Associate Professor of Political Science
Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
University of Notre Dame
Reconciliation: An Ethic for a Policy of Peacebuilding
Daniel Philpott pursues interests in international relations and political philosophy. His current research revolves around the topic of reconciliation. In particular, he is looking at transitional justice, the question of how societies address past injustices, seeking to balance truth, justice, reconciliation, and stability. Currently, he is on sabbatical as a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where he is writing a book on the subject. He is also collaborating on a major study of global religion and politics based at Harvard University, focusing on religion's impact on democratization, transitional justice, and violence. A Senior Associate at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, he travels regularly to Kashmir, where he trains leaders in faith-based diplomacy, an activist dimension of his scholarly interests. His first book, published in 2001, is Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton University Press), a historical account of how new ideas about justice and legitimate authority fashioned the global sovereign states system. Reflecting his interests in political theory and ethics and international relations, he has also written on the morality of self-determination and on religious freedom as an end of American foreign policy. He has published articles in World Politics, Ethics, Political Studies, The Journal of International Affairs, and The National Interest, and has held fellowships at Harvard University, Princeton University, and the Erasmus Institute at Notre Dame.
Abstract: Reconciliation: An Ethic for a Policy of Peacebuilding
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has encountered its thorniest troubles in its efforts to build peace in societies sundered by conflict--a dilemma far more difficult than military victory itself. Yet, Christian ethicists, including just war theorists, have offered no systematic ethic for how to address past political evils in order to establish a more just future regime. Holding promise for such an ethic is a concept that comes from the crux of the Christian tradition and now resurfaces in political transitions and their surrounding conversations all over the globe: reconciliation. In my paper, I will seek to outline the central features of an ethic of reconciliation and offer some insights for its application to U.S. foreign policy. Theologically, though it echoes the just war tradition in drawing from natural law, its central source is God's own atoning action, from which it derives a restorative ethic whose key virtue is mercy, classically understood as the will to assist one in grief or distress. It is then translated into six practices for political orders: acknowledgment, reparations, restorative punishment, apology, forgiveness, and building just institutions. What results is a conception of justice that includes but exceeds traditional concerns of justice like accountability and the restoration of human rights. Were it incorporated into American foreign policy, reconciliation would result in a far more restorative approach towards countries whose political future American tries to influence and in greater cooperation with other organizations who themselves proffer a restorative approach.
Reconciliation: An Ethic for a Policy of Peacebuilding
Peacebuilding and Foreign Policy
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has encountered its thorniest troubles in its efforts to build peace in societies sundered by conflict. The problem has proved far more difficult than military victory itself. The Clinton Administration's worst foreign policy disaster--in Somalia--came not in securing the delivery of relief supplies, but in seeking to build state institutions afterwards. The knottiest dilemmas of President George W. Bush have arisen in trying to secure order after military victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unsurprising, then, that in late 2005, the Department of Defense raised post-conflict reconstruction operations to a "core mission," or that the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the United Nations have performed similar elevations. The global struggle against terrorism lends peacebuilding still more urgency as policymakers conclude that riven societies are terror's most fertile incubators.
A good part of peacebuilding is concrete and practical: quelling insurgency, resettling refugees, rebuilding infrastructure, establishing the rule of law, training soldiers and police. Lurking just behind, even exacerbating, the operational, though, is the problem of justice. Inhabitants of the ruins themselves voice it. Some demand the punishment of human rights violators, or simply revenge upon their enemies. Some demand reparations. Others insist that at least the truth about the past be told. Some speak of apologies and forgiveness. Some complain that a given peace settlement betrays a just rebellion or movement for autonomy. A failure to address demands for justice will deprive peace settlements of legitimacy and encourage opponents to undermine them. But addressing justice first requires assessing justice. And for that, we need an ethic.
