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(Instrumental) Reconciliation Without (authentic) Forgiveness (and Social Justice): A Recurrent Paradox in Political Conflicts

Please see the PDF of the complete article, attached below.

After a conflict between communities or nations has been led to an ending
phase, political reconciliation requires that both parties be brought
closer to the point they may have respect for each other’s rights and can
live peacefully together. When the conflict passed through war or mass
atrocity, reconciliation is especially hard to achieve. There are limits to
forgiveness that may state significant barriers on the pathway to reconciliation.
Preserving or restoring human rights is an imperative category
on seeking for reconciliation during and after a war. The essence of a
forgiveness and reconciliation process can be perverted seeking for stop
fighting and peace building, without really reaching healing and transformation.
This paper essays on conditions under which an instrumental
and distorted version of proclaimed reconciliation can be achieved,
without coming from the dogmatic source of forgiveness as an omnipresent
and sine qua non condition. An ex post social justice transformation as
necessary condition for the reunited society is also considered. Ferguson,
Missouri recent events could be an indication of the strong need for
deeper and genuine reconciliation among American citizens.


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

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.”

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

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,

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.

Attachments to this Article


Ricardo Padilla

Ricardo Gutierrez Padilla is a Mexican citizen with an extensive experience in public policy design, implementation, and evaluation in his native country. He has served as Vice President of the University of Guadalajara (the second largest university in the country), as member of national commissions for the design of public… MORE >

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