Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Transition

Mark Simmons, December 2006

Shame is a common theme in politics and a powerful motivator of violence. The Serbs’ humiliation by the Turks in 1389 still informs Serbian hatred of Kosovar Muslim Albanians, and the Québécois motto je me souviens recalls an eighteenth-century French defeat at the hands of the English.

A hoarding near the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan. [Mark Simmons]

A hoarding near the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan. [Mark Simmons]

Responding to Injustice

Humiliation fuels resentment, which in turn fuels a desire for revenge, whose cycle can only be broken by forgiveness. Of the five responses to past injustice (ignoring it, believing it, repaying it, reconciling with it, forgiving it) forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult option, yet it is the one which is most effective in moving from violence to non-violence. This makes it very relevant to post-conflict transition.

Responding to Conflict

The United Nations defines post-conflict transition as ‘the time that exists between a state of national emergency and that of routine national development’. [1] There are four priorities for a successful transition: democratisation, security, justice and reconciliation, and socioeconomic development. The goal is that contexts, structures, issues and people be transformed, so that communities in conflict can build a legal and institutional framework within which non-violent mechanisms can be found for expressing conflict, addressing the past and recognising future needs. I will now examine these four priorities in turn.

The Requirements of Democratisation

Democratisation requires a simultaneous top-down and bottom-up approach which strengthens state institutions and civil society organisations, building social and political structures within which the likelihood of a repeat outbreak of violence is reduced. This process, which if it works is mutually supportive and sustaining, starts with a shared sense of citizenship and a shared notion of the common good.

However, common citizenship is difficult to achieve where the state is an artificial and heterogeneous grouping of competing communities ruled by one of those communities, whose authority is generally not considered legitimate. Such a situation can easily be exploited. When Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party describes the war in Darfur as just a tribal conflict it is not only trying to trivialise the nature and scope of the violence and downplay the extent of its involvement, it is also deliberately fuelling what ethnic divisions already exist. The ‘rebel’ movements adopt a similar tactic to garner support.

In the aftermath of violent conflict, institutions and civil society, as well as the notions of citizenship and a sense of common good, are likely to have been significantly eroded and replaced by a heightened awareness of ‘identity’, such that polarisation is inevitable. An extreme example of this is the Rwandan genocide. The natural response to polarisation, especially in a highly-charged conflict environment, is revenge. The first thought of the Tutsi victim, for example, may be to lash out against a Hutu just for being a Hutu, in revenge for the injustice of the slaughter of his own family simply because they were Tutsi. And so polarisation fuels polarisation in the same way that violence breeds violence. Even when the violence dies down, this could simply be an uneasy truce, the lull before a storm of revenge which by its nature will wreak more havoc than the act which prompted it.

Forgiveness diffuses polarisation in two ways: firstly, by offering an alternative to a cycle of revenge-fuelled violence through a conscious decision to release an individual (or a group of individuals) from the liability for an action (so that revenge is inappropriate), and secondly, by offering a means to recover the individual identity so often lost in the course of ‘indiscriminate’ violence between groups which seek deliberately to dehumanise their enemies.

The Jewish American journalist Laura Blumenfeld tells the powerful story of her journey of revenge against the Palestinian Arab man who shot and wounded her father, during which it became clear (initially to her family, and finally also to her) that forgiveness was the only appropriate response once each side came to see the other as individuals, not as categories and stereotypes. Insert forgiveness, and absent polarisation, and there is a chance that civil society organisations will start to work towards broadly social, rather than broadly political, goals, and governments and citizens alike will start to consider the common good.

The Requirements of Security

One of the frequent criticisms of peace negotiations is that they tend to involve only the warring parties. This is because the immediate priority is always to end the direct violence. By the time a ceasefire has been agreed it seems too late to include non-warring parties and so they are consigned to the implementation process, rendering this process more difficult than it already would have been. As we have seen in Darfur since the signing of a peace agreement in May 2006, a non-warring party at the start of peace talks may not be non-warring by the end, and previous non-combatants can become very effective spoilers. Post-conflict security depends on the consent of all.

Secondly, post-conflict security must address not just the direct violence but also the structural violence (e.g. marginalisation), symbolic violence (involving psychological domination, e.g. rape) and everyday violence (e.g. crime). Once violence becomes embedded in society it leads to a pervasive sense of insecurity which is one of the main causes of all-out conflict.

