Just and Unjust Peace:

Reconciliation and the pursuit of peace

posted by Alex Bellamy

Today, at the beginning of 2013, the world is confronted by a bewildering array of protracted and new armed conflicts: Syria, Gaza, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Myanmar, Mali, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Libya are just a few of the many parts of the world wracked by violent conflict. And, although some of the rhetoric about the burden of civilian suffering compared to military casualties in these so-called “new wars” may have been overblown (not least because civilians have always paid a heavy cost in war), there is little doubting that non-combatants remain firmly in the firing line. The injustices of war are legion and extend to killing, torture, mutilation, sexual and gender based violence and abuse, forced displacement, and much else. For all that the world’s governments proclaim their commitment to the protection of civilians of armed conflict, and for all the writings on the moral and legal constraints introduced over the past three millennia or so, war always produces more than its fair share of injustice. Even “good wars” produce injustice: recall A. C. Grayling’s withering dissection of allied terror bombing in Germany during the Second World War.

Not without reason, then, Daniel Philpott starts from the assumption that war leaves behind wounds of injustice. These are not just physical bodily wounds—though they are paramount—but are wounds in the form of violations of human rights, wounds of ignorance about the source and circumstance of injustice, wounds derived from lack of acknowledgement, and what Philpott describes as “the standing victory of the wrongdoer’s political injustice.” Taking a somewhat Kantian line, Philpott notes that wrongdoers are also themselves wounded by their acts, a view that also finds strong resonance in the religious traditions that he examines.. Their wrongdoing creates a moral sickness that inhibits fulfilment and happiness. As Philpott reminds us, the technology of the gas chamber was first developed as a way of saving German firing squads from the trauma caused by their deeds.

When all the wounds of war and oppression are taken into account, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many peace processes—as many as half by some calculations—are doomed to fail. Sometimes, the victory of the wrongdoer is allowed to stand. Those, who like I, have visited post-war Srebrenica understand the palpable sense of injustice felt by the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of the more than 7,600 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were massacred when that town was “ethnically cleansed.” Today, Srebrenica is an almost 100% Serbian town. The victory of injustice was allowed to stand. Other times, victims of rights abuse may resent the absence of acknowledgement or reparation; perpetrators may be reluctant to acknowledge their wrongs or relinquish their gains. Whatever the precise nature of the tension, the social bonds and contracts that knit societies together will have been destroyed; trust broken; resentment amassed. No matter how much effort and how many resources are dedicated to the rebuilding of institutions, infrastructure and homes, peace is unlikely to be durable unless it rests on the firm foundation of genuine reconciliation. This is why Just and Unjust Peace is such a welcome, and important, read. It makes both a well-reasoned argument in favor of a politics of reconciliation in the face of war and oppression and sets out six principal methods for achieving that goal: building socially just institutions, acknowledgement of past wrongs by the perpetrators, reparations, punishment, apology, and forgiveness.

At its heart, this book is a passionate and compelling defense of political reconciliation written in the spirit of some of the great peacemakers of our time. Desmond Tutu and some of the controversies he has aroused is a frequent point of reference, but the tenor of the book also reminds us of the logic behind Ramos Horta’s decision to privilege the normalizing of relations with Jakarta above retribution and punishment after the bloodshed in East Timor. The central points—and the tools for restoring societies to balance—will be familiar to students of peace studies. Mark Amstutz’s work on political forgiveness springs to mind. But what this book adds—brilliantly to my mind—is a deep and well-argued account of why communities, states and international organizations should pursue this path, and an account firmly rooted in political philosophy and religious tradition.

Naturally, there are points that could be quibbled with in terms of the logic of some of Philpott’s argument. As other reviewers have pointed out, reconciliation is not necessarily a prerequisite to peace—if we understand that term to mean “the absence of war.” There are plenty of cases where peace has prevailed without reconciliation. North and South Korea, Japan and Russia, and Bosnia are conflicts where there has been little evidence of reconciliation of the sort espoused by Philpott but also no resumption of armed conflict—yet. However, I am less worried than others about this possibility because whilst what Johan Galtung described as “negative peace” (i.e. the absence of war) may prevail without reconciliation, “positive peace” (i.e. the absence of fear, the fulfilment of human rights) almost never will. Without reconciliation and the forging of positive peace, communities will always be wary, always insecure, always unsatisfied and—for the utilitarians among us—will always misdirect precious resources and energies away from productive and fulfilling activities and towards their own protection from future threats. As scholars in International Relations know only too well, this can in turn create “security dilemmas” in which one group’s preparations for self-defense appear aggressive to another, sparking that group to step up its own preparations. Herein lies one of the ways in which negative peace can degenerate back into violent conflict. What is more, peace without reconciliation is much easier when the unreconciled parties have an international boundary or ocean between them. Where the lines of dispute are communal and fuzzy, as they often are in the aftermath of civil war (by far the most common kind of war today), the day-to-day necessities of engagement make reconciliation all the more pressing.

Another source of criticism has been that Philpott grounds his ethic of reconciliation in three major religious traditions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—and a secular ethic he describes as the “liberal peace.” The cornerstones of the politics of reconciliation he sets out are derived from what Philpott claims to be an “overlapping consensus” across these traditions. Of course, though, this remains a decidedly partial account of justice principles, none of which originate from Africa for example. This problem worries me less than it worries others primarily because most of the ethical traditions I’m familiar with embrace most of the values that Philpott includes within his account of reconciliation and because Philpott himself acknowledges two key caveats to his argument—that reconciliation will never be complete or perfect and that the precise form that it takes should differ according to the context. Philpott is right, in my view, to recognize that religious traditions have ethical content that can be useful to reconciliation. We need to recognize, however, that the application of religious arguments and concepts may be more helpful in some circumstances than in others, and that Philpott’s own reading of the essential aspects of those traditions is itself partial and downplays elements that are antithetical to reconciliation. As Norwegian diplomats engaged in the Oslo peace process in the Middle East would attest, contested claims to ownership over sacred sites rooted in a theological epistemology that knows no compromise are one of the few utterly impenetrable obstacles to reconciliation.

Yet these strike me as issues that present themselves in particular contexts. Of course—as Philpott acknowledges—the politics of reconciliation must make sense in the time and place in which it occurs; it must be rooted in the locale. Tutu’s use of religion during his time as chair as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was right in that time and place. It was right, precisely because it was Tutu. It may not be right in other settings. Whatever the configuration, however, it is clear that the politics of reconciliation should be front and center of any attempt at building peace in the aftermath of war and grave injustice.

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