The Role of Forgiveness in the Pursuit of Authentic Reconciliation

Why it is necessary

(From Dr. Sarah Larsen ®).

Reconciliation is popularly cited as one of the main goals of transitional justice, as it is fundamental for the development of an enduring harmonious environment. Nonetheless, although desired in a widespread fashion, attaining true reconciliation is indeed quite challenging. The difficulty lies in the fact that genuine reconciliation requires the presence of authentic forgiveness, which — following an extensive campaign of hatred and violence — is more often than not an eluding element (Clark). Thus, it is my belief that reconciliation after mass atrocities is indeed predicated on forgiveness; personally, I see no other way to attain true, honest reconciliation but through the fomentation of forgiveness. As mentioned above, reconciliation is usually one of the key goals of transitional justice; thus — due to the pivotal role that forgiveness plays in the development of authentic reconciliation — it is only fair to categorize forgiveness as a high-standing element in the hierarchy of the goals of transitional justice.

Genuine reconciliation is predicated on the proliferation of forgiveness; there are no other methods for attaining true reconciliation. To evidence the flaws of reconciliation efforts that are not predicated on forgiveness, consider the case of Rwanda: there are those who argue that Rwandans — following the genocide of 1994 — have reconciled properly, as Hutu génocidaires and survivors are once again living side-by-side (Neuffer, p. 399). Unfortunately, such an evaluation is too simplistic, and fails to address the essence of the Rwandan “reconciliation”. Rwandans — in my opinion — have not achieved genuine reconciliation, but rather simply coexist due to the lack of authentic forgiveness between perpetrators and victims.

Rwanda poses an interesting case study, as — unlike other environments we have considered — the government apparatus imposed the mantle of reconciliation upon the general populace; in other words, reconciliation in Rwanda is an affair — a mandate if you wish — of the bureaucracy, rather than of the citizenry (Neuffer, p. 399). The Rwandan government has valid reasons for why it decided to pursue a state-imposed reconciliation; not only is such a measure implementable in the short-term, but it would also prevent the outbreak of further violence, amongst other positive elements. However, the establishment of a government-imposed reconciliation program artificializes the citizens’ fence-mending, as their reconciliation is based not on genuine forgiveness but rather on a state-formulated indoctrination.

As a result of its inability to foment genuine forgiveness, Rwanda is by no means reconciled. Some may argue that the government-developed tribunal program of gacaca — which basically constitutes a local confessionary endeavor — has promulgated forgiveness; what their assessment lacks is the ability to identify the nature of said “forgiveness”. As argued by a Tutsi survivor, “All this reconciliation and the confessions — that’s the program of the state. And when a killer comes and asks your pardon you can’t do anything else. You pardon him, but you don’t really know if it comes from your heart, because you don’t really know about the killer — if he is asking forgiveness from his heart” (Gourevitch). The perceived theatricality of the gacaca trials — in the eyes of the genocide survivors — undermines the possibility for authentic reconciliation. Tensions amongst opposing factions remain high, as the process of asking for “forgiveness” was fostered by a direct Presidential order, and not from the hearts of génocidaires; consequentially, victims remain fearful, to the point that “at home, at night, when I think of it [meeting génocidaires] I’m afraid. It’s the situation of the whole country” (Gourevitch).

Rwanda’s reconciliation endeavor is predicated not on forgiveness, but rather on the state’s program. Specifically, one could argue that the country has avoided further turmoil due to the role played by President Paul Kagame. Kagame has instituted reconciliation as an obligation of the citizenry, arguing that it is fundamental for the health of the state. Clearly, what Kagame “required politically was emotionally incomprehensible”, which is why the “President’s idea of the common good” continues to hang in the balance, and the entire stability of the state with it (Gourevitch). Victims are not willing to reconcile with the génocidaires, but rather consent to a mere coexistence because it is their obligation to do so. As expressed to Kagame by a survivor, “Well President, I manage because you ask us to manage” (Gourevitch). Unfortunately, “managing” is by no means a sign of true reconciliation, but rather a symptom of a fragile coexistence. The country’s frail existence is best summarized by a survivor’s assessment: “If he [Kagame] were not there, we would all be killed” (Gourevitch).

