a war in such a way that one does not unduly antagonize the people with whom one will eventually have to reach a peaceful accord.
In colloquial terms, even before starting a war and during its fighting there are norms and limits to observe in order to leave the door open for post bellum reconciliation. When atrocities are perpetrated without observing minimal consideration of the human rights of the other party, strong resentment may deeply engrain in the offended people and the venue for authentic, sincere, and perdurable reconciliation might get severely diminished.
According to its universal notion, political reconciliation can only be reached as a bilateral process. Both sides must address past and present grievances to make a balanced analysis of responsibilities and costs of preserving the conflict, going beyond recriminations, naming faults, or claiming rights. It requires a shared perception of the necessity of getting to live together in the most amicable possible way under the circumstances, looking for a future state of just and lasting peace. In many occasions, the legal rights for retribution or restitution are taken away to make reconciliation more viable. Instead of focusing in the past and atrocities made, parties put aside specific interests in favor of pursuing a superior cause (a peaceful future), which can lead to the paradox of exchanging justice- seeking for amnesty-giving.
The stated dilemma is between opting for truth and justice in one hand, or reconciliation and the necessity of living together without fighting in the other. And here resides the concept of transitional justice, which is based on a special-case approach of determining what is right or wrong, identifying perpetrators and assigning culpability, that can be exchanged in a healing meant transaction for the mere surfacing of the truth -the revealed and shared truth as a necessary element in the process of healing and moving forward. Truth commissions are modeled on this fundamental definition of a relative and instrumental amelioration of the right to ask for what is entitled to a person or people, sacrificing trials and restitution, in order to promote peaceful coexistence, and the prevention of future injustices modeled on past patterns of abuse.”
The notion of accountability of the perpetrator is diluted and faded away, in a sort of forced and forged trading of present and objective rights for future and subjective benefits. For reconciliation to be proved successful, an ex-post evaluation must be carried out. The categories to include cannot be limited to the preexistent conditions but expanded to a broader determination of the factual existence of improved living conditions and fairer distribution of common goods throughout the reconciled population. Social justice is the strongest determinant for the authenticity and duration of the originally conceded but not proved reconciliation. If such condition is not present and clearly prevalent, elements for conflict reemergence would be easily inflamed, leading to a new cycle of conflict escalation and conflagration. When a people perceives that the share of burdens, sacrifices, costs, and benefits coming from the reconciliation are not equitable, or the deeper elements of ethnical or religious identities are at risk in the restored society, conditions for conflict persist beneath the surface and may act as nucleation centers for negative energy accumulation (in the form of perceived or factual injustice) within the society. From psychological and philosophical approaches “atrocities and severe trauma caused by them are strong justifiers for not forgiving or delivering a distorted and insincere one, beholding hatred and the thirst for revenge in contention, seeking for continuing or restoring a relationship that could only demean or morally deform one or both of them” [victim and perpetrator].
In transitional stages, moving from conflict to restored relationships and general rebuilding, the main drivers for reconciled societies reside on the principles of equality and just treatment. Recognition as an equal member in a community has a fundamental role in preserving peace and building an authentically shared future. In a transitional state from two warring parties to one reconciled entity, there is a high risk of delivering cheap apologies and non-sincere forgiveness as instrumental and only apparent elements in the pathway to a coerced reconciliation. Deep resentment can be concealed for a long time, but if peace has not reached a solid place in hearts and minds of wounded people, hatred might reemerge and burst into renewed and potentially more violent manifestations of long-lasting and carried on disputes, as history has shown between ethnic or religious groups in Ireland, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Rwanda, South Africa, Central-African Republic, Kurdistan, South Sudan, and many other countries and regions.
The spectacular achievement of fire ceasing, peace building, and economical progress observed in South Africa and Rwanda, to name only two cases, has begun to erode, or is seriously diminished. Critical voices are heard pointing on the prevalence of inequalities, abuses, corruption of the new empowered elites, and political persecution of the minorities, all of them, constant elements in the historical conditions that had led communities to conflict in the past, and may lead to conflict again in the future. As developed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the notion of ubuntu to the South African question of reconciliation, “[S]ocial harmony is for us the summum bonum, the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines, this sought-after good is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good. To forgive is not just altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me.”
