Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts

Louis Kriesberg


How can intercommunal relations be transformed after violent interethnic conflict? How are coexistence and reconciliation related? This chapter discusses the two concepts; obstacles to achieving them; and methods for achieving equitable coexistence and reconciliation. While divisions can be deeply entrenched in contexts of communal violence, coexistence can be fostered by promoting equitable relationships, creating the conditions for intercommunal interaction and facilitating interpersonal healing.

Communal conflicts that target identities (ethnicity, religion or language) are often brutally violent and seemingly intractable. It is important to determine not only how to overcome violent conflict but how to re-establish coexistence in the aftermath. Coexistence is commonly understood as ‘relationships between persons or groups in which none of the parties is trying to destroy the other’. This comprises structural and subjective aspects of the relationship between individuals and groups. On a structural level, it is important to consider the extent to which parties are integrated with or separated from each other and the degree of equality or inequality between them. On a subjective level, it is important to consider how individuals and groups view each other.

Reconciliation is commonly understood as ‘the process of developing a mutual conciliatory accommodation between antagonistic or formerly antagonistic persons or groups’. An important aspect of reconciliation is facing the past and developing a shared recognition of the harms inflicted. It may also involve some form of redress, apology and forgiveness. It requires a mindset whereby adversaries look forward to living together in peace.

Interethnic coexistence is likely to contribute to processes of reconciliation when it is equitable – when the balance of resources in power, status and economic conditions are not greatly unbalanced. Equitable coexistence and reconciliation are more readily achieved if adversary ethnic groups are not collectively demonised or dehumanised.

There are various obstacles to achieving equitable coexistence and reconciliation. They include popular sentiments, ideologies and vested interests. Popular sentiments of pride and loyalty toward ones own group and antagonism toward those outside of the group are often fostered from general ethnocentric tendencies and social-psychological mechanisms of group identity. It can also be promoted through ideologies that build on communal identities in a way that pits groups against one another (racism or nationalism). In addition, divisions can be created and sustained by those with vested interests in struggles against other ethnic groups, particularly political leaders who mobilise ethnic or other communal bases for political support.

There are various methods that can be adopted to foster equitable coexistence and reconciliation. Structural methods include policies aimed at reducing inequalities (e.g. reparations, combating discrimination, affirmative action), developing crosscutting ties (e.g. through associations), fostering superordinate goals (working toward a common purpose, e.g. cooperatives, educational practices to develop a common history) creating human rights safeguards (e.g. power-sharing). Experiential methods aim to promote subjective feelings and state of mind necessary to bring about and sustain coexistence and reconciliation. These includes public trials, public events such as ceremonies and monuments, and curriculum reform in schools. Interpersonal methods involve smaller-scale reconciliation work that often takes place at the grass-roots level. These may include workshops aimed at reducing intercommunal antagonisms or meetings and face-to-face interaction of enemy sides.

Strategies for achieving equitable coexistence and reconciliation can be initiated and encouraged by internal and external actors. Internal actors include government officials; religious, business and political leaders; intellectuals, artists and the media; and grassroots and local leaders. External actors include the United Nations; international donors and NGOs; refugees and diaspora communities; and citizen groups.

See the author’s web page for links to related publications.


Kriesberg, L., 1998, 'Coexistence and the Reconciliation of Communal Conflicts', in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., New York, pp. 182-198