Evidently — twenty years on from the genocide — Rwanda has not achieved reconciliation. The country’s route towards said goal has been based upon a governmental (and thereby artificial) program of coexistence, avoiding the pursuit of genuine forgiveness. Although I understand the reasons behind Kagame’s seeming dismissal of forgiveness — as the state-imposed reconciliation is much easier to implement and has prevented further violent outbreaks — I believe that the lack of authentic forgiveness has hampered Rwanda’s reconciliatory endeavors. Rwanda’s muddled results in terms of its reconciliatory progress proves that authentic reconciliation after mass atrocities is indeed predicated upon forgiveness, and cannot be achieved through any other avenue.

The case in Bosnia offers parallel conclusions to that of Rwanda’s. Bosnia’s inability to enroll in the pursuit of forgiveness — and thus, its lacking reconciliation — stems from the promulgation of the flawed Dayton Agreement (Ahmetasevic). In Bosnia, reconciliatory efforts were predicated not on forgiveness, but on the role of the international community in “leading” the country back to prosperity (Ahmetasevic). The plan — which has been irresponsibly extended from its originally-intended ad hoc nature — has incited the “problem of competing truths within the former Yugoslavia” (Clark); by literally demarcating the ethnic divisions in Bosnia, the Dayton Agreement has motivated the general populace to cling to their respective ethnic truths, thereby hampering the formulation of a universally-acknowledged truth. A universally-acknowledged truth is a must for the propagation of forgiveness; indeed, how can one who’s “fixated on the suffering inflicted on — rather than by — their own ethnic group” possibly forgive (Clark)? Consequentially, although the Dayton Accords stopped the fighting, there “has not been the repair and restoration of relationships that is such a key element of reconciliation” (Clark); Bosnia’s citizens simply live under the notion of suživot (coexistence), creating a fragile peace. As expressed by a Bosnian citizen, “The bottom line is that the war never stopped… It just changed form” (Ahmetasevic). The “war” in Bosnia will cease to exist only until reconciliation amongst all ethnic parties is achieved; for such a reconciliation to occur, forgiveness must prosper first. The international community’s Dayton Agreement — rather than fomenting the pursuit of authentic reconciliation — simply froze the conflict in place. Dayton’s failure to secure reconciliation proves that — as in the case of Rwanda — authentic reconciliation is predicated on forgiveness, and cannot be achieved through any other means (be they the intervention of the international community or otherwise).

The flaws of the Rwandan state-imposed reconciliation methodology — in addition to the continuation of tensions in Bosnia — manifest the importance of pursuing authentic forgiveness. It is my belief that there exists a degree of correlation — possibly even of causation — between the lack of true forgiveness found in both Bosnia and Rwanda and the fragile state of affairs in said environments. Thus, due to its critical role in the attainment of genuine reconciliation, the proliferation of forgiveness must certainly be ranked highly in the hierarchy of the goals of transitional justice.

In brief, the case studies of Rwanda and Bosnia illustrate the inseparable link betwixt authentic reconciliation and the propagation of genuine forgiveness. Both Rwanda and Bosnia — due to their lack of true, citizen-based, forgiveness — have not been able to achieve major strides in their respective pursuits of authentic reconciliation. Thus, it is clear that reconciliation after mass atrocities must be predicated on forgiveness, and cannot be achieved through any other means. Moreover, since achieving authentic reconciliation is such a critical element for the establishment of a harmonious and prosperous environment, and because forgiveness plays a vital role for the attainment of the former, it is only fair to categorize the pursuit of forgiveness as a critical goal of transitional justice.


Ahmetasevic, Nidzara. “Bosnia’s Unending War”. The New Yorker. 04 November 2015. Web.

Clark, Janine N. “The ICTY and the Challenges of Reconciliation in the Former Yugoslavia”. E-International Relations. 23 January 2012. Web.

Gourevitch, Philip. “The Life After”. The New Yorker. 04 May 2009. Web.