Reconciliation as Activity: Constraints and Possibilities

Ivor Sokolić and Denisa Kostovicova, London School of Economics and Political Science

Reconciliation is proving to be a problematic concept for both practitioners and academics: it is laden with normative expectations and is often rejected by local publics. Ivor Sokolic and Denisa Kostovicova report on the exchange with civil society in Kosovo on reconciliation as activity. Participants shared their experiences of how interethnic contact between individuals through a variety of activities often had unintended positive outcomes for intergroup relations.

On 05 March 2018 the London School of Economics and Political Science, as a part of the ‘Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community’ project (, held a collaborative workshop in Prishtina titled “Activity as Reconciliation: Lessons from Practice”. The event was organised together with our local partner in Kosovo, the Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication (CRDP), who work on, and research, themes of peace, justice and truth in Kosovo. There was considerable overlap with the CRDP’s work on human security and reconciliation and our own, which made for a natural partnership for the workshop organisation. The workshop was attended by representatives of local and international civil society organisations who conduct a range of activities within communities and across ethnic lines. Some dealt directly with reconciliation issues (for example, efforts in coming to terms with the past), but many did not (for example, youth dialogue programmes).

The workshop dealt with one of the key research questions behind the AHRC-funded project, ‘Art and Reconciliation’: how to reconceptualise reconciliation? Our partner’s findings on reconciliation show the importance of this question in the post-conflict context in Kosovo. They find that projects under the label of reconciliation were initiated too early, are simultaneously both unclear and too ambitious, and favour one side of the conflict (the full results can be found here). This has often resulted – mirroring experiences in other post-conflict contexts – in the rejection of the concept on normative grounds. The biggest challenge, then, is how to reconcile this rejection with the necessity, as well as the desire expressed by many who themselves have suffered from violence, to work on social repair for the sake of peace.

The workshop addressed this conundrum by reframing reconciliation as activity. The premise here is to focus on activities that, sometimes labelled as reconciliatory and sometimes not, lead to better relations between groups. Underpinning this was the idea that activities that involve contact between different groups – be it physical or symbolic (such as interaction with outgroup symbols), intentional or unintentional – can lead to positive outcomes for intergroup relations. Many of these activities are missed in traditional appraisals of reconciliation, which are loaded with specific expectations of what the process and outcomes ought to look like. This focus on activity, then, helps to reconceptualise and critique reconciliation. Together with civil society organisations, we shared experiences of what types of activity can aid reconciliation and what is it about these types of activity that make them conducive to transforming interethnic relationships. We questioned if this concept was useful, and if not, what concept would be more useful from a practice-oriented point of view?

Representatives of civil society exhibited a readiness to acknowledge the problems associated with the normative load of reconciliation, which had become an impediment to the work they were undertaking. Some felt trapped, since they needed to adhere to labels to attain funding, but these labels hampered their work. Organisations experienced hostility towards their work, if they labelled it as reconciliatory. At the same time, numerous examples were provided of activities they had undertaken that had positive outcomes on intergroup relations, but which did not fall under the label of reconciliation. Participants also noted a number of macro and micro factors that inhibited these types of activities from taking place. Three key themes, with clear policy implications, underpinned the discussions on the day.

Structural barriers to activity

First, the structural dimension of activities that can aid, or hinder, reconciliation was highlighted. On the macro level, dynamics between the global and the local; donors and civil society organisations; and civil society and the state, all defined the structural framework within which organisations operated, and by which they were often constrained. The ghettoisation of minorities, segregated educational systems and regional divergence in state capacity within Kosovo made it easier for organisations to conduct activities between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs from Serbia, rather than with Kosovo Serbs. These macro level differences also fed into other issues. Differences in education provisions meant participants noted that the language barrier between Serbs and Albanians, who do not speak each others’ language, which is often seen as an intrinsic barrier to cooperation, could be overcome through the shared understanding of English. This was, however, found to disadvantage Kosovan Serbs who lacked sufficient English skills to communicate with Albanians. An inability to communicate within Kosovo thus forecloses opportunities for reconciliation even when reframed as activity.

Generational focus of activity

The generational dimension, with an emphasis on youth and the transgenerational dimension of reconciliation, was the second key theme underpinning discussions. Many civil society organisations targeted their work at young people and saw positive outcomes between groups. These organisations defined success in their work as educating young people about opportunities to travel, to converse with other groups and, sometimes, as enabling such travel and exchanges. They believed these activities provided participants with new information that questioned dominant narratives about the conflict, as well as an invaluable opportunity to meet members of the other ethnic group. These situations did not involve discussions about politics, society or violence at first, but through socialisation outside of the core activities of travel or exchanges (for example, over drinks) and in the pursuit of common interests (for example, interests in the arts or music), these conversations began to occur. They “talked about the war incognito”. This finding contradicts the commonly assumed premise that the divergent, ethnically-centred, representations of conflict are an obstacle to discussions about the most delicate issues concerning the conflict. In this respect, activities that are not primarily addressed at reconciliation, through challenging dominant narratives about the conflict, facilitate exchange on the most challenging issues dividing Serbs and Albanians.

