Interrogating ReconciliationSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact email@example.com for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
What does "reconciliation" really mean? How can societies achieve reconciliation after years of civil strife or authoritarian rule? And perhaps the most fundamental question: when is reconciliation even a desirable goal?
These were some of the questions posed at a fascinating conference called "Interrogating Reconciliation," hosted by the Gaston Z Ortigas Peace Institute and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, August 15-18, 2001. The event enjoyed a wide range of sponsors, including the University of Wisconsin, the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (Argentina) and the Robben Island Museum (South Africa). The University of Michigan was also involved, via a partnership with the University of Wisconsin in a Ford Foundation sponsored project called "Revitalizing Area Studies." Three University of Michigan scholars were on the program: Daniel Rothenberg (an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and a member of the Society of Fellows), Monica Patterson (a graduate student in the Program in History and Anthropology) and myself, Brian Porter (an associate professor in the Department of History). Among the other participants were politicians, human rights activists and scholars from Nigeria, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, Thailand and Ireland.
As a specialist in Polish history, one of the first things I noticed about this impressively diverse gathering was the challenge of translating the conference's theme into the languages and (more) the conceptual categories of all the participants. It became clear during the very first session that "reconciliation" looks quite different when seen from the perspectives of Santiago, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Belfast or Warsaw. It was easy for the participants in this conference to agree that reconciliation was, on a fundamental level, a moral issue. Coming up with concrete moral judgments, however, was much more difficult. The questions were indeed troublesome: When does reconciliation become a means of whitewashing the crimes of the past? When, on the other hand, does the pursuit of justice turn into a cycle of revenge? How can we avoid the pitfalls of both too much reconciliation (so that human rights violations go unpunished) and too little reconciliation (so that old wounds fester, and social peace becomes unattainable)? Not surprisingly, there are no easy answers to these questions.
Among the participants in this conference were two former paramilitary fighters from Northern Ireland: Martin Snoddon and Alistair Little. Both had committed acts of violence in the struggle over Ulster's future, both had been imprisoned because of this and both had become committed activists for peace and non-violence. Each of them stressed the need to avoid stark categories of "us" and "them," "good" and "evil." In any social conflict, they each argued, there are few black-and-white dichotomies, only different shades of gray. Coming to this realization was, for them, the key to overcoming decades of violence and hostility. But also present in Manila was Father Brian Lennon, an Irish Jesuit priest who serves as co-director of a group called "Community Dialogue," which strives to bring together Unionists and Nationalists on the local level. Father Lennon was more hesitant in talking about reconciliation-in fact, he argued that the term had little meaning in Northern Ireland. Given the deep divisions and ingrained hostilities there, one could only speak of dialogue, of a rapprochement that would gradually bring an end to the bloodshed. The actual attainment of any sort of meaningful reconciliation was so far away, he argued, that it was unworthy of discussion at this time. In fact, the mere posing of reconciliation as a goal could only serve to undermine the peace process, because too few of the combatants would be willing or able to find the necessary common ground.
Even more vociferous in criticizing the concept of reconciliation was Elizabeth Lira, a psychotherapist from Chile who councils victims of torture and directs the Latin American Institute of Mental Health and Human Rights in Santiago. In the conference's very first presentation, she argued that the term "reconciliation" had been appropriated (and effectively stripped of meaning) by right-wing defenders of the Pinochet regime. In seeking amnesty for themselves, they claim that national unity would be undermined by any attempt to come to terms with the past. Human rights activists, in contrast, insist that the crimes of the Pinochet regime were so horrendous that justice was now the primary concern. As Dr. Lira pointed out, her patients (who had been brutalized by military and paramilitary forces) could only think about forgiveness if their former jailors would sincerely recognize and apologize for their crimes. But instead, Pinochet and his cronies continue to defend their abuses in the name of the struggle against communism, insisting that their methods had been justified in the context of the Cold War. Other conference participants agreed with Dr. Lira, citing examples of how rightist politicians in the Philippines, Argentina and South Africa have tried to use the process of reconciliation as a means to escape justice. Professor Alfred McCoy, a specialist on Philippine history at the University of Wisconsin, argued forcefully that in cases like these, it was a mere "academic game" to speak of ambiguities and shades of gray. The military under Ferdinand Marcos was guilty of blatant crimes, and social reconciliation could not even be discussed until those criminals were punished. Professor McCoy asked provocatively how a society could hope to move forward after overthrowing an authoritarian regime, if it continued to allow those guilty of torture and plunder to hold positions of power.
These discussions were disorienting to me, as a specialist on Poland. Most of the conference participants seemed to assume that right wing forces were most likely to seek reconciliation after periods of authoritarianism in order to attain amnesty for their crimes, while leftists called for justice and accountability. This is hardly surprising, given that in so many parts of the world during the Cold War, dictatorship, corruption and torture has been justified by evoking the "communist threat." Some participants did point out that various "liberation movements" had also committed abuses, but when faced with the colossal villainy of someone like Ferdinand Marcos or Augusto Pinochet, the misdeeds of rebel groups pale in comparison. In Eastern Europe, however, the debates over reconciliation are ideologically inverted. In Hungary or Poland, it is the right that calls for justice, and the left that searches for ways to transcend (or silence, as their opponents would say) the past. The Manila conference taught me that neither the left nor the right can comfortably generalize about such issues as "coming to terms with the past" or "reconciling in the name of national unity." These issues, in other words, are highly context-specific.
