This book offers a new and critical perspective on the global reconciliation technology by highlighting its contingent and highly political character as an authoritative practice of post-conflict peacebuilding. After retracing the emergence of the reconciliation discourse from South Africa to the global level, the book demonstrates how implementing reconciliation in post-conflict societies is a highly political practice which entails potentially undesirable consequences for the post-conflict societies to which it is deployed. Inquiring into the example of Sierra Leone, the book shows how the reconciliation discourse brings about the marginalization and neutralization of political claims and identities of local populations by producing these societies as being composed of the ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ of past human rights violations which are first and foremost in need of reconciliation and healing.
The global reconciliation discourse and its local performance
Chapter 5 moves from the global to the local level and explores how the global constructions of reconciliation are brought to a local post-conflict situation and how they perform there. Focusing on the example of Sierra Leone, the chapter shows how the activities of global reconciliation agents were crucial for shaping the local reconciliation process according to the global standards, despite some local resistance. Once the global constructions shaped the local understanding of reconciliation, the reconciliation discourse performed by producing a particular ‘reconciliation reality’ in the country. The reconciliation discourse constructed Sierra Leone’s post-war society as the ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ of past human rights violations, which are in need of reconciliation and healing. This re-interpretation must not be understood as a neutral or innocent process, however. Rather, the reconciliation discourse thereby overwrote and neutralized the polarized identities that had emerged from the narrative on the civil war, such as ‘rebel’, ‘soldier’, or ‘civilian collaborator’, and it also overwrote the political demands raised by these identities.
Chapter 4 sets out to demonstrate how the global proliferation of the reconciliation discourse not only manifests itself in the spread of the reconciliation language but also in the simultaneous diffusion of a set of reconciliation practices and practitioners in global politics. The chapter argues that from the late 1990s onwards, the truth commission emerged as a standard and increasingly standardized technology of post-conflict peacebuilding and ‘reconciliation through truth-telling’ was increasingly brought to and adopted by countries transiting from war to peace. This development was co-constitutive with the appearance of new agents in global politics, as social actors could emerge as advocates and experts of reconciliation in global politics and carry out political activities in the name of reconciliation. Chapter 4 discusses some of the members of this ‘global reconciliation coalition’ as well as their activities, and shows how the practices and interventions of this expert force were crucial for the further articulation of the reconciliation discourse on the global level and for its proliferation to new local settings.
In the years after the South African transition, these constructions of reconciliation began to proliferate beyond the borders of South Africa. Chapter 3 reconstructs this process and examines how the South African transition and reconciliation discourse were part of and fed into another discourse that emerged on the global level at the time, namely the discourse on transitional justice. Chapter 3 argues that it was in the context of this emerging global discourse that the reconciliation ideal gained authority beyond the South African confines from the late 1990s onwards, and the South African constructions of reconciliation diffused around the globe. The global spread of the reconciliation language, as argued in chapter 3, performed in global politics by authorizing the truth commission as a legitimate institution in the context of transition. While the truth commission was no new institution at the time, it was hitherto seen as a ‘second-best’ response to human rights violations, and it was through the rise of global reconciliation discourse that this institution gained normative authority on its own.
Chapter 2 looks at the early emergence of the discourse and reconstructs how reconciliation gained normative authority in the political sphere at all. It locates the beginning of this discourse in South Africa in the early 1990s, when the country transited from apartheid to democracy. In the course of the transitional negotiations ‘reconciliation’ was used by the antagonistic parties African National Congress (ANC) and National Party (NP) as a vague ideal which helped them to justify their various political demands and find a common reference point which made compromises possible. As chapter 3 shows, at this time reconciliation was not at all interpreted in terms of truth-telling or healing but was alternately related to political negotiations, compromise, power sharing or the release of political prisoners. It was only later, after the passing of the South African interim constitution in 1993 that the reconciliation ideal came to be firmly associated with the establishment of the South African TRC and the practices of truth-telling, healing and forgiveness. These constructions then remained relatively stable as they were reproduced throughout the workings of the TRC
Chapter 1 sets out to develop the theoretical framework for the book’s undertaking. It outlines a discourse theoretical approach for the critical analysis of normative change which builds specifically, but not exclusively, on the discourse theory developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The chapter argues that Laclau and Mouffe’s concepts of the destabilisation (dislocation) of discourses and their (re)construction through hegemonic struggles, provide useful tools to reconstruct processes of normative change. Moreover, the concepts of discourse and its constitution around a particular nodal point or empty universal are helpful to analyse in detail the ways in which (normative) meaning is produced and temporarily stabilized in relational systems of signification. The chapter also fleshes out the concept of the power and productivity of discourses which is central for a critical inquiry into the performance of social meanings. It shows how to question the empirical validity of social reality and examine the ways in which discourses produce one and simultaneously repress specific interpretations of the social world