Formal resistance to reconciliation

Much of the activity with positive intergroup outcomes that organisations had undertaken occurs in the informal domain, which emerged as the third key theme of the day, but these processes meet resistance from formal institutions and societal norms. Informality, across all levels of society, was seen as a space where friendships were created. The informal spaces at the margins of reconciliation efforts contained some of the most meaningful interactions between groups. They were spaces where constraints surrounding interaction across ethnic lines disappeared. Civil society organisations believed there was a readiness to reconcile, observed through informal activities that resulted in restoration of torn relations between members of the two communities. This trend was also documented in the LSE-based research (available here), that found that Albanians’ and Serbs’ participation in Kosovo’s informal economy that cuts across ethnic lines leads to creation of friendships, and was reflected in the above-mentioned study by the CRDP (available here). The positive will to change was, however, obstructed by societally defined boundaries that formal institutions reproduce. Organisations cited examples of cultural programmes, exchanges or interethnic sports events that were literally halted by politics. They also highlighted the reproduction of ethnic division through textbooks, nationalist political rhetoric and the political instrumentalisation of minorities. The effect was that individuals often made friends with members of the other ethnicity in the informal setting or away from their home or in spaces where they would not be exposed to public scrutiny, only for these interactions to be sanctioned by their own ethnic communities.


Overall, the workshop provided a forum for dialogue based on evidence deriving from academic research and experience from practice focused on reconceptualising reconciliation as activity. This recognised the paradox of people’s desire and need for normalisation of relations, dignity and reckoning with the legacy of conflict and the hostility towards the concept of reconciliation. The resulting outputs will be both academic publications (including a journal special issue edited by I. Sokolić) and a policy brief for local and international policy makers. The policy suggestions will focus on the roles of education, youth and cultural activities. Improved English language teaching across ethnic lines can provide a lingua franca for future generations. Youth exchange projects will be recommended since they are cost-effective and not typically labelled as reconciliatory. Furthermore, activities in the cultural sphere, such as the arts, will be highlighted due to their potential to help younger generations from different ethnic groups meet each other and bond over shared interests.


Reconciliation Histories Workshop, 30-31 Jan 2018

Over the last decade, reconciliation in the aftermath of violence has evolved from being a by-word for impunity, to being conceived of as a vital element in a society’s transition to sustainable peace.  Despite the confidence that reconciliation is crucial to successful transition, there is, on the one hand, little consensus over what reconciliation means and how it is to be reached, and on the other, a growing sense that reconciliation has come to be defined by the liberal peacebuilding paradigm in which it was conceived, and as such offers only limited value to post-conflict/ authoritarian societies. It is clear, then, that there is a need to re-evaluate what reconciliation does, can, has and might mean as scholars continue to search for viable ways for introducing sustainable peace. In order to challenge what it is that is meant by the term ‘reconciliation’ and how this ‘goal’ is reached, the workshop brings together academics from a range of disciplines to explore hidden and forgotten moments of (non)reconciliation from a diverse range of historical and cultural contexts and from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Papers include explorations of reconciliation practices in Ancient Greece, the longue durée of (non)reconciliation in the aftermath of the English and American Civil Wars, the reverberations of the memory of violence with the Bolshevik revolution, the dynamic role of religion in reconciliatory moments, and the role of traditional reconciliation practices in East Africa.


Whilst the workshop is principally for those presenting papers, there are a limited number of spaces left for those interested in attending. Please for more information. 

‘Ricochet’ by Simon Norfolk, 29 Jan 2018

Please join us for a lecture by the award winning landscape photographer, Simon Norfolk, on the politics of remembrance after WW1, based on his forthcoming documentary series Ricochet.

After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 soldiers’ dead bodies were simply ‘shovelled into a hole and so forgotten.’ Even in the early months of the First World War the only names on casualty lists in newspapers were those of Officers. But by the war’s end in 1919 we had shifted to building hundreds of military cemeteries where every single soldier, down to the lowest Private, would be eternally remembered, in stone like a pharaoh. Elaborate ceremonies – this thing we call ‘Remembrance’ with a capital R – were manufactured to memorialise their deaths. The sheer number of dead and the brutal, industrialised meaninglessness of their dying called forth the greatest period of British cultural creativity of which you’ve never heard. This lecture (which is based series of documentary programmes) examines how that change came about and offers a hard-hitting polemic against the standard model of Remembrance that was created after the Great War. What’s wrong with pretty war cemeteries and cenotaphs and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Quite a lot, this lecture argues.