Drawing from this assertion, Charles Villa-Vicencio rhetorically questions what is reconciliation? to conclude citing Paul Ricoeur definition of it as “poetics of existence”, a human idea that lures towards achievements not yet realized.
Under political pressure, mutual concessions are traded delivering provisional forgiveness in exchange for a period of grace, hopefully allowing and waiting for reconciliation to pay its promises back.
The Forgiveness-Reconciliation Dogma
According to the dogmatic notion, mostly driven by the Christian approach of “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed”, forgiveness is a command that can lead (in the idealized situation) to reconciliation. It is assumed that the second cannot be reached without the first, coming from a reductionist linear thinking that frequently oversimplifies human nature and social dynamics as determined and quasi fixed pathways for causality and invariant results. From a sociological perspective and based on objective analysis of political conditions surrounding prolonged bloody conflicts and people’s exhaustion, “forgiveness” can be coerced to be delivered in the appearance of amnesty or generalized pardon to propitiate “reconciliation” in the appearance of pacific coexistence, without really changing the inner and most enduring feelings of grieved people, only the manifested compliance to a superior order necessity for ceasing fire and hostilities and postponing the clash of cultural, ethnical, or religious values and interests for a potentially forthcoming event. The time dimension in cultural analysis tends to be ignored or oversimplified, as to assume that what is happening in the present is solid and will endure as a long-lasting irreversible condition in the future. The over optimistic confidence on negotiated peace agreements and consequential reconciliations reinforces such linear and causal notion of the necessary condition for reconciliation coming from forgiveness. Figure 1.1 (in attached PDF) shows a continuum of the most commonly used strategies by national states when forced to come to an end of fighting, for the transitional stage.
Frequently the rhetoric use of reconciliation, recognition, forgiveness, and amnesty leads to loosely named and defined notions that may bring about imprecision and confusion.
In multiple conflicts, historical retrospective analysis have shown the existence of tactical or strategic calculus-based contention of a warring agent to regroup and reinforce its belligerent machine, which can be easily hidden under the apparent tenderness of forgiving the enemy and moving to a reconciled state... for a while. As expressed by Sarah Ruden, scholar from Yale University, “the catastrophically growing South African income divide; the unbelievable amount of crime; the government’s assertions –at the probable cost of several millions livesthat AIDS is a Western conspiracy; the stubborn and worsening racism in a country that is most people’s favorite example of “reconciliation”, ant the alliance with ravaging tyranny in neighboring Zimbabwe show that formulas for mediation, that are most admired have proven, at best, incomplete.”
In a political dimension forgiveness is a possibility and promising option, but not a given condition. When international community intervenes on armed conflicts that are not considered just wars and have caused deep damage to human dignity and rights over a extended period of time, there is a coercive force acting over the disputants to cease fire and move into reconciliation, if they have to coexist in time and place for inescapable conditions. The dogmatic notion of forgiveness as an essential component for the healing of the wounded and the hinge factor to open the way to reconciliation, may just be the observable representation of a much more complex condition in which, truth and reconciliation commissions, and the trade of justice for peace in the form of amnesty, is considered for many scholars as a collective effort to promote emotional amnesia, appeasing, and international principles for peaceful-living conforming, but can leave deep wounds and resentment untouched. The evidence provided by living together without war engagement is interpreted as the triumph of the forgiveness and reconciliation process, maybe ignoring or underestimating at least, that the external manifestation of the cease of hostility cannot guarantee that peace and good will has found solid foundations in the hearts of the ex combatants. Deep in the hearts of people, under critical conditions, concealed wounds may lead to resurrection of long dormant seeds of hate and resentment in the victim group, dangerously erupting as a renewed cycle of violence.