Since the 1990s, the issue of reconciliation has gained such an international salience that the last decade is even widely called "the age of reconciliation."[1] The conventional wisdom is that reconciliation can only begin once peace agreement has ended, at least temporarily, the conflict. However, if one adopts the perspective of conflict transformation, rather than conflict resolution, then reconciliation becomes a crucial part and parcel of conflict transformation. Along that line of thinking, this essay aims to examine how reconciliation can fit into the framework of conflict transformation. For that purpose, the essay is divided into three main sections. First, it briefly discusses the concept of reconciliation and the perspective of conflict transformation. The next section examines the relationship between reconciliation and conflict transformation. Third, the essay suggests how different forms of reconciliation efforts could contribute to transforming intractable conflicts in the world.

Conflict Transformation

The approach of conflict transformation was first proposed by John Paul Lederach as an alternative to the conventional perspective of conflict resolution.[2] Terminological differences aside, there are some basic contrasts between the two approaches. Conflict resolution implies the goal of ending undesired conflicts in a relatively short timeframe, focusing on the content of conflict as something that is disputed and which gives rise to conflict in the first place. Conflict transformation, however, professes the goal of transforming the conflict into something desired in a longer timeframe, focusing not only on the content of the conflict but more importantly on the context and relationship between the actors involved. Compared with the conflict resolution perspective, the crucial innovations of the conflict transformation approach include, therefore, (1) adding to the goal of solving undesired disputes a more important one of building something desired, (2) shifting the focus from issue/content of the conflict onto contextual relationship that underlies the conflict, and (3) expanding the relatively short period of time to deal with the conflict into a longer timeframe.


As there is currently no universally agreed-upon definition of reconciliation, it may mean different things to different people in various contexts. In common parlance, reconciliation means some kind of agreement between disputants or adversaries. The conflict resolution meaning of the term, however, goes deeper than that. It can be argued that reconciliation, at its core, is about restoring the right relationship between people who have been enemies. Reconciliation, as De Gruchy observes, 'implies a fundamental shift in personal, and power relations.'[3]

Reconciliation may become a desired goal in its own merit in divided societies. It may also represent a pragmatic way to deal with profound changes involving past injustices in order to achieve some other desired purposes such as building peace, nurturing democracy, promoting human rights, and delivering justice, among others. Thanks to the great currency that reconciliation has gained recently, there is already a very rich literature on different efforts for reconciliation. They mainly involve truth acknowledgment, reparations, retributive justice, apology, and forgiveness. No single form of reconciliation effort is perfect or satisfactory to all circumstances and parties involved. Sometimes hard choices have to be made in deciding whether one form is preferable to another, depending on the specific and temporal circumstance of each conflict and society.

Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation

From the brief discussion above, one could possibly explore a great overlapping area and high degree of complementarity between the two. These commonalities would serve as a basis to integrate reconciliation into the conflict transformation approach. In fact, in his later book namedThe Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, Lederach himself incorporates many components of reconciliation into his framework for peacebuilding such as public truth telling, restorative justice, "re-storying," and collective healing.[4]

First, reconciliation shares with conflict transformation perspective the same focus on human relationship, rather than on immediate contents or issues that give rise to the conflict. As Lederach observes, reconciliation "is built on and oriented toward the relational aspects of a conflict [...] and create[s] an encounter where people can focus on their relationship."[5]

Second, because reconciliation is mainly concerned about the right relationships between victims and perpetrators, as opposed to immediate issues of injustices, it usually takes a longer time to achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation is never an easy task that awaits a quick solution.

Third, though reconciliation may require different efforts to deal with grievances and injustices in the past, it is very much forward-looking in nature. As argued above, reconciliation also aims at achieving desired purposes in the future such as promoting human rights, fostering democracy, and building the rule of law. Even the definition of reconciliation as restoring the right relationship between people should not be (mis)interpreted as going backward to a pre-conflict situation. Instead, restoration in this reconciliation context can be understood as restoring some transcendental, Platonist concept of justice and right relationship. To reconcile in this sense means to build relationships based on certain norms. This understanding is also a particularly distinctive feature of religious conception of reconciliation. In the secular world, reconciliation as such becomes much like restorative justice.[6] In short, this forward-looking nature of reconciliation well complements the transformation component in the conflict transformation framework.

Fourth, like the conception of change in the conflict transformation perspective, reconciliation can be present and necessarily prescriptive at all personal, relational, structural, and cultural levels. At the personal level, for example, repentance and apology from perpetrators have psychological effects and discourse impacts on the self-perception, thus shaping the identities, of both victims and perpetrators.[7] Apology also serves to build the unity between victims and perpetrators, a change desired in the relational dimension of conflict transformation. At the structural and cultural dimensions, other efforts for reconciliation such as restitution in the forms of negotiated discourse and constructed narrative could contribute to building new cultural mechanism that can handle conflicts.

In sum, the concept of reconciliation can fit into the framework of conflict transformation and has great potential to complement practices for transformational strategies. The next section provides a brief survey of crucial reconciliation efforts and how they could contribute to conflict transformation.

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By Dan Sinh Nguyen Vo


[1] Endnote forthcoming.

[2] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington D.C.: USIP, 1997).

[3] John W. De Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

[4] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 143-7.

[5] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, 30.

[6] Daniel Philpott, "Religion, Reconciliation, and Transitional Justice: The State of the Field," SSRC Working Papers, October 2007.

[7] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 4-8.

Dan Sinh Nguyen Vo holds a BA in international relations from the Institute for International Relations in Hanoi (2003). He worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Home Affairs at the Institute for International Relations under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2006, Sinh has worked at the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City as a teaching assistant and tenure-track lecturer in international relations. He has taught courses in international relations and has contributed to course syllabi in international relations theory, security, and conflict resolution.