RECOM Reconciliation Network



The reconciliation process primarily takes place through communication

My task is to define reconciliation and my entire talk will be about why I was not really able to do so. Therefore, what I would like to do is to take you through different ways of thinking about reconciliation. I hope that when we hear about the problems and the needs of the victims, this kind of academic thinking about reconciliation will not seem meaningless, but provide some guidance to thinking about what reconciliation might mean in the Western Balkans.

Reconciliation is an important concept, because it is taken as indicator of transitional justice. Hence, we hear assessments about whether the work of the Hague Tribunal has been effective or not, and these are often made in zero sum terms: such as that the Hague Tribunal did not lead to reconciliation in the region. Others, by contrast, claim that it did produce some basis for reconciliation – for example, by establishing the juridical truth. However, the concept of reconciliation is much more complex. It’s easier to say what reconciliation is not. What I thought was really interesting is to hear the representatives of state institutions, and of civil society, say that reconciliation is not a “forgive and forget” policy; and also that it isn’t some sort of relativisation of responsibility or equalisation of guilt and culpability, which echoes the scholarship on the subject. Even when we look up the synonyms for reconciliation in the dictionary they reveal the complexity of this concept. Reconciliation is about the restoration of friendly relations, about making one’s view or belief compatible with another, about establishing consistency. But all these aspects become difficult and problematic in the aftermath of mass atrocity. How do we know that the establishment of formerly friendly relations is what we should strive for, if these very relations had caused conflict and suffering? So, what is at the core of reconciliation? At the core of reconciliations are relationships, and when the scholars think about these relationships, they think in terms of horizontal, human relationships between groups and individuals, and vertical relationships, between communities and institutions, as we have heard in reference to the example of Northern Ireland. Therefore, trust needs to be built not just between communities, but between people and institutions. These are the sites or places of reconciliation: social and institutional. But how do we get there? If reconciliation is about building trust-based relationships, what is the path that leads from distrust and hurt to trust and reconciliation? This is where the search through the books and writings on reconciliation becomes much more problematic. Because we do not have much time, I would like to focus on one particular point that I found very interesting in this literature. This literature talks about the importance of truths and facts for reconciliation. How do truths and facts help bring about some sense of reconciliation? A number of authors talk about the creation of cognitive dissonance that mitigates cognitive dogmatism. How does this concept translate into understanding of reconciliation in a post-conflict context? In the context of a criminal legacy, cognitive dissonance implies that the process of truth-telling and the establishment of facts may create uncertainty and doubt about the goodness of one’s cause. What does this mean in practice? If we look at the journey that we’ve gone through in the area of former Yugoslavia, there has been some movement in breaking through the blanket ideological denial that characterised the immediate post-war period in the 1990s. The dispute about the facts of crimes, i.e. the questioning of the “purity” of one side, creates uncertainty about what is claimed, and this lies at the core of cognitive dissonance. We should note that the presumed innocence of one side has been the biggest obstacle to moving forward, and the biggest obstacle to one side recognizing the victims on the other side. There has been a lot of talk about the victims in the region, but mostly different groups have talked about their own victims. Further, what makes the concept of reconciliation hard to come to grips with is the broadening of the discussion to include issues beyond the facts of the crimes – issues that include consideration of motivations, political dynamics, and so on. I would also like to recall Ignatieff’s words, that the truth and the facts serve to “narrow the range of permissible lies about the past”. So, in a way, if we talk about what is required for reconciliation, I would say that there must be some sort of a cognitive change, the way people think about the crimes, and most notably the crimes committed by their own group and in their name. The issue of reconciliation is highly contextual. What is required from reconciliation will certainly differ across post-conflict areas.

In conclusion, what can I say about reconciliation? It’s interesting that a motif is beginning to emerge in the conversations and presentations that we have had since yesterday. I will quote Borraine, who said: “Reconciliation can’t be a concept that you frame on a wall.” In other words, reconciliation is not something that is static. It is a process. My research suggests that in complex post-conflict environments it does not involve just the opposite sides of the conflict, it has to unfold in parallel within one side – the contestation within a group about the criminal legacy is critical. When scholars talk about the concept of reconciliation, they talk about acknowledgement and forgiveness. Stanley Cohen, who is one of the most fascinating authors to read about the issues of truth, acknowledgement and reconciliation, says that this is nonetheless “a radical way of confronting the past”. Others would offer a more moderate view, by saying that reconciliation is never total. However, even this approach is in tune with the fact that reconciliation is a process. It is never total; it never includes all members of antagonistic parties. There will always be those who will hold on to their entrenched views. It never includes every dimension of reconciliation completely, and probably it never will be fully reciprocal between the parties. But the process of reconciliation also needs to be defined by a steady process of overcoming obstacles, and these obstacles are presented by culture, by race, by religion and by politics. I would also add that it takes place through communication, and come back to the point that I made yesterday concerning the important contributions of communication and deliberation to this process. Hence, all I can say is that there is no simple answer to the question, “What is reconciliation?”, and I would say that the question of what is “good reconciliation” is even harder to answer. What is evident from developments in the Balkans is that this is not a zero sum term. Referring to Galtung, we can say that it is more than coexistence. People can live side by side, but have nothing to do with each other. Thus, it’s clear that something more in terms of collaboration across ethnic lines, or the lines of hurt, is necessary in order to achieve some sense of reconciliation. An important contribution that gatherings such as this can make is to help us understand what reconciliation in this region might be like. Scholarship shows unequivocally that the communities “translate” the concept of reconciliation in their realities differently. For example, in Chile, to seal the process of reconciliation, it was important to flash the names of the victims on a stadium, which would ordinarily show football scores, in a gesture of public acknowledgment of suffering at a place where the abuse was committed. Leaving you without a clear answer as to what reconciliation may mean in the Western Balkans, I would suggest that the very meaning is something worth pursuing, both in view of the present political and other challenges, and in view of the legacy of the range of crimes that occurred here.


 Dr. Denisa Kostovicova is an Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Speech at The Ninth International Forum for Transitional Justice in Post-Yugoslav Countries, May 17-18, 2013, Jahorina, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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