George Mason University
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George Mason University

S-CAR's dean briefs UN Security Council on reconciliation

November 19, 2019

ID: A man with gray hair and glasses in a suit speaks into a microphone while seated.

Alpaslan Özerdem, dean of S-CAR, briefed the UN Security Council in New York during an Open Debate on reconciliation organized by the UK Mission to the UN on November 19, 2019. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

By Audrey Williams

What does peace look like? Is it the cessation of violence? The signing of an accord? The shaking of hands while dignitaries and media watch on as witnesses to history?

Or does it look like people in once-divided communities working together to heal their traumas, pursue justice for victims of violence, and rebuild relationships by co-writing a shared vision of the future?

Speaking to representatives of the United Nations Security Council in New York on November 19, Alpaslan Özerdem, dean of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, said that it is “one of the tragic ironies of wars” that in order for peace to be achieved and sustained, “people on all sides must learn to live together [again].”

When a conflict comes to its end, Özerdem said that “victims, perpetrators, and others in war-affected communities [must] begin the formidable task of reconciling with one another, politically and interpersonally.”

The importance of reconciliation within peace processes was the subject of Tuesday’s Open Debate organized by the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations, which is serving as the president of the Security Council throughout November.

Özerdem was invited by Ambassador Karen Pierce, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations, to brief the Security Council as part of the debate.

The discussion was presided over by Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, who is the UK’s Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and featured briefings by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Somali activist Ilwad Elman, who is the Director of Programs and Development at Elman Peace and Human Rights Center.

In her remarks, Elman reflected on the difficulty of achieving peace in protracted conflicts, noting that in Somalia, past attempts have “proceeded from the assumption that political and diplomatic methods could be grafted onto existing systems and attitudes without first developing new social and economic foundations for change.”

“It gives me encouragement that, under the United Kingdom’s presidency, we are now debating the toughest and arguably most important part of the peacebuilding cycle: reconciliation,” she said.

According to a concept note developed by the UK Mission, the objective of the discussion was “to contribute to a deeper understanding of reconciliation in the context of efforts to build and sustain peace, its role and value as a process and an objective within broader peacebuilding efforts, and how the United Nations can better support reconciliation to prevent the recurrence of conflict and advance sustainable peace and security.”

“We all acknowledge the vital importance of reconciliation,” Guterres told the Security Council. “But our concept of reconciliation must evolve to keep up with [the] changing nature of conflict. It can no longer be confined to those directly involved in waging war.”

Guterres advocated for a whole-of-society approach to reconciliation.

“Reconciliation must have an impact at the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and socio-political levels, if it is to succeed,” he said.

According to Özerdem, local actors in conflict-affected societies have a crucial role to play in facilitating reconciliation.

“Local authorities, municipalities, and their potential power as insider reconcilers are often overlooked,” he said, emphasizing in particular that greater efforts need to be taken to include women and youth, “without whom reconciliation can never be successful.”

Faith actors, too, are key stakeholders in conflict and post-conflict situations.

“Faith can be [a] significant inspiration for reconciliation,” said Özerdem. However, he cautioned that “its manipulation can also cause further division, hate, or violence.” Özerdem said that “research, monitoring impact, and evaluation” are needed to ensure that faith is leveraged to play a constructive, rather than destructive, role in reconciliation.

“At S-CAR and its newly founded Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation, we undertake research on locally-led reconciliation practice,” Özerdem said. “With a specific focus on insider reconcilers, we facilitate collaborations among scholars and practitioners, examining how faith and indigenous narratives mitigate conflicts and heal community relationships.”

The involvement of these insider reconcilers is especially important because, according to Özerdem, “the concept of reconciliation means different things to different people. 

“It is because of this that reconciliation needs to be a tailor-made process, agile enough to adopt itself to changing socio-economic and political post-conflict dynamics,” he told the Security Council, recommending that UN institutions and member states could support reconciliation processes not only by increasing funding but also by making that funding more flexible.

Özerdem reminded the gathered member state representatives that reconciliation is not just an outcome, but also a process.

“Reconciliation should be a transformational experience—not about learning how to forgive and forget, but how to remember and change,” he said.

Opportunities for transformation don’t just come after the violence ends or a peace treaty is signed.

“We cannot think that reconciliation only happens after violent conflict,” Özerdem told the Security Council. “It needs to happen all the time and everywhere, and sometimes may be the first option to achieve peace.”

Read Dean Özerdem's full brief to the United Nations Security Council's 8668th meeting: Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace - The role of reconciliation in maintaining international peace and security

Related people: Alpaslan Özerdem