What is Political Reconciliation?

By Ernesto Verdeja

The death of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 brought renewed attention to the remarkable change in South Africa twenty years earlier, when the racist apartheid regime was finally dismantled and replaced with a democratic and broadly inclusive political order. For South Africans, the end of apartheid brought a host of challenges: how should society reckon with past human rights violations—through prosecutions, amnesties to secure peace, or truth-telling to clarify historical wrongs? What is owed to victims of atrocities, and how should victims’ needs be balanced with the numerous other pressing issues confronting the new democracy, such as fighting poverty and inequality or ensuring that violence would not return?

The challenges faced by South Africa were framed as part of a broader debate over political reconciliation, a debate that has also emerged in Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, as societies across these regions confronted their own histories of violence.

It is remarkable how often calls for reconciliation appear in these contexts. Nevertheless, “reconciliation” is still a highly contested term, with disagreements over its substance, scope and proper relationship to politics. These disagreements over the concept have drawn the attention of scholars interested in how justice and politics intersect, and has proven to be a fertile area of research and practice. Without some clear conception of reconciliation, the argument goes, it is difficult if not impossible to develop adequate policies for dealing with the past or to evaluate the success and failures of current policies. Without a normative standard, in other words, policy implementation and evaluation are impossible. In this blog post, I sketch a few general normative approaches to reconciliation.

In its most general sense reconciliation refers to a condition of nonviolent, mutually acceptable coexistence where former enemies come to re-envision one another as fellow citizens. Reconciliation debates often center on the appropriateness of trials, truth commissions, lustration (purges), official apologies, memorials, reparations, amnesties, and other institutions and policies to address the past. Where violence was between countries (such as between Japan and the Koreas), reconciliation normally refers to reestablishing social, political, and economic relations among erstwhile adversaries (Kwak and Nobles 2013). On occasion, it is misleading to speak of reconciliation, since there is no prior morally acceptable condition to which to return (indeed, South Africa is illustrative—it is hardly the case that relations between white colonists and black Africans were ever particularly just), but the term continues to be used to deal with post-violence relations.

Normative accounts of reconciliation cover a broad spectrum, ranging from minimalist to maximalist versions. For instance, minimalist accounts identify reconciliation with the cessation of overt political violence, respect for the formal rule of law, and a commitment to remain part of the same political community. Scholars working from this perspective emphasize how all political societies are characterized by a plurality of basic values and normative orientations, and thus moral disagreement is a fundamental element of political life. Reconciliation is therefore concerned with reestablishing the minimal conditions of political community while eschewing more substantive calls for mutual forgiveness, social solidarity and “moving on,” which risk becoming coercive toward victims and other marginalized groups (Dwyer 1999; Schaap 2005). A fair number of legally oriented human rights organizations adopt this minimal account as a baseline for evaluating levels of peace and reconciliation. There is, indeed, a lot to say for this account, since it tends to be comparatively easy to operationalize for evaluation purposes, and is a “realistic” standard, in so far as higher levels of social solidarity may appear unreasonable and in any case are often absent even in established and stable democracies. Still, these minimalist accounts are frequently criticized for setting expectations too low; a commitment to lay down one’s weapons for the sake of peace may leave human rights violators untouched and in power, exploitive economic relations intact, and victims’ needs unaddressed.

A somewhat more robust set of accounts can be broadly referred to as “deliberative democratic.” They begin where minimalists leave off, and argue that institutional reform and deliberation over responsibility, collective identity, justice, and reparations can serve as the basis for reconciliation while still respecting diversity and the rights of victims. For deliberativists, public debate is a crucial component of reconciliation; victims of violence and other disparaged groups must be included in debates over historical memory and collective identity as a way of reaffirming basic rights and reintegrating survivors as moral and political equals. This entails a host of supplementary goals, including the critical and public interrogation of ideologies supporting the violence, some accountability for perpetrators, and public recognition and acknowledgement of victims (such as through reparations). Equality and the reintegration of victims, rather than social harmony, is the general aim of these approaches (Dryzek 2005).[1] In my own work, I’ve formulated reconciliation as occurring when the primary conflict-era political identities no longer mobilize political loyalty, and other overlapping identities emerge in their place. The focus is on political and social equality with a special emphasis on the status of victims and survivors (Verdeja 2009).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, often called for a significantly expanded conception of reconciliation (Tutu 2000). His work is typical of what we can term maximalist formulations, where reconciliation is understood as the renewal of social and personal relations through repentance and forgiveness. Heavily influenced by religious ethics, advocates eschew retribution in favor of “restorative justice,” which focuses on restoring relations between victims and perpetrators and the moral transformation of citizens. These approaches pay special attention to the importance of personal transformation and the ways in which religious and other ethical discourses can be employed to promote mercy, compassion, and grace in interpersonal relations. Recent theories have drawn on religious resources to deepen understandings of political transformation (Philpott 2012).

These various approaches generate a host of somewhat different policies and programs: for instance, minimalists may emphasize policies that strengthen the rule of law and the orderly change of political office-holders through elections, whereas deliberativists draw attention to the added need for securing the conditions for historically disparaged groups to participate as equals in politics. Maximalists bring further attention to the need for a fundamental transformation in personal values, with all of the hard, long-term society- and community-level programs that this may entail.  Ultimately, reconciliation efforts are drawn out and often only partially successful, but the continued calls for reconciliation across a wide variety of political contexts point to the demand to respond to a violent past so that it may not be repeated.

[1] Also see Colleen Murphy’s (2010) insightful approach using Amartya Sen’s capabilities theory.


Dwyer, Susan. 1999. “Reconciliation for Realists.” Ethics and International Affairs 31(1).

Dryzek, John. 2005.  “Deliberative Democracy in Divided Societies: Alternatives to Agonism and Analgesia” Political Theory, 33/2(2005) 218-242.

Kwak, Jun-Hyeok and Melissa Nobles (eds.) 2013. Inherited Responsibility and Historical Reconciliation in East Asia. New York: Routledge.

Murphy, Colleen. 2010. A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Philpott, Daniel. 2012. Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schaap, Andrew. 2005 Political Reconciliation. New York: Routledge.

Tutu, Desmond. 2000. No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Image.

Verdeja, Ernesto. 2009. Unchopping a Tree: Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Political Violence. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Trauma and Activism

One response to “What is Political Reconciliation?

  1. Mohammed Ali

    Very good article.


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