Ethnic And National Reconciliation

From Larry Susskind’s blog on the Consensus Building Approach

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.


Larry Susskind

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… MORE >

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