Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today
<xTITLE>Ethnic And National Reconciliation</xTITLE>

Ethnic And National Reconciliation

by Larry Susskind
March 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
I can remember a moment when it seemed impossible that certain groups or nations could ever reconcile:  East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, North Ireland and England, black and white South Africa, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda.  Today, it seems equally implausible that North and South Korea, Tibet and China, Israel and Palestine, or Suni and Shia in Iraq will ever reconcile. Yet,  we should remember that the ruined relationships that seemed impossible to repair not so long ago were dramatically transformed. The question is, "How did that happen?"

I'm convinced that consensus building played a part. Four principles, in particular, explain the shift from a climate of hatred and mistrust to one of co-existence:  (1) acknowledging the other; (2) the assistance provided by intermediaries; (3) forgiveness (or the catharsis of apology); (3) a focus on the next generation; and (4) people-to-people and not just leader-to-leader interaction.

The first step in any reconciliation process is an acknowledgment of the other -- their right to exist, their unique culture and their claims or grievances.  That is not to say that reconciliation must begin with a promise to "give the other side everything it wants."  Rather, a statement that acknowledges the other side begins by showing that their enemies "hear" (but don't necessarily agree with) what they are saying. 

At the beginning, when it seems inconceivable that two sides might reconcile, trusted go-betweens, usually working quietly behind-the-scenes can carry messages -- including the acknowledgments that each side needs to hear.  How intermediaries are identified varies in each case.  They don't necessarily need to be trained mediators.  Rather, they need to be individuals who are not "in it" for themselves and are trusted by the parties.  And, they need to know how to speak to and about both sides.

In some instances, a willingness to forgive or apologies (on both sides) are a necessary step in reconciliation, but not always.  When they do come into play, it is important that they are delivered in a believable fashion. Again, a willingness to forgive doesn't mean that either side must drop its demands for justice or compensation.  How public apologies or statements of forgiveness are worded, matters a lot.  

Any effort to "put a country back together" or heal the wounds of decades (or centuries!) of killing must focus on how the next generation thinks and acts.  Elders who fought each other can either turn their children against the other side and extend the conflict, or take the steps described above and put an end to a conflict.  In either case, the question is how the next generation sees its responsibilities. A generation or two after a war, the children of those who killed each other can imagine close relationships with former enemies. But only if their parents give them permission to do that. Those who fought must each their children to think differently about their enemies.

In the aftermath of wars, a peace treaties are signed.  These are usually agreements between the heads of state or the titular heads of various groups. The conflict truly ends, however, when the people represented by those leaders change their thinking and commit to a new way of interacting with former enemies. The signing of a treaty can't accomplish this.  Only sustained people-to-people interaction over an extended period can rebuild trust and undergird the commitments announced in a peace treaty.  A program of people-to-people peace building is as important to reconciliation as a formal treaty.

Reconciliation occurs when the right kind of problem-solving setting is created and managed effectively, the right words are spoken in a believable fashion, individual and group behavior conforms to what is being said, and institutional/organizational arrangements are put in place to reinforce (over an extended period) the commitments that are made.  These are the steps in a consensus building process.


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School -- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

Email Author
Author Website

Additional articles by Larry Susskind