Post-Conflict Reconciliation: A Humanitarian Myth?

Fig. 4.1
Approaches to political reconciliation

Facing this plurality of interpretations of reconciliation, two main strategies can be adopted. The first consists in combining them in order to encompass the whole picture of reconciliation efforts. This attitude makes sense particularly if one realizes that each of these conceptions focuses on a specific piece of the puzzle to be understood. Accordingly, the approaches can be conceived as successive stages of a long-term process. It can indeed be argued that in some specific cases, the rapprochement that took place between former adversaries started by a pragmatic deal between parties, leading to common projects and institutions; that these confidence-building measures created conditions for a progressive transformation of relationships; and, lastly, that this process impacted every single individual affected by the violence in one way or another (Fig. 4.2).


Fig. 4.2
Timeline of reconciliation

Framing reconciliation in terms of a timeline is illuminating. However, it rapidly reaches its limits when it is used in a prescriptive way. On the ground, practitioners involved in conflict transformation face major difficulties if they present reconciliation as a “kit for stabilizing peace” (Rosoux 2014). Indeed, how can strict sequencing be pertinent when the phenomenon actually requires a simultaneous change at different levels?

The second way to consider the approaches to reconciliation is to contrast them and to question their respective premises. Does a rapprochement between former adversaries depend more on institutional, psycho-social or spiritual changes? Is each of the approaches totally relevant to the field of international and/or inter-community relations? The advocates of a realist stance denounce the risk of sentimentalizing and depoliticizing the processes, while others claim that a substantial change cannot be imagined in emphasizing only institutional and legal instruments. This debate can be illustrated by the following spectrum between a minimalist conception, according to which reconciliation can actually be synonymous with conflict management, and a maximalist conception, which would support the idea of reconciliation as a transcendent process (Fig. 4.3).


Fig. 4.3
Spectrum between minimalist and maximalist conception

If we keep this spectrum in mind, at least three distinct goals can be emphasized: coexistence, respect and harmony. Some peace builders conceive their objective in terms of coexistence between parties. Their aim is that former enemies live together non-violently, even though they still hate each other. The progress lies in the ability of the parties to comply with the law instead of killing each other. From that viewpoint, they tolerate each other because they have to: they stop fighting each other because it is in their own interests. This modus vivendi is certainly more satisfactory than violent conflict. However, the situation remains explosive. In order to prevent any potential recurrence of the violence, other voices consider that parties should attempt to do more than simply coexist in respecting each other as fellow citizens. In this view, former enemies may continue to strongly disagree and even to be adversaries, but they should be able to enter into a give and take about matters of public policy and progressively build on areas of common concern. This intermediary conception is based on the perception that some mutual interests exist and allow the parties to forge compromises. Last, more robust conceptions of reconciliation conceive a goal in terms of mercy (rather than justice), harmony and shared comprehensive vision (Crocker 1999). The Rwandan case presented in the next section manifests the rapid limits, and the potential detrimental character, of the maximalist approach in the aftermath of grave human rights violations.

4.3 Rwanda: Forgiveness as a Panacea

In Rwanda, between April and July 1994, all Tutsis, from babies to old men, were tracked. The machete also systematically fell on those among the Hutu designated as traitors. Within weeks, unprecedented violence was unleashed. Some Rwandans were forced to kill their spouse or their children. Unthinkable crimes. Unspeakable pain. The genocide was stopped at the time of the military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) on July 18, 1994. In the aftermath of genocide, three million people were forced into exile. They fled into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo where violence continues to this day. The RPF forcibly dismantled the camps of Hutu exiles who they felt continued to pose a threat to Rwandan security. Reports from the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations (UN) and international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Federation of Human Rights (IFDH) and Amnesty International (AI) reported on abuses allegedly committed in these camps by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), military wing of the RPF in 1994. The next year was particularly marked by the massacre of thousands of civilians in the camp of Kibeho.

