Supporting reconciliation in post-conflict situations

Question

What are the approaches to supporting reconciliation in post-conflict contexts? What are the pros and cons of these approaches? What role can donors, CSOs etc. play to support these? Are there specific Islamic reconciliation modalities (as opposed to secular ones)?

Summary

The key literature on reconciliation approaches is not very recent. However, there is a reasonable body of more recent evidence, particularly from Africa, of on-ground experience of implementing diverse reconciliation mechanisms. Given that reconciliation must be an indigenous process, one which donors can support but not lead/impose (see below), the literature says little about specific donor interventions in relation to reconciliation. The focus is on the pros and cons of particular approaches, while potential areas of donor support are identified (if at all) in a generic manner. Despite these limitations, the evidence points to some clear guidelines for effective post-conflict reconciliation.

Key findings of the report include the following:

  • Retributive justice ensures that perpetrators are punished for their crimes and provides justice for victims. It can prevent vigilante justice, and serve as a deterrent against future such abuses. However, retributive justice can undermine often fragile peace settlements and lead to renewed violence. Its focus is on perpetrators rather than victims, who can be re-traumatised by the process. Practical constraints include weak capacity in judicial systems and limited resources. There are risks of retributive justice turning into vengeance, and that trials will not meet minimal standards of fairness (Huyse, 2008; Mobekk, 2005; Bloomfield, 2003).
  • International tribunals and criminal courts address the capacity constraints and risk of intimidation and proper standards not being met in local courts (Bloomfield, 2003). However, they are costly and time-consuming, often far removed from the countries concerned, and are dependent on cooperation from national governments to apprehend offenders (Barsalou, 2005). They can also undermine local reconciliation processes, and are perceived by some as having a western bias (Kaye, 2011; Ojok, 2014).
  • Truth and reconciliation commissions allow victims to recount the abuses they suffered, and they establish a historical record of broad patterns of societal crimes (Mobekk, 2005). Truth-telling can be an important step to reconciliation, but in some cultures it is seen as undermining healing by reopening wounds (Barsalou, 2005). Truth commissions can only make recommendations, which governments often ignore or do not implement fully. Perpetrators have been offered amnesty for admitting to their crimes: this can fuel resentment among victims and their families (Hamber and Wilson, 2002). Despite facing problems, the South Africa TRC did help the country make a peaceful transition from apartheid (Hamber and Wilson, 2002).
  • Amnesty and reparations can be useful instruments for reconciliation but need to be applied carefully. Amnesty can be useful to deal with large numbers of ‘low level’ perpetrators, particularly if accompanied by confessions of past crimes. However, it can imply impunity (Mobekk, 2005). Prosecuting leading perpetrators of abuses can address this concern. Reparations can signify acknowledgement of victims’ suffering, but timing is critical as is linking these with establishment of the truth – without these, financial compensation could be seen by victims as governments buying their silence (Hamber and Wilson, 2002).
  • Restorative justice approaches are frequently rooted in local tradition, and involve victims, perpetrators and communities in an effort to bring about reconciliation. Traditional restorative justice mechanisms are in keeping with the principle of local ownership, are quick and cheap, and help perpetrators reintegrate. The use of symbolic rituals and ceremonies reinforces reconciliation (Bloomfield, 2003). However, they can have weaknesses: bias on the part of those conducting them, unequal social relations which are reflected in decisions, failure to follow due process and ensure defendants’ rights, and marginalisation of women (Bloomfield, 2003: Allen and MacDonald, 2014). They might not be appropriate for large-scale abuses, and for particularly heinous crimes.
  • Principles of transitional justice and Islamic law are closely aligned (Worden et al., 2011). Truth, justice (retribution), and compensation for victims are all found in Islam. Islam encourages victims to accept compensation and forgive perpetrators, so as to promote reconciliation. Development of an authoritative set of basic Islamic legal principles to support transitional justice in post-conflict Muslim societies would be a useful next step (Worden et al., 2011).
  • Healing is important for victims to overcome trauma and needs to be addressed at individual and collective level. Suitable interventions include trauma counselling, victim support and advocacy groups, provision of skills development and other livelihood support, use of art and music to promote psycho-social healing (Bloomfield, 2003).

Enquirer:

Suggested citation

Idris, I. (2016). Supporting reconciliation in post-conflict situations (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1343). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.