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A Menu of Approaches for Reconciliation

Laying the groundwork for reconciliation has several phases:


• Mapping how the conflict developed.

• Identifying the parties that have a stake in the outcome.

• Inquiring about the goals of each party.

• Clarifying the issues (these are often conflicting goals)


Johan Galtung, a Norwegian professor of peace studies, offers a menu of 12 approaches to reconciliation that can be used individually or in combination, depending on the circumstances.[i] He focuses on empowering peace workers to help bring reconciliation among the parties in conflict. Sometimes reviewing this list of options helps people to rise above their limited perspectives and discover a way out of the conflict. Galtung warns that using just one of the approaches is not enough to deal with the complexities of after-violence situations. Instead, a combination of approaches should be designed for each given situation. The various approaches to reconciliation are summarized as follows:


  • Blame the structure or culture: X and Y identify an underlying structure or system that spurred the conflict and join forces against the common problem.


  • Restitution: X has harmed Y; X is conscious of his guilt and Y is conscious of the trauma; X offers reparation and restitution to Y. Sometimes the relationship is direct, and sometimes it goes through an institution, such as an insurance company. This approach works only when the harm is reversible or when a symbolic gesture is acceptable.


  • Apology & Forgiveness: X has harmed Y; X is conscious of his guilt and Y is conscious of the harm. Both are traumatized; X comes to Y offering sincere apologies for the harm, and Y accepts the apologies. This is a double transformation, with both sides making a break from the past. However, it does not necessarily solve the cause of the conflict. When the only alternative is endless retribution, sometimes both sides come to an awakening and become willing to take these steps.


  • Penitence: In a religious approach, X submits to an ultimate being, confesses his wrongdoing, offers acts of penitence, and is absolved from guilt. This approach is limited because it may not change X's behavior or motivate him to offer apologies or restitution to Y.


  • Judicial process: The secular version of penitence includes appearance in court, judgment, punishment, and release. Again, this may not change X's behavior or motivate him to offer apologies or restitution to Y.


  • Karma. According to this viewpoint, all actions are part of interacting chains of causes, so there is always shared responsibility for conflict. Through meditation, participants in the conflict try to come to grips with the forces inside themselves. Externally, conflict is transformed through a round-table dialogue among all participants. This approach can be an excellent point of departure, with its holistic perspective, neutrality, and appeal to dialogue.


  • Truth Commission: All parties in the conflict describe the situation in great detail, getting all the facts straight and establishing cause and effect relationships. This is based on the theory that when we understand people thoroughly, we can find the heart to forgive them. A blank book may be placed in a central location, with everybody invited to contribute to a collective memory by writing in the book. When X's misdeeds are brought to light, he may be shamed into making changes. It is also useful to explore what might have happened if people had made other decisions, and how to avoid the same situation in the future.


  • Re-enactment: All parties participate in reliving the subjective experience of the conflict, but without any violence. Then the parties may switch roles in order to gain insight into other viewpoints. The goal is to arrive at a deeper, more emotional understanding. When scenes are too painful, other people may be called to stand in for the real participants. Sometimes this helps people understand exactly how things began to go wrong.


  • Joint Sorrow: People from opposing sides dress in mourning clothes and sit together in groups of 10 to 20 to grieve for the losses, discuss together how the conflict could have been avoided, explore ideas how to avoid future conflict, and find acts of peace that they can recognize and elaborate. The focus is on healing through joint sorrow, not through self-righteousness or judgment.


  • Joint Reconstruction: After a war, soldiers who destroyed everything in their path could return to sow crops and rebuild the land. Civilians from both sides who were not combatants could help with the rebuilding. If there were numerous parties in the conflict, representatives from each party could be encouraged to participate in the reconstruction. This could take on aspects of a re-enactment.


  • Joint Conflict Resolution: To some extent, diplomats, politicians, and military personnel try to do this. It helps to reflect on the past (what went wrong, and what could have been done instead) and envision the future (what would happen if no sustainable peace can be achieved, and what sustainable peace would look like).


  • Ho'o ponopono: This is a Hawaiian term for a process that can be found in various traditional cultures. Typically, ho'o ponopono incorporates many of the above approaches to reconciliation. One party with a sincere desire to find a good solution invites everyone involved in the development of the conflict to come to a gathering. Relatives and neighbors may also attend, but the maximum workable number in the group is about 20. A wise and respected person who is not involved in the conflict presides. Each person is encouraged to present his or her version of the reason for the conflict, how things developed, and what should be done. The offender is given a chance to explain his or her reasons, which may be accepted even if the actions are unacceptable. The others are invited to state how their actions or inactions contributed to the circumstances. Apologies are offered and accepted, forgiveness is requested and granted. The offender agrees to make amends in some way. The others commit to improving the circumstances to ensure that the conflict does not recur. At the end, an account is written up in a way that is acceptable to everyone present, and the sheet of paper is burned, symbolizing the end to the situation. A feast may be held to celebrate the resolution of the conflict.



The following list suggests how the 12 approaches correlate with the first two steps of restorational conflict resolution: step l (reflection & reorientation) and step 2 (reversal & restitution):


  • Blame the structure or culture - step 1

  • Restitution - step 2

  • Apology & forgiveness - step 2

  • Penitence - steps 1 & 2

  • Judicial process - steps 1 & 2

  • Karma - step 1

  • Truth commission - step 1

  • Re-enactment - step 2

  • Joint sorrow - step I

  • Joint reconstruction - step 2

  • Joint conflict resolution - step I

  • Ho'o ponopono - steps 1 & 2


It is hard to predict which approach or approaches are most likely to lead to reconciliation in any given situation. The challenge of the peace worker is to gain a deep understanding of the people and circumstances and to persuade people to try an approach. “Reconciliation is a theme with deep psychological, sociological, theological, philosophical, and profoundly human roots -- and nobody really knows how to do it.”[ii] This is Galtung's conclusion. He cites some notable successes achieved by coming up with a compelling vision that transcends the circumstances and enables the parties to rise above their conflict. For instance, decades of border wars between Ecuador and Peru were resolved when he proposed transforming the disputed territory into a bi-national natural park, administered jointly by both nations.




[i] Galtung, Johan, "After Violence: 3R, Reconstruction. Reconciliation, Resolution, Coping with Visible and Invisible Effects of War and Violence,” TRANSCEND, 1998, pp. 64·91. 


[ii] Ibid. p. 64

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