Prior to 1994, violent episodes regularly broke the peaceful coexistence of the population. Far from being reduced to “collective murderous craze” (Sémelin 2005, p. 248), genocide is part of a historical context that, for decades, ate away at the thick social ties. In 1990, a civil war between government forces and the RPF broke out, itself the remnant of killings and subsequent exile of Tutsis that has repeated itself since independence (1959, 1963, 1965, 1966, and 1973). According to most observers, the seeds of strife were deposited during the colonial period that prioritized and froze in time the socio-economic characteristics of the population into ethnic groups, arbitrarily distinguished. The discourse made by the colonizers, whether pro-Tutsi or pro-Hutu (particularly the case after the so-called social revolution of 1959), gave a systematically biased and stereotypical view of intercommunity relations.

This brief overview makes it possible to take measure of the depth of the memories at the heart of the population. It is within this context that calls for national reconciliation are continuing to multiply in Rwanda. Regardless of whom the appeals are from—whether official authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches or outside observers—all declare the same goal: to (re)build links between two communities torn apart. To do so, many protagonists do not hesitate to explicitly call for forgiveness. In doing so, they show how ambitious their expectations are.

4.3.1 An Official Shift

In Rwanda, after the genocide, the South African case was immediately pointed to as one of the potential models to imitate. Desmond Tutu visited the country a year after the genocide and warned that retributive justice would lead to a vicious circle of reprisals and counter-reprisals. He instead urged Rwandans to move restorative justice forward (Graybill 2002). However, the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, responded that the severity of the crimes—the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and political opponents (one-tenth of the population of Rwanda) implied imperative prosecutions. The option of a TRC was therefore rapidly dismissed. According to Charles Murigande, the former Rwandan minister of transport and telecommunication, Rwandans did not really need truth—“We know who did what. Unlike in South Africa where there were secret death squads – people here know what has happened. So simply telling Rwandans the truth and then giving people amnesty – that would not be very helpful” (quoted by Goodman 1997). Thus, Rwandan authorities chose a different way to deal with their past. Besides the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) established in 1994 to pursue the planners of the genocide, they passed legislation in 1996 authorizing prosecutions in state courts of those who had followed the orders. As Mahmood Mamdani explains: “If South Africa exemplifies the dilemma involved in the pursuit of reconciliation without justice, Rwanda exemplifies the opposite: the pursuit of justice without reconciliation” (1997). The one sentence we heard everywhere at that time was that Rwanda had to erase the culture of impunity that lasted for too long and that was partly at the origin of the genocide.

Yet, in 1999, a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) was set up with a mandate that can be summarized as ‘promoting unity and reconciliation’, most visible through the organization of the Ingando solidarity camps for reintegration and re-education. Six years later, the gacaca courts were installed to prosecute and try the perpetrators of the crime of genocide and other crimes against humanity committed between 1 October 1990 and 31 December 1994. Originally designed for minor offences, the gacaca courts were adapted—with limited success—to handle many thousands of genocidaires. The new gacaca courts were based on participatory justice that uses the wisdom of respected leaders in the community to settle disputes. The principle was to gather the protagonists of the crime (survivors, witnesses, suspects) at the scene of the crimes and discuss what happened, discover the truth, make a list of victims, and designate the guilty.

In this line, a discourse of reconciliation has begun to surface. The shift is such that now every socio-political initiative is framed in terms of reconciliation. Two major reasons can be considered to understand this complete change. First, justice was de facto impossible—the number of people who had to be tried and sentenced was unmanageable (the judiciary system being totally ruined after the genocide). Second, justice was somehow embarrassing since it meant dealing with crimes committed on each side. Without making any slippery comparison between the genocide and what happened in the Congo after 1994, it is hard to deny the responsibility of the Rwandan Patriotic Army regarding the massacres of civilians that succeeded one another. When justice is seen as unrealistic and compromising, reconciliation appears as a legitimate and consensual objective.

