You might end a conflict but you can’t force a settlement


Thania Paffenholz, Director of the Geneva-based Inclusive Peace, has long worked to ensure that an understanding of reconciliation is seen as part of international peacebuilding. She points out that reconciliation is more than just ending conflict. It’s about healing the wounds of individuals and communities, which can take decades.

Thania Paffenholz. She speaks ways from peace to reconciliation.

Tense times keep this experienced and respected peace expert busy. Dr. Paffenholz responds to our request for an interview from Africa, but when the time’s right for our chat she’s already back in Europe.

Inclusive Peace is a think and do tank. As its name implies, it supports peace processes and political reforms by bringing in an inclusive perspective. When building a sustainable society in the aftermath of conflict it’s important to involve a wide range of people.

Paffenholz specifically mentions the importance of reconciliation as part of long-term peace processes. But what does reconciliation mean in this context?

“We should make a distinction between mediation as a tool and reconciliation as an outcome to be pursued. Sometimes people use mediation simply to reach an agreement to get rid of a conflict. But the goal of reconciliation goes deeper, it means finding peace in relation to trauma, healing wounds. And these wounds can be personal, but they can equally affect society as a whole.”

So reconciliation is not achieved in a single negotiation but is built up gradually, sometimes over decades.

Reconciliation can mature as a by-product of everyday life – if the atmosphere is supportive

A broad international perspective and a scholar’s touch are evident in Paffenholz’s account, which is full of illustrative examples from around the world and from different times.

“After the Second World War, Europe went through many reconciliation processes between former enemies. Exchange programmes for young people were set up between the British and the Germans, and so on. Yet, decade after decade, surveys showed that the English had strongly negative images of the Germans. It was only when Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup that the polls reversed and Germans were seen as good people.

I think this is a good example of how reconciliation work can ultimately be about simply getting on with life and working together in everyday life. Reconciliation matures along the way, almost unnoticed.

Paffenholz stresses that the social and political climate creates a crucial precondition for reconciliation processes. In the absence of this support it is hard to promote reconciliation.

“In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much has been done since the Oslo Accords of 1993 to mend relations and strengthen links between the parties. But the conflict still continues. So are all professional attempts at peace-building a failure, or is it something else? I think the conclusion is that when it comes to political conflicts at the international level, reconciliation is only possible if the political leadership supports this goal.”

So people involved in reconciliation processes may feel that there is an increased common understanding, but if they are surrounded by a repetition of enemy images and a conflict narrative, the result is only confusion and conflicting world views.

“Mistakes have been made in the past in this respect, relying too much on the idea that individual encounters are enough to turn things around. But if we want to get it right, we also need to take into account the surrounding context and involve society as a whole.

“If, for example, mediation work is done through schools, teachers and parents should also be involved. Similar conclusions have in fact been reached in areas other than peace work. For example, projects aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy have found that effective results can only be achieved when not only teenage mothers are involved, but also the whole community that supports them.”

A long way from peace to reconciliation

Paffenholz refers several times to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. She points out that people often confuse conflict resolution with peace-building. Negotiating a ceasefire and an end to violence to end the war, only then can the work of peace and reconciliation for the betterment of societies begin.

“Even now, Russian and Ukrainian youth could get along if we brought them together. I believe they could quickly reach a consensus that they do not want war. But that would have no bearing on the current war. Political solutions are needed to end the war.”

Prolonged violence can complicate and delay reconciliation. In such a situation, it is important to recognise that even just talking about reconciliation can do more harm than good.

In Rwanda, following the genocide, people felt that it was impossible to talk about reconciliation after the terrible events. The only thing that could be discussed was living together without violence.

In this way, a peace practitioner can achieve more by not mentioning the goal of reconciliation out loud in various initiatives or projects. Good things can then happen quietly, over time and through living together.

“For example, the establishment of a truth commission to investigate past events may be readily suggested as part of a holistic peacebuilding process. It’s like ‘let’s put this on the list’ to fix society. Sometimes it fits in well with the whole, but there should be no external pressure to do so. For reconciliation to be worth pursuing, people have to be ready for it – sometimes the truths are so brutal that they first have to be distanced from.”

Paffenholz talks at length about the importance of narratives, or cultural stories and ways of talking, in building peace.