Outline of a Christian Ethic: Reconciliation
Ethicists in the Christian tradition, or in any tradition, have only begun to think about what is often called transitional justice: how to address past political evils in order to establish a more just future regime. So far, they have developed nothing resembling the just war tradition, with its sophisticated criteria for jus ad bellum and jus in bello, its ingenious combination of philosophical grounding and concrete guidelines, and its success in becoming incorporated into international law, national military academies, and other institutions. An ethic of transitional justice would be not only analogous, but actually supplementary, to the just war ethic. While pioneers of the ethic like Augustine and Aquinas insisted that a just peace is the purpose of a just war, the tradition still lacks rich moral guidelines for securing peace during the important period after the fighting has stopped--a jus post bellum.
Holding promise for such an ethic is a concept that comes from the crux of the Christian tradition and now resurfaces in political transitions and their surrounding conversations all over the globe: reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pope John Paul II gave the concept special prominence; other church leaders have advocated it, too. Often it arises in the context of truth commissions, as in South Africa, Chile, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Peru, and elsewhere. Even in Iraq, respectable voices have proffered it, including Prime Minister al-Maliki. It has entered the writings of scholars in several fields.
But reconciliation has as many critics as it does advocates, differing not only in viewpoint, but in the very definition of the concept. Theologians think of it comprehensively, often leaving its meaning for politics unclear. Critics react by limiting political transitions to establishing the rule of law, some of them calling this "thin reconciliation." Others are sceptical of reconciliation altogether, preferring retributivist or consequentialist approaches.
My own conception, drawn from a book-in-progress, is rooted in Christian theology yet translated into a political ethic. But its scope is wider than thin reconciliation, involving transformations of judgment--resentment, withdrawal, revenge, ethnic hatred--that arise from memories of injustices and threaten to undermine a just peace. Theologically, though it echoes the just war tradition in drawing from natural law, its central source is God's own atoning action, from which it derives a restorative ethic whose key virtue is mercy, classically understood as the will to assist one in grief or distress.
Reconciliation is then instantiated through a series of six political practices. First is the acknowledgment of victims' wounds--often the work of truth commissions. Second, reparations communicate this acknowledgment materially. Third is accountability. Reconciliation does not reject punishment or imprisonment for egregious violators of human rights, but also envisions creative forms of accountability that encourage restoration not only for offenders, but also for victims and community members. The fourth practice is apology, both collective and individual. The most controversial and politically innovative practice is the fifth one, forgiveness. Finally, reconciliation involves building socially just institutions, a large topic that I explore only insofar as it involves balancing with the other practices. Each practice contains ethical dilemmas that call for the development of attendant ethical norms.
Practical Consequences of The Ethic
Whether an ethic of reconciliation, or any ethic of peacebuilding, will ever achieve the success of the just war tradition in becoming institutionalized in law and policy is difficult to say and would surely depend on the efforts of a community of scholars and practitioners. Less speculatively: how might American policymakers proceed differently were they to incorporate reconciliation into their thinking?
Much depends on context. American involvement in sundered societies ranges from large scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to long term peacebuilding operations, as in Bosnia, to the diverse set of policies that affect the political fate of societies across the world, including foreign aid, development and trade policy, and public diplomacy. Applied across these contexts, reconciliation has two major implications for action.
First, U.S. policy in post-conflict societies would be far more broadly restorative, supporting not only stable and democratic institutions and war crimes trials, as is its custom, but also a range of practices of reconciliation: investigations of mass crimes (beyond what trials can do), the testimony of victims, national public reports of historical injustices, reparations for lost property and other forms of suffering, forums and initiatives that encourage apology and forgiveness, and other measures that assuage historical wounds.
Second, the U.S. would be willing to collaborate with other organizations. Credibility--and often America's very role in a society's conflict--will often demand that local governments lead these initiatives. Impartiality may well require that international organizations like the United Nations be involved. Expertise might come from non-governmental organizations like the International Center for Transitional Justice. Such organizations, the U.S. might sometimes cooperate with actively, but other times will support only politically or financially. Choices such as this underscore that reconciliation is not just an ethic, but also a skill, not merely a theory, but also an art.
© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College.
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