The lecture is a keynote address for an AHRC funded workshop, ‘Reconciliation Histories’ as part of Art&Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community. The workshop explores forgotten and hidden moments of (non)reconciliation to challenge what it is that is meant be reconciliation and how it is to be achieved in the contemporary era. To this end, papers draw on diverse historical and cultural contexts, from responses to the Athenian wars, to the consequences of the reverberations of the memory of the Bolshevik revolution for Russian culture today. Whilst the workshop is principally for those presenting papers, there are a limited number of spaces left for those interested in attending. Please email for more information.

Simon Norfolk is an award winning landscape photographer (including Prix Pictet, 2013) whose work over twenty years has been themed around a probing and stretching of the meaning of the word ‘battlefield’ in all its forms. As such, he has photographed in some of the world’s worst war-zones and refugee crises, but is equally at home photographing supercomputers used to design military systems or the test-launching of nuclear missiles. He has produced four monographs: ‘Afghanistan: Chronotopia’ (2002); ‘For Most Of It I Have No Words’ (1998); ‘Bleed’ (2005); and ‘Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan’ (2011). He has been described by one critic as ‘the leading documentary photographer of our time. Passionate, intelligent and political; there is no one working in photography that has his vision or his clarity.’ His work has been shown globally, from The Getty (LA) to Tate Modern (London). For more info see

Art, Conflict & Remembering: the Murals of the Bogside Artists

Dr Rachel Kerr will participate in a discussion at Norwich Cathedral on Saturday 11 November 2017 (11.00am – 4.00pm) around the exhibition, ‘Art Conflict & Remembering’. The exhibition explores  non-sectarian murals about the Civil Rights movement and the Troubles in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland. For more information see here.

Venue: Norwich Cathedral

Date: 11 November 2017

Time: 11-1600

Remember Dance Performance with Q&A

Artist in residence, Milena Michalski, is participating in a panel discussion after a performance of the dance project, Remember. Remember has been produced by Candoco & the Soldiers Arts Academy, and the performance was created by a cast of veterans and young people.

Remember is a unique dance to commemorate the First World War choreographed by the award winning dance company Candoco and performed by veterans from recent conflicts from the Soldiers’ Arts Academy cic, War Studies students , young people and members of Candoco’s youth group, Cando2.  The dance has been created to explore experiences, stories and objects from the First World War through the experiences of veterans from more recent conflicts and non military members of the community.

The performance is aprox. 25 mins and will be followed by an opportunity to hear from the perfomers and artists involved in making the work.  The discussion will cover how objects are used to remember, the study of war and the experience war and the role of the arts in transition from military into civilian life.

Location: Anatomy Museum (6th Floor) King’s Building Strand Campus:

When: 07/11/2017 (18:30-20:00)




‘Art on Conflict’: An exhibition at the new ‘Soldiers of Oxfordshire’ museum

Artist in Residence, Milena Michalski, will feature in a new exhibition ‘Art on Conflict’  at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, as part of the Wake up to Woodstock Festival, curated to complement and reflect the themes of power, conflict and activism in Jenny Holzer’s show and night time projection at Blenheim Palace, SOFTER.

Milena will be showing several works created from 2012 to 2017, including a new iteration of her ongoing sculptural installation series,‘Two Towers’ and a unique print loaned by King’s College London.



New logo: Art and Reconciliation

We are very grateful to artist and undergraduate student in War Studies, Aryan Salazar-Volkmann, for designing a new logo for the project.  Ari was recently awarded an King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship to work with us on the Art and Reconciliation project over the summer.

“My name is Aryan Salazar Volkmann, I am currently studying International Relations at King’s College London. I grew up in Guatemala, Vietnam, Iran, Colombia, New York and El Salvador. My interest in both Art and Human Rights began in Iran; a country rich in culture and history – yet sadly also plagued by human right violations. My relationship to Art was built on rebellion there; we had friends who were artists and musicians that used their craft as political tools to express their dissent of the situation of their country. Colombia, similarly, had its own battles to pick – at the time it was still in a state of civil war. I visited many exhibitions and worked alongside various artists – and again I noticed a trend in the community using art as a language of criticism, of community and of unity.  In New York I built on my experience in the development and justice sectors, whilst separately engaging in my own artwork. The two came together when I helped organise a painting exhibition orchestrated by ECPAT, aimed to raise funding for their cause. Nevertheless, El Salvador has been the first country in which I have witnessed art being harnessed as a legitimate tool within an institution I worked for: the World Food Program. It had launched a pilot project called ConectArte aimed at at-risk youth in areas of high violence.