As a result, Paul Kagame repeatedly presented reconciliation as a fundamental basis to rebuild the country (5 December 2006). His point went much further than arguing in favour of a structural rapprochement between the components of his nation. His approach to reconciliation is undeniably maximalist. At least two main elements demonstrate it. First, the goal stressed by Paul Kagame is not simply the coexistence of all Rwandan citizens, but rather a form of harmony within the whole society. Second, the Rwandan president put a constant emphasis on the notion of forgiveness. In 2002, he did not hesitate to encourage forgiveness on a national level: “The committed sins have to be repressed and punished, but also forgiven. I invite the perpetrators to show courage and to confess, to repent, and to ask forgiveness” (18 June 2002), and later: “It is important that culprits confess their crimes and ask forgiveness to victims. On the one hand, the confession appeases their conscience, but above all these avowals comfort the survivors who can then learn, even though it is painful, how their close relatives were killed and where their bodies where abandoned” (quoted by Braeckman 2004, p. 417). In April 2006, at the 12th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, Paul Kagame emphasized again the notion of forgiveness in underlining the need to “confront the truth, to tolerate and to forgive for the sake of our future, to give the Rwandans their dignity” (7 April 2006).

Moreover, the notion of forgiveness is not only highlighted in the official speeches made in Rwanda. It is also a core issue of many statements abroad. Thus, in 2010, Paul Kagame addressed the Rwandan diaspora in Brussels in defining the “new Rwanda” as a place for “debate”, “compromise” and “forgiveness” (4 December 2010). The idea is quite similar when the representatives of an association called Unity Is Strength Foundation explained the necessity to “let the world see that the country is different from what is sometimes written in the media” (Belfior 2011). Speaking to the Press after meeting President Paul Kagame, the Dutch director of this association said: “We have been to the north, south, east and west of Rwanda and we have to share that special thing that this country has and bring it across. The process of reconciliation in this country is incredible. There is still a lot to be done, but the country is preparing itself for its future based on unity and forgiveness, a thing that even us Europeans have failed to do. It’s difficult to tell someone who killed your father and mother that you forgive him but this has happened here”.3 These words summarize what we could call a moral lesson to the entire world—and particularly to those who dare criticize the Rwandan regime.

4.3.2 The Peace Builders’ Hope

This official emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness highly resonates with the hope expressed by many practitioners. On the ground, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) organize seminars that specifically tend to lead to forgiveness. Four documentaries are particularly emblematic in this regard: Icyizere Hope, As we forgive, Ingando – when enemies return, and Raindrop over Rwanda.4 These reportages differ from each other, but they all concern the transformation of relationships between survivors and liberated prisoners. All of them confirm in a striking way the interviews made in Washington and in Brussels. Rather than explaining in detail each of these documentaries, it is worth underlining the major common features that characterize them. Five of them constitute what is conceived here as the reconciliation invariant elements.


The films’ directors and the vast majority of the interviewed practitioners share a maximalist conception of reconciliation. In this regard at least, they seem to be in line with the official discourse, considering that “there is no limit to reconciliation” (United States Institute of Peace, Washington, 21 March 2011). The As We Forgive Initiative is presented as an effort “to transform communities by inspiring a grassroots movement of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation nationwide”. The spiritual dimension of the initiative is explicitly mentioned. The foundation of their work is “rooted in the Biblical values of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation based on the teachings of Jesus Christ”. According to them, “authentic transformation” in post-conflict societies can only occur “through the radical decision to repent and forgive”.5 Beside this initiative, numerous religious leaders recommend unconditional forgiveness.

During my interviews, a unique scenario appeared as being both the structuring element and the aim of all narratives: a repentant perpetrator apologizes to a forgiving victim. The question is not if but when. The World Vision workshops are particularly telling as regards this scenario. Believing that reconciliation is a “prerequisite to the development process”, World Vision supports community initiatives that promote “community harmony”. During reconciliation workshops, genocide survivors, released prisoners, students or teachers are given forums to share their stories and, as they explain, learn about “the power of forgiveness”. Among all the stories emphasized by World Vision the story of Alice perfectly corresponds to the invariant scenario of reconciliation.

