SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Post-conflict reconciliation and displacement – Examples from the African context

On December 16th, South Africa celebrates its Day of Reconciliation, a public holiday aimed at remembering South African’s conciliatory past. The celebration came into effect in 1995, the same day than the first meeting of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which marked the transitional process from apartheid to full democracy. The day is about national unity, equality, and dignity for all.

In light of reconciliation day, SIHMA considers post-conflict reconciliation and its connection to displacement. Indeed, displaced persons are often forgotten in the reconciliation and truth-telling processes, despite displacement being intrinsically linked to the conflict-related abuses.

Reconciliation, Truth, Justice, and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Truth and reconciliation are highly debated concepts in transitional justice research which don’t always go hand in hand. This article doesn’t aim at addressing the plurality of definitions regarding truth-telling, and truth commissions around the world. Yet, in order to examine the connection between reconciliation and displacement, we must first do a quick overview of these concepts.

Transitional justice deals with the question of how to reckon with massive past crimes and abuses, by state or armed oppositions, after internal or external armed conflicts [1]. Transitional justice bodies often see their mission as responding to past abuses and promoting national reconciliation through remembrance and accountability [1]. To do so, states can rely on various mechanisms, including, but not limited to, trials, institutional reforms, restitution and compensation programs, memorials and days of remembrance, and establishing a commission of inquiry [1], [2].

Since the 1990s, one dominant form of commissions of inquiry has gain in popularity: truth commissions [1]. Sometimes also known as a truth and reconciliation commission or a truth and justice commission, truth commissions are generally understood as official body investigating a past history of abuses [1]. The first truth commissions originated from Latin America, first in Argentina with the 1983 Commission on the disappeared, then in Chile in 1990 and El Salvador in 1992 [1]. In the past 30 years, the definition of ‘truth commission’ has been highly debated [1], [3]. According to the definition popularized by Priscilla B. Hayner, a truth commission “(1) is focused on past, rather than ongoing, events, (2) investigates a pattern of events that took place over a period of time… (3) engages directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experience, (4) is a temporary body, with the aim of concluding with a final report, and (5) is officially authorized or empowered by the state under review” [1]. 

The 1995 to 2003 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a good example of this, as it was mandated by the government to conduct public hearings of victims of gross human rights violations under the apartheid regime [1]. The goal of the South African TRC was not only to find new truths but also importantly to end denial about widely known but unspoken truths [1]. Other examples of truth commissions in Africa include Uganda, Mauritius, Togo, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Nigeria, Chad, Morocco, and Ghana. 

It is here important to notice that national commissions of inquiry are only one of the tools that can be used in transitional justice processes, and that among these commissions, truth commission represent only one way to achieve transitional justice and remembrance. Indeed, other inquiries exist set by international or non-governmental actors such as the International Commission of Inquiry in Burundi that was set up by the United Nations Security Council in 1995 [4], or the 1998 International Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and the Surrounding Events [5]. The absence of a truth commission doesn’t mean that transitional justice cannot be achieved. Truth commissions are often controversial as they are given an almost impossible task with limited time and resources. Yet, as Hayner explains, “both the process and the product of a truth commission can make a critical contribution in the midst of a difficult transition, fundamentally changing how a country understands some of the most contentious aspects of its recent history” [1].

Truth commissions can be one tool to achieve reconciliation, but the two don’t always go hand in hand. According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), “reconciliation is both a goal - something to achieve - and a process - a means to achieve that goal [...]. Reconciliation is an over-arching process which includes the search for truth, justice, forgiveness, healing and so on”. At a minimum, reconciliation means coexistence and cooperation in society such as sharing public space, allowing social and economical activities, attending school without returning to violent division [6], [7]. Minimal reconciliation may be, in societies which were confronted with atrocities, a remarkable achievement, an essential step for the pursuit of durable solutions, and the most that can be asked, especially in the direct aftermaths of the conflict [7]. For the most part, policy discussions of displacement and reconciliation aim at achieving minimal reconciliation [7].

Reconciliation can involve investigating and reporting truth about past events. Yet, it is not always possible or even recommended in some cases. For instance, Rosalind Shaw points out that in Sierra Leone, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created after the 1991-2002 civil war was not positively welcome amongst all people in Sierra Leone, as most of them preferred their local strategies of recovery and reintegration involving “forgive and forget” approaches [8]. The motivation for preferring local strategies is attributable in part to fearing retaliation by ex-combatants/ perpetrators; fearing government reprisals; and concerns about concurrent operation of different transitional justice mechanisms  [8]. A similar situation presented itself in Mozambique where the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was overwhelmingly rejected as Mozambicans estimated that the process would undermine reconciliation [7], [8]. When assessing post-conflict situations, it is then crucial to investigate the plurality of individual experiences, cultural contexts, and religious beliefs in order to find the best-suited approach for building peace [7], [8]. 

Displacement and Reconciliation

Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are often forgotten in efforts to deal with past injustices [9]. For instance, they have often been denied the opportunity to participate in hearings and restitution processes, and when they have been included, they often found that these processes did not address their most pressing concerns [9]. Even research on displacement and transitional justice seem to be still in its early stages, thus the following remarks are heavily inspired by the work of Megan Bradley on forced migration and transitional justice [7], [9].  