Forgiveness is a compelling response to such insecurity. It forces us to examine the causes and apparent indiscriminate nature of the insecurity (to account for and to acknowledge the past), to separate the sin from the sinner (such as Nelson Mandela’s stated hatred of the system of apartheid rather than of the people who operated within it), and to empathise with those who are causing the violence. Forgiveness enables those who are emerging from conflict to act more objectively and with a greater sense of the common good. This in turn significantly eases the task of reintegrating ex-combatants, a central part of any ceasefire agreement but one which is often left to flounder in a sea of interpersonal hatred and recrimination.

The Requirements of Justice and of Reconciliation

As a conflict ends and new systems, structures and societies emerge from the ashes, the ‘tension between the moral demands for justice and the political requirements of peace’ [2] will be substantial and palpable. Justice is at the heart of a liberal democracy. It is the means by which our natural urge for revenge is controlled and channelled; it promotes respect for human rights, equality and the rule of law, provides a deterrent against crime, and is the framework within which society operates.

Yet the priorities in a society emerging from conflict are unlikely to be the same as in a liberal democracy, nor should liberal democracies fall into the trap of assuming that they will be or will quickly become so. Basic needs will be more important than rights; equality will be seen in terms of the distribution of resources and power rather than the more distant concepts of equality of rights and opportunities; the rule of law will take time to be properly grounded and may in the interim be guaranteed to some extent by an external peacekeeping force; crime will continue in spasms as society contracts to ‘normalcy’ and those who have been profiting from the war economy seek more legitimate sources of income. And this is an ideal scenario!

Post-conflict justice needs therefore to be conceived more in terms of enabling communities previously engaged in violent conflict to learn to live together again in a way which acknowledges the past, restores present relationships and addresses the future needs of bringing and sustaining positive peace. But justice must also be seen to be done, if the kind of ‘wild’ vigilante justice which swept across post-World War II France is to be avoided.

The difficulty with seeking justice as a solution is that it fails to address emotional needs. Indeed, the judicial process itself is alienating for the victim; the architecture and the language can be intimidating; the cross-examination can be brutal and humiliating; and the focus is on punishing the criminal not restoring the victim, who in the process can easily be made to feel less human.

Key to understanding emotional needs in this context are memory and hope. The victim’s needs in a post-conflict setting are likely to include: having his or her individual dignity recognised; being given an opportunity to tell her story; knowing the truth about what happened, to allow a full and accurate memory; having a public gesture of memory such as a memorial or public holiday; being given space to grieve; receiving some sort of personal – and possibly public – assurance that the conflict is over and the process of rebuilding can begin. The post-conflict reconciliation process must balance the need to keep the memory alive (both to respect the dead and to guard against vengeance and a repetition of history) with the need to live without being chained to the past.

While forgiveness has been criticised for its failure to hold perpetrators accountable for past misdeeds, it does at least allow their victims the freedom not to be controlled by the past and is preferable to the pain of lingering resentment or the dissatisfaction of retribution when it fails to improve the status quo. The secret of its success is that it is a change of heart.

What of the role of forgiveness in reconciliation? Forgiveness does not have to lead to reconciliation, but full reconciliation cannot happen without forgiveness. Forgiveness strengthens each step of the reconciliation process: reconciling oneself to the past (accepting); reconciling the different versions of the past (accounting); reconciling the differences in these versions of the past (bridging contradictions); and reconciling people to each other (relationship-building). Without forgiveness the process of reconciliation will be interrupted in its earlier stages and the relationship will not be restored. A post-conflict reconciliation process must be sensitive to these four stages if it is to give adequate space to forgiveness as well as to the specific aspects of culture, religion, history and personalities which frame it.

The Requirements of Socioeconomic Development

Socioeconomic development is essentially ‘good change’. It is an all-encompassing, self-perpetuating change in which societies and individuals are transformed over time.

Forgiveness helps to meet the human needs which stimulate socioeconomic development, especially equality (by overcoming polarisation and promoting individual self-worth), democratisation (by encouraging a sense of shared history and common future) and security (by reforming relationships so that a culture of trust and peace can emerge). In addition forgiveness can be a helpful component of specific programmes of post-conflict development, particularly education. Both development and forgiveness are processes for positive social change.


Through its impact on relationships and its power to break cycles of violence and revenge, forgiveness is able to transform people and their societies. Because it has an important role to play in each of the four priority areas noted above, forgiveness is particularly relevant in a post-conflict environment in which so much has to be done so quickly to improve social cohesion and demonstrate practical peace dividends.

Mark Simmons is the Research and Programme Manager for Concordis International. See

[1] ‘Good practices from the 2005 UNDAFs’, available to download from

[2] Biggar, Nigel Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice After Civil Conflict (2001), p. 7.

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Category: News and Reviews

December, 2006

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