In 1994, Alice was holding her 9-month-old baby girl, when a mob of soldiers and interahamwe militias came and surrounded the swamp where she was hidden. They were armed with guns and machetes. One of them took her baby out of her hands and killed her. Then, a man named Emmanuel cut off Alice’s hand and slashed her face. She lost consciousness and was eventually rescued by Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) soldiers. Almost 20 years after the genocide, Alice’s memories are still fresh. She has a scar on her jaw and is missing a hand. However, with the help of World Vision workshops, as it is explained, she found the strength to forgive Emmanuel and the men who killed her baby: “In fact, Alice lost 100 members of her extended family, and yet she forgave”. The process is presented as almost miraculous: Emmanuel confessed, took full responsibility for his crimes and attended one of World Vision’s workshops where he met Alice for the first time since the attack. Alice forgave him and they both preach reconciliation in their community. At workshops, Emmanuel and Alice teach that “forgiveness and repentance benefit both the offender and the victim”. The attitude of Alice is presented as absolutely fruitful since World Vision discloses that “after forgiving Emmanuel, Alice and her husband were able to conceive again, and they now have five children”. To sum up the whole story, it is said that Alice “survived the unthinkable, forgave her attackers, and now works to bring peace and reconciliation to her country”.



The encouraged rapprochement is based on a therapeutic conception of reconciliation. The notion of trauma is essential since all the protagonists are described as “traumatized”: survivors of course, perpetrators—depicted as fearful and ashamed, and descendants of both victims and perpetrators. In these conditions, it does not come as a surprise that the whole society requires a form of “authentic healing”. Therefore third parties are perceived as playing a critical role in curing and rescuing the whole society. The documentary As we forgive illustrates particularly well this dynamic. As the film’s director explains: “More and more Rwandans are discovering hope through reconciliation as perpetrators repent of their crimes and survivors find the strength to forgive. Our goal is to play a healing part in that process”.6

One of the consequences of this view is the risk of putting victims and perpetrators on the same level, somehow gathered under a common ‘trauma’ label. As mentioned by the voice-over of the documentary Icyizere, Hope: “They are all more similar than different. They are all, victims and aggressors, suffering from trauma. The most effective way to overcome their trauma is by making an effort to forgive each other”. The argument is similar in the documentary Ingando where a former combatant confirms: “We have to forgive each other, to forget the bad story and be focused on the future”. Thus, the whole picture seems to be reduced to a collective healing process, no matter of the responsibility to take on.



A third major element concerns the outcome of the narrative. Third parties systematically emphasize stories that lead to a happy end. The chosen protagonists overcome a tragic reality. After an initiatory journey, those who were almost broken stand up and move forward. The pattern is similar at the collective level. The finality, which is pursued, is to transform a devastated society into an energetic one. The dynamic allows the passage “from hopelessness to optimism” (Steward 2009, p. 187). The metaphor of the fairy-tale is enlightening in this regard. Interestingly far from the tragic dimension of all post-conflict realities, the depicted horizon is wide and bright. All characters are presented as evolving “beyond violence, beyond fear, beyond anger, beyond vengeance”.7

In the films, this transformation is often incarnated by an enthusiastic Rwandan pupil, born after 1994. In the documentary Ingando, for instance, the selected Rwandan youth express their happiness to live what they call a “new national momentum” in the history of their country. The tone is identical in the film As we forgive, which gives the floor to an optimistic orphan of the genocide: “We are brothers and sisters, there is no ethnic division here. I want to build my country”. Her testimony stresses the importance of forgiveness in presenting it as both a trigger mechanism (“Before I forgave, I felt anger and I felt lonely”) and an inspiring lesson (“People from other countries also need reconciliation. Rwandans forgive each other”). According to the film director, who became the director of the NGO As we forgive, the happy end, which is detectable in the reportage, is currently confirmed on the ground. She indeed announces that more than 90 % of the participants in their workshop qualify the impact of the program as “positive and tangible” in their life (Washington, 25 May 2011). Little explanation was given regarding the surveys that led to this impressive figure. However, the most critical point is probably to convince the audience of the “power of radical reconciliation”.