Past research suggests that transitional justice and displacement are connected and that transitional justices acts as complementary tool for addressing past abuses [9].

Indeed, on the one hand, displacement is both a consequence of crimes and human rights violations, such as rape, torture, and the killing of friends and family, as well as its own right violation as people are forced to flee and leave their homes behind [9]. Transitional justice can therefore act in support of durable solutions for displaced persons [9]. This includes prosecuting arbitrary displacement as war crimes, investigating forced migration by a truth commission, providing compensation to refugees and IDPs, supporting grassroots’ coexistence initiatives in communities that are affected by displacement, and enabling local integration, resettlement or return [7], [9], [10]. Reconciliation programmes are often essential to ensure ‘the conditions of safety and dignity’ commitment in frameworks such as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other United Nations resolutions, treaties and committee conclusions [7]. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been charged with leading reconciliation processes for the displaced, but they failed to clarify what they meant by reconciliation and what it might mean for those involved in the process [7]. Research, policy and practice often only focus on the resolution of displacement, which is predominately understood as return, yet reconciliation should be relevant at all phases of displacement [7]. For instance, as Dabesaki Mac-Ikemenjima points out in the case of post-conflict Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, resettlement of displaced people has become one of the greatest challenges to reconciliation and reintegration [10].

On the other hand, diaspora communities can foster transnational transitional justice processes that can strengthen relations between the diaspora and the state of origin [7], [9]. The engagement of refugees in transitional justice in their countries of origin may also be beneficial in terms of successful integration of displaced person [7]. On the contrary, the absence of efforts to engage non-returning refugees in reconciliation may undermine the relations between the diaspora communities and their states of origin, resulting in powerful and well-resourced diaspora members holding back their contributions to development and in some cases actively undermining peace building efforts by lobbying against peace plans [7]. A positive example of the involvement of the diaspora in transitional justice is the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s diaspora project which allowed refugees and other diaspora members to assume leadership roles in reconciliation processes [7]. This led to recommendations of particular interest for diaspora members such as the legalization of dual citizenship and the right for the diaspora to take part in national elections [7].

Till this day, the relationship between reconciliation and displacement is still a complex matter. While some research tends to interpret the return of refugees and IDPs to their home communities, there is little evidence that return may be interpreted in this way [7]. Return is often triggered by other factors but is rarely a sign that reconciliation has been accomplished [7].

Megan Bradley recommends that national government, international actors, NGOs, and researchers should aim for clarity in the definition of reconciliation, look beyond transitional justice mechanisms for long term approaches which are committed to supporting the pursuit of reconciliation, justice and durable solutions to displacement, and include the participation of displaced persons and communities at the national, regional and international levels [7]. Refugees and IDPs should be systematically and significantly engaged with as they are critical stakeholders in transitional justice and reconciliation processes including consideration of obstacles linked to gender, age, socio-economic status, and access to information and technology [7]. Bradley further recommends, critical assessment of the links between reconciliation, transitional justice and durable solutions, the need for cross-cutting, contextualised efforts carefully calibrated to respond to rights and concerns on a number of different levels, the supporting of local, ‘customary’ approaches, the questioning of attempts to ‘turn back the clock’ and continuing discussions, debates, reflection, and research [7]. Awareness should be raised amongst transitional justice experts to challenge the arbitrary exclusion of the displaced [7].

Without reconciliation between the displaced, refugees as well as IDPs,  and host communities, the risk of an emerging conflict are not avoided and tensions can result in xenophobic attacks, abusive policies, and the marginalization of generations of forced migrants [7]. Reconciliation between displaced persons, their states and host countries is a significant factor in achieving successful durable solutions and peace keeping.



[1] Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions, 2nd Ed. Routledge, New York, 2011.

[2] Roger Duthie, ‘Transitional justice and displacement’, International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 241-261, 2011.

[3] Mark Freeman, Truth Commissions and Procedural Fairness (1st ed.), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.   

[4] United Nations Security Council, International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi: Final Report, United States Institute for Peace, 2004.

[5] Organisation of African Unity, International Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and the Surrounding Events: special report, Organization of African Unity, 2000. 

[6] David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse (eds), Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2003. 

[7] Megan Bradley, Displacement, transitional justice and reconciliation. Assumptions, challenges and lessons, Forced Migration Policy Brief 9, Refugee Studies Centre, 2012. 

[8] Rosalind Shaw, Special Report: Rethinking Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Lessons from Sierra Leone, United States Institute of Peace, 2005.

[9] Megan Bradley, Critical Reflection: Forced Migration and Transitional Justice – Advancing the Research Agenda, Brookings, 2012. 

[10] Dabesaki Mac-Ikemenjima, Youth development, reintegration, reconciliation and rehabilitation in post-conflict West Africa: A framework for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, International NGO Journal, Vol.3, no.9, pp. 146-151, 2008.


[11] Roman David, Twenty Years of Transitional Justice in the Czech Lands 2012. 


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