Reconciliation has been articulated as a specific goal of many transitional justice processes and mechanisms (Skaar, 2013). A review of transitional justice literature finds that reconciliation is considered the ‘ultimate goal’ of transitional justice, with the view that it is essential to preventing a renewal of conflict (Oduro, 2007, pp. 2–3). There is limited consensus, however, on what reconciliation entails and how it should be promoted. It has been defined as ‘a process through which a society moves from a divided past to a shared future’ (Bloomfield, 2003, p. 12). From a peace-building perspective, it may be seen as the process of repairing relationships at all levels of society and confronting dominant narratives of the past (Rodicio, 2001; Halpern & Weinstein, 2004; Chapman, 2009).

At the individual level, reconciliation may entail psychological interventions to address war trauma. At the interpersonal level, it involves restoring intimate, personal relationships between old friends. At the community level, it has been identified with efforts to promote intergroup relationships and to challenge stereotypes and perceptions of the ‘other’ and of one’s own group. The development of common civic goals and collective civic action are considered important at the societal level. At the wider political level, reconciliation has been associated with efforts to foster representative institutions, commitment to the rule of law, positive state–citizen relations and nation-building (Halpern & Weinstein, 2004; Stover & Weinstein, 2004; Barsalou, 2005; Chapman, 2009).

The ambiguity and potential breadth of the concept of reconciliation makes it difficult to assess the extent to which transitional justice is fulfilling its aim. Regardless of the perspective adopted, there has been growing recognition that the link between transitional justice and reconciliation is tenuous, however, with insufficient empirical knowledge and evidence to support claims that transitional justice processes and mechanisms promote (or undermine) reconciliation (Thoms et al., 2010; Skaar, 2013).

The contemporary conflicts that transitional justice mechanisms seek to address are ones in which group identity was violently targeted at the communal and interpersonal level. Widely shared collective fear, distrust and hostility developed and persist. The psychosocial dynamics of individual and collective trauma are not, however, fully understood by the transitional justice field (Brankovic & van der Merwe, 2014). There is little consideration of the role transitional justice mechanisms must play in negotiating and addressing collective psyches and of the mechanisms’ actual impact on trauma, group identities and perceptions (see Haider, 2011b).

A recent assessment of current knowledge on the relationship between trials, truth commissions and traditional justice systems, on the one hand, and reconciliation on the other, finds inconclusive evidence on their linkages (Skaar, 2013). In the case of prosecutions, they can promote group reconciliation, contributing to truth-telling and the individualisation of guilt; others find they do not resolve the problem of collective guilt and may backfire by creating perceptions that perpetrators targeted by the court are scapegoats and victims, exacerbating tensions (Skaar, 2013). The empirical evidence is inconclusive as to how trials could influence reconciliation at varying levels (individual, societal or national) (Skaar, 2013). While the focus of criminal prosecutions on individual accountability aims to counter perceptions of collective responsibility and the demonisation of entire groups, dominant myths and narratives may be unwavering in polarised societies, forming a part of individual and collective identity (Arthur, 2009). A survey of ICTY witnesses found that, while they felt their participation in trials was beneficial, it had not changed their attitudes about other national groups (either positively or negatively) (Stover, 2004). Some argue trials may even exacerbate divisions and intensify ethnic identity politics. The historical record produced by the ICTY has been used by political propagandists to further the view that their national group is the victim of the conflict, causing further suspicion and fear among divided communities (Fletcher & Weinstein, 2002; Stover & Weinstein, 2004).

Many truth commissions have included reconciliation as a specific end goal in their mandate. Similar to the case of trials, much of the literature claims that truth-telling processes enabled by truth commissions can contribute to individual and intergroup reconciliation (see Skaar, 2013). Some argue instead that too much truth-telling can generate more social cleavages and truth-telling can lead to re-traumatisation for individuals giving testimony (Skaar, 2013). This may be particularly the case for women, given the stigma of speaking out about sexual violence (Brouneus, 2008). Much of the evidence on truth commissions is country-specific and based on descriptive narrative and anecdotal evidence, resulting in different findings on whether the mechanism is linked to reconciliation. Even in the context of South Africa, different studies have produced varying results (Skaar, 2013).

Traditional justice systems are widely considered in the literature to promote reconciliation through specific rituals that directly engage victims and perpetrators, have elements of dialogue or rites and aim at social inclusion and reintegration rather than punishment (Skaar, 2013). Studies on local justice practices have also been limited to individual case studies. A review of country studies (Mozambique, Northern Uganda, Rwanda, Timor-Leste) finds that, while traditional justice can contribute to community-level reconciliation, this usually does not translate into breaking down divisions at the national level (Skaar, 2013). There is also limited empirical knowledge regarding the effects of truth-telling initiatives

The debate about whether transitional justice contributes to reconciliation has not yet reached a conclusion. Claims made are still in need of empirical support. In the face of such uncertainty, it may be that efforts to build a sustainable peace require not only transitional justice mechanisms but also activities that seek specifically to rebuild relationships and promote reconciliation (Haider, 2011b). In deeply divided societies in particular, positive outcomes may be highly dependent on the ability to create meaningful forms of cross-cultural communication (Brankovic & van der Merwe, 2014).

Transitional justice could contribute more effectively to the process of reconciliation by supporting and working alongside coexistence initiatives and incorporating coexistence frameworks within its own processes and mechanisms. Coexistence initiatives—such as dialogue facilitation, intergroup projects aimed at achieving shared goals and media campaigns designed to reframe the ‘other’—can help restore trust, transform perceptions and rebuild relationships in divided societies. There are various ways in which transitional justice and coexistence work could support one another (see Haider, 2011b). For example, people interacting with each other across group divides, through coexistence initiatives, may be more willing to explore and understand the facts uncovered and decisions made in trials, rather than focusing on divisive preconceptions of collective guilt and victimisation. Truth-finding mechanisms could include as part of their mandate helping unify people, and could document positive as well as negative narratives in order to break down harmful stereotypes. Specifically, truth commissions could uncover the stories of those who sought to save the lives of members of the ‘other’ group, thus focusing on a narrative of common humanity (Haider, 2011b).

For further discussion on impact, see the impact of transitional justice section. For further discussion on reconciliation, see the GSDRC topic guide on conflict.