It is only when I came to London however, that I began to see the possibility for an active academic commitment in between spheres dedicated to development, transitional justice, equity and reconciliation and the Arts. This is largely through my experiences with the Arts and Conflict Hub; and now, the Arts and Reconciliation collaborative project. I will be researching, transcribing data and documenting various cross-cultural country and institution-based case studies: my areas of focus are El Salvador, Guatemala, Turkey, Croatia and Vienna.”
You can read more about Ari’s inspiration for the design and her work on the project on her blog.

Gender and Discourses of Reconciliation at BISA

Denisa Kostovicova (Department of Government, London School of Economics) and Tom Paskhalis (Department of Methodology, London School of Economics), who is an LSE-based research assistant with the the AHRC-funded project, ‘Art & Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community,’ presented the initial findings of their research investigating  women’s contribution to reconciliation at the British International Studies Association (BISA) Annual Conference 2017 – 14-16th June 2017 – Brighton, Sussex, UK, contributing to BISA’s Critical Peace & Conflict Studies: Feminist Interventions.

Women Deliberators and Transitional Justice: What Kind of Voice?

The recent turn in the scholarship of transitional justice that studies how states and societies engage with the legacy of mass atrocity has been to investigate the women’s perspective on post-conflict justice. This welcome development in the field is part of an effort to investigate a paradox: transitional justice measures do not necessarily deliver either justice or reconciliation, which are their key aims, and, by contrast, often entrench injustice. The gender perspective has shone the light on blind spots in this scholarship that result in highly gendered masculinized versions of post-conflict justice. This paper furthers the study of women’s voice in post-conflict justice processes. It brings together the scholarship of transitional justice and the theory of deliberative democracy. Scholars of deliberative democracy have also highlighted inequalities in women’s participation in deliberation, concerning both the conditions for deliberation and the frequency of women’s contributions. This research tests and critiques the scholarly proposition of (in)visible women in the deliberation of transitional justice. It argues that more can be gleaned about women’s contribution to transitional justice from the analysis of the kind of voice women have and its implications for post-conflict rehabilitation. Is their contribution self-interested? Do they reach more across ethnic divides than men? Are their contributions more reconciliatory? The evidence is drawn from a comparative quantitative analysis of 1,211 statements of contributors during the deliberation of transitional justice in the Balkans.


After the Fact: War Crime Witnesses Encounter Justice

On 7 June 2017, Henry Redwood, an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and as a research associate on the AHRC-funded project, ‘Art & Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community,’ screened the film After the Fact, at the invitation of LSE’s Conflict Research Group, based at the Department of Government, LSE.

The film is based on a chapter of Henry Redwood’s doctoral research on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It is a powerful attempt to present research in a new and thought-provoking way. His focus in this segment of his work how witnesses of war crimes encounter and experience international criminal justice, it means to witness an atrocity, the legitimacy of the current international criminal justice project. He argues that the process fails the witnesses, who often feel disappointed and betrayed by the entire process, as well as traumatised having to relive the abuse by retelling it.

During a discussion led by Dr Denisa Kostovicova, who is Associate Professor in Global Politics at the Department of Government, LSE, and co-investigator on the AHRC-funded project, ‘Art & Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community,’ Henry Redwood elaborated on the value of art in the context of transitional justice, and the challenge of presenting academic research in an artistic form.

A lively discussion turned to questions not just about art and its role in opening a debate about difficult issues concerning the mass atrocity and violations of human rights, but also about the creative process. What is it like to translate the thesis into a film? One interesting point he made was that he felt that he had to elide lots of complexity — because of the time constraints and the medium. But, on the other hand, the medium – through sound, shots from the back, etc. also adds a different kind of subtlety and complexity. Also, Henry reflected on his work saying that his academic focus in on silences, and what is unsaid in the criminal trials — whereas he felt that through this creative process he himself was silenced as he could not express everything in such a short film — and in a way went through the same process as the witnesses he was studying.

Denisa Kostovicova

WARM Festival, Sarajevo, 28 June – 2 July 2017

The WARM Festival is taking place in Sarajevo from 28 June to 2 July 2017.

Alongside, there will be a conference organised by Paul Lowe and Tiffany Fairey:

Why Remember? Memory and Forgetting in Times of War and Its Aftermath
30 June – 2 July
Sponsored by:
PARC, University of the Arts, London
Salem State University, Massachusetts, USA
and WARM Festival, Sarajevo, Bosnia