Too Many Questions, Too Few Answers: Reconciliation in Transitional Societies

76 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2009

See all articles by Jeremy Sarkin

Jeremy Sarkin

University of South Africa

Erin Daly

Widener University Delaware Law School

Date Written: January 29, 2009


Understanding reconciliation in times of political transition raises fundamental and ultimately unanswerable questions about the human condition. Talk of reconciliation invariably comes after there has been some gross violation of norms: widespread disappearances, killings, torture, and rape. Reconciliation necessarily conjures its antecedents and forces us to ask how men (and sometimes women) can visit such horrors upon one another. When we look at the face of evil, are we, as many people contend, seeing ourselves, or on the contrary are some people capable of evil in a way that others would never approach? Reconciliation is perhaps deeply compelling, however, because it not only implicates the worst that human beings are capable of, but the best as well. Reconciliation embodies the possibility of transforming war into peace, trauma into survival, hatred into forgiveness; it is the way human beings connect with one another, against all odds. It exemplifies the potential for virtually limitless strength and generosity of spirit that is also immanent in human nature. This Article explores some of the questions that must be confronted when incipient governments promote reconciliation to palliate the ills of transition. In Part II, this article raises broad conceptual questions about reconciliation. Part III then examines the historical factors that have contributed to the spread of reconciliation initiatives throughout the world in recent years. In Part IV, we examine why nations pursue reconciliation and whether reconciliation can achieve the goals imputed to it. Finally, Part V looks at the mechanisms by which nations pursue reconciliation. This article concludes with suggestions for developing a further understanding of reconciliation.

Keywords: international law, international human rights law, international criminal law, international tribunals, transitional justice, reconciliation, amnesty, justice, truth, reparations, history, truth and reconciliation commission, deterrence, democracy, trials

Suggested Citation

Sarkin, Jeremy and Daly, Erin, Too Many Questions, Too Few Answers: Reconciliation in Transitional Societies (January 29, 2009). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 101-168, 2004, Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-07, Available at SSRN:

Jeremy Sarkin (Contact Author)

University of South Africa ( email )

P.O. Box 392
Pretoria, Gauteng 0003
South Africa

Erin Daly

Widener University Delaware Law School ( email )

4601 Concord Pike
Wilmington, DE 19803-0406
United States
302-477-2143 (Phone)
304-477-2257 (Fax)

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