International Relations Reconciliation
Kora Andrieu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0148


“Reconciliation = closure + healing” wrote Johan Galtung. If reconciliation could indeed be reduced to an equation, there would be little debate regarding what should be done to promote it in postconflict situations. On the contrary, it seems that there is little consensus on what “reconciliation” actually means. One of the reasons for this lack of conceptual clarity is that reconciliation is both a goal and a process, which can happen in various contexts (between husband and wife, offender and victims, friends, communities, or nations). Philosophically, the concept of reconciliation is highly controversial too. According to Marx, it was a conservative term, coined by Hegel as a way to dissolve social conflicts in the interest of the State. The concept of reconciliation has also been accused of being illiberal in that it promotes an ideal of political harmony that denies the fundamental pluralism of modern societies (Garton Ash). Reconciliation is thus accused of being apolitical. It is also problematic in that it implies that there is a form of prior harmony to return too, when too often, such a state never existed. Some scholars therefore argue that one should talk more of “conciliation” than “re-conciliation” (Nagy, Moon, Dwyer). Others say that reconciliation is an abandonment of justice and an invitation to political apathy and resignation in front of justice (Mamdani). However, the term also has a deep religious content and is often viewed in a thick, normative way (Lederach) as describing a form of friendship, harmony, or healing. At the other end of the spectrum, scholars have tried to empty the concept of reconciliation from any moral connotations and to consider it in a purely objective, neutral way (e.g., Eisikovits). The problem with such a conception is that it ignores the deeply personal, intimate, and complex nature of reconciliation. Reconciliation thus becomes a simple modus vivendi, a “departure from violence” (Borneman), and a way to coexist without the reconciling parties necessarily interacting or forgiving one another. It therefore appears that an adequate conception of reconciliation must concentrate on expectations of citizens and officials, on their attitudes, and on the way institutions structure political relations. It must therefore capture both the institutional and the interpersonal characters of political interaction. The works included this bibliography mostly focus on political reconciliation at the level of nations and communities, more precisely after a systematic and widespread violation of human rights. To reflect these debates, it is divided according to the types of definition: thick, or thin; religious, or political; and institutional, judicial, restorative, or therapeutic. As a part of the process of rebuilding political relationships, reconciliation is, in either case, vital for the process of democratization and appears to involve both attitudinal, interpersonal, and institutional changes.

General Overviews

The works listed in this first section present the notion of reconciliation from various perspectives and methodologies: while Bloomfield, et al. 2003 is a practical, field-oriented analysis of the term and Prager and Govier 2003 presents specific case studies, Murphy 2010 and Schaap 2005 present more conceptual and philosophical reflections on reconciliation, and Lefranc 2006 is from a sociological, Bourdieusian perspective. Together, these works provide a wide overview of the range of issues raised by promoting and understanding reconciliation in post-conflict contexts. Hamber and van der Merwe 1998 brings these various perspectives together and applies them to the South African case.

  • Hamber, Brandon, and Hugo van der Merwe. “What Is This Thing Called Reconciliation?” Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Reconciliation in Review 1.1 (1998).

    This short article seeks to clarify the concept of reconciliation in the South African context. It distinguishes an understanding of reconciliation as the dissolving of racial identities and racist attitudes into the model of the “Rainbow Nation”; an intercommunal understanding of reconciliation as bridging the divisions of the past; a religious ideology of confession and repentance; the regulation of social interaction through the rule of law; and, finally, reconciliation as coexistence and tolerance.

  • Bloomfield, David, Teresa Barnes, and Luc Huyse, eds. Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm: International IDEA, 2003.

    Placing the goal of reconciliation within the larger process of democratization, this handbook offers ways of promoting it, always considering reconciliation more as a process than as a goal. Analyzing consecutively the people, the context, and the institutions, it provides an interesting and comprehensive look at the complex challenges and possibilities of reconciliation in transitional context. Available online.

  • Lefranc, Sandrine. Après le conflit, la réconciliation? Paris: Michel Houdiard, 2006.

    This book is a collection of articles written on politics of reconciliation and forgiveness, written from a sociological perspective. Both case studies (East Timor, Morocco . . .) and theoretical analysis are critical of the actors that promote the ideal of reconciliation and consider it as a pragmatic way to avoid the “normal” process of the rule of law: reconciliation, they say, is impunity in disguise.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511761652

    This book is rooted in Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach and provides a deep and comprehensive philosophical analysis of the concept of political reconciliation as the process of rebuilding mutual relationships based on trust and reciprocity. This entails, the author says, rebuilding the rule of law and political trust, but also promoting capabilities.

  • Prager, Carol A. L., and Trudy Govier, eds. Dilemmas of Reconciliation: Cases and Concepts. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003.

    This collective book is written on reconciliation from the perspective of sociology, philosophy, psychology, and history, with case studies from Rwanda, Cambodia, the Third Reich, South Africa, and Canada. It also contains theoretical analysis, including one by David Crocker, who tries to build a normative theory of reconciliation, and one by Susan Dwyer on a narrative understanding of the term.

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

    This book seeks to rehabilitate the concept of reconciliation as politics, following a Gramscian methodology of critique, and examines the notion within contemporary debates in political theory. The author refutes the idea that reconciliation is ideological, in that it presupposes a comprehensive conception of community, and defines reconciliation as conditioned by both consensus and violence. He thereby defends an agonistic rather than a restorative understanding of political reconciliation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.