Several participants suggested ways to think more clearly about justice and reconciliation, and to work beyond the specificity of particular localities. Professor McCoy proposed that we distinguish between civil conflicts on the one hand, and the struggle against authoritarianism and colonialism on the other. In the former case, reconciliation could be comfortably posited as a goal, and one could indeed recognize the "shades of gray" discussed by Alistair Little. In the latter case, however, McCoy urged us to prioritize the search for justice. Professor Tongchai Winichakul, a historian from Thailand who teaches at Wisconsin, disagreed, pointing out that one person's civil war might be another person's struggle against tyranny; the dividing line between these two varieties of conflict was by no means clear. Professor Winichakul argued that we should visualize a spectrum, with absolute justice on the one end and full reconciliation on the other. Both ends of that spectrum are unrealistic, he argued. Moreover, it is impossible to generalize which point on that spectrum is ideal. Instead, we must determine in each specific context where to position ourselves on the continuum between justice and reconciliation, and we must recognize that it will always be hard to figure out exactly where we wish to stand.
As with any good conference, "Interrogating Reconciliation" left me with more questions than answers. Nonetheless, the discussions in Manila convinced me that we ought to pose three broad questions as we try to evaluate both the possibility and the desirability of social reconciliation in any specific context:
1) Have the perpetrators of violence recognized both the criminality of their actions and the criminality of their reasoning? When the generals who managed Argentina's "dirty war" claim that their actions were entirely appropriate given the need to resist communism, those who suffered at the hands of the death squads can never-should never-be expected to put the past behind them. This applies equally if the ideologies are reversed: no former prisoner of the Gulag can be asked to forgive an unrepentant Stalinist. On the other hand, if a former member of the security police in South Africa confesses not only that he committed murder, but that the racist ideologies used to justify that murder were wrong, then positive steps have truly been made.
2) Does the scale of the violence preclude social healing? This is a delicate point, because it requires some uncomfortable moral ambiguity. In the case of Poland, the communist regime committed some horrendous crimes (even if we only consider the post-Stalinist era). But the violence of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines or the Pinochet regime in Chile was of a different magnitude, with thousands murdered and countless more beaten or raped. Might it be that reconciliation is at least imaginable in the former case, but unrealistic in the latter? Some of the conference participants suggested that this was the case, that a society might come together after a period of authoritarianism, but only if the level of oppression and violence was limited. Obviously it is impossible to define "limited" without giving attention to the specifics of each location and time. Moreover, one could easily object to this reasoning on the grounds that the political murder of ten people is morally identical to the political murder of 100. In the end, this point may serve only as a description claim-it is, as a practical matter, easier to attain reconciliation when the victims are few in number-while remaining unsatisfactory as a moral claim.
3) Have the political and social institutions genuinely changed in a way that creates space for reconciliation? Our local hosts in Manila suggested that, while much has changed since Marcos was overthrown, much has also remained the same. Institutions of parliamentary democracy are in place, and the press is more or less free, but corruption is still rampant and most of the population remains unbelievably poor (with nearly a quarter of Filipinos earning less than one US dollar per day, and with a per capita GNP less than half that of Poland and barely one tenth that of the US). Many conference participants argued that reconciliation was inconceivable unless some of the root problems of the society were addressed. Put bluntly, can the hungry and homeless be expected to embrace the wealthy, when the social and political structures that generate poverty are still intact?
I expected the discussions in Manila to be primarily about the process of reconciliation, and was somewhat surprised to find that most of the participants were more concerned about the possibility of reconciliation. In no case is it easy for a society emerging from an authoritarian regime or a long civil conflict to restore social harmony, and in many cases it isn't even desirable to try, at least not until the crimes of the past are punished. In a memorable exchange, one conference participant asked rhetorically, "what are the costs of not working towards reconciliation, of allowing social discord to continue?" Another speaker responded, "but what are the costs of seeking reconciliation, if this entails allowing the perpetrators of torture and other human rights violations to remain in public life?" Unfortunately, neither question has an easy answer.
Brian Porter is an associate professor in the History Department at the University of Michigan, where he also serves as director of graduate studies. He is, in addition, director of the Copernicus Endowment for Polish Studies. In 2000 he published a book entitled When Nationalism Began to Hate with Oxford University Press. Porter, along with Monica Patterson and Daniel Rothenberg from the Department of Anthropology and the Society of Fellows, attended the conference "Interrogating Reconciliation" sponsored by the Ford Foundation's Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies project in August in Manila. The article that follows is a revised version of his summary of the conference, originally prepared for a Polish newspaper. The citation for the Polish-language original of this piece is: "Pojednanie - nielatwe rzemioslo," Gazeta Wyborcza (27-28 pazdziernika 2001) . The article by Ms. Patterson follows.