“We have to work to change and diversify the narratives around conflict. You have to tell different stories and show that ‘the others’ are also ordinary people, members of someone’s family. This is of course a very long-term activity, but it is a way to improve the social climate.”

When the path to reconciliation opens up, minders are needed

The experienced peace builder will have very realistic ideas about the possibilities and constraints of their work. There are no magic solutions. Sustainable peace requires persistence and broad support from all actors. Timing is of the essence. But how then do we know when the time is ripe for reconciliation work?

Sometimes it can be the smallest thing that triggers a public debate and points to the need for reconciliation.

“In Spain, such a debate was triggered when a lawyer found a way to seek justice for those who had suffered injustice under Franco’s regime. In South Korea, a similar trigger was given by a young man who defected from North Korea, who stood on the street carrying a ‘hug the defector’ sign, videotaped the encounters and shared them on social media.”

The key is that when the path to reconciliation opens up, there are actors who can seize the opportunity and expand the conversation into a process.

The digital struggle for peace messages

Public debate can therefore play an important role in creating a climate conducive to reconciliation. However, Paffenholz complains that the public sphere is much more often part of the problem than part of the solution.

“Social media, in particular, produces enemy images every second and deepens polarisation. This is a huge problem in our industry. As recently as the Arab Spring in 2011, digital brought people together and pushed the revolution forward. Then big states and authoritarian leaders woke up to the need to take control of the digital space. They have invested a huge amount of effort in countering the messages of democracy and reconciliation.”

Paffenholz wonders why peacebuilders could not similarly focus their efforts on the online world.

“All sorts of unnecessary stuff can be marketed around the world. Couldn’t we use the same means to spread peace messages? We need real professionals to support us, not just a couple of days of social media training!”

From the powerful few to the whole of civil society

In the 1990s, it was peace negotiations that were at the heart of professional peacebuilding. Back then, the field was dominated by powerful men who gathered in high-level negotiations to sign agreements.

Since then, the conflicts themselves have become more complex. They involve a wide range of parties, including informal armed groups that may not have an interest in coming to the table. Thus, peace processes also need to involve a wide range of actors.

The desire to involve civil society on a broad scale and to involve women and young people more closely in peace processes, for example, is already reflected in UN resolutions. In practice, this may mean bringing them into the negotiations, but there are also many other ways of listening to and involving them. Paffenholz also mentions the importance of public debate and the various methods of digital communication that the period of the Crown has helped to develop.

But she points out that the ‘old men of substance’ still wield a lot of power.

“Much has changed in the way we think about peace processes and how they are put into practice. But who sits at the table when Ukraine and Russia negotiate? Certainly not civil society! On the other hand, it doesn’t matter much. Anything that ends the war is welcome. What is important, however, is that once that agreement has been reached, more people need to be involved. The whole of Ukraine wants to be involved in deciding its future.

“That is why, for example, in Ethiopia, a huge three-year national dialogue process is now being set up, involving a wide range of actors. And even after that, new reconciliation processes may be needed again.”

Global youth cooperation creates hope

Paffenholz sees both dark clouds and glimmers of light in the future.

“Europe is in a moment of change, and there is more polarisation than reconciliation. All the work that has been done on relations between Europe and Russia since the Second World War is now at risk. Eventually, of course, we will have to find ways to live together again and break the climate of threats, but at the moment the international trend is not particularly conducive to reconciliation work.”

On a more positive note, new movements are emerging from civil society to change the world for the better. The role of young people, for example, is increasingly relevant: they are acting together, as the climate movement has shown.

“They don’t need mediation, because there is no conflict between them! And we don’t need to ‘give them a voice’, because they already have a voice and they use it. If they can’t find their place in the existing structures, they will create new ones themselves.”

Paffenholz believes that these people will be an important resource for peace work in the future, as they will set an example of living together and more conciliatory ways of talking. It generates hope.


By Mikko Hautakangas, media and journalism researcher specialising in mediation.


Dr Thania Paffenholz, Director of Inclusive Peace, is part of the #reconciliation project supporting reconciliation processes in the Horn of Africa, which is part of the international work of the #reconciliation programme.


Translator Mark Waller

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