Riflessioni sul Perdono, sulla Dignità e sulla Riconciliazione

Donna Hicks

1. I negoziati di pace, generalmente, sono incentrati sulle dimensioni politica ed economica. Quale è la Sua percezione della necessità di toccare aspetti più profondi e genuini della riconciliazione e come si può ottenere questo?

Without a doubt, the field of international conflict resolution needs a deeper, human-centered approach to both finding a sustainable resolution of conflict through political negotiations, as well as to ways to reconcile after the agreements have been signed. I am making a distinction between the negotiation phase of conflict resolution and what I think of as the “post-conflict” phase of reconciliation.
What has become clear to me in my work in international conflict is that the legal and binding measures that are taken to try to fulfill a sense of justice for those who have suffered devastating losses from years of protracted conflict is not enough. Negotiations that settle issues of borders, power-sharing arrangement, refugees, distribution of resources and other objective political matters often do not address the subjective, human dimensions of the conflict—injuries that are psychological in nature that cannot be healed through political means. Even if perpetrators of violence are brought to traditional justice by being sentenced for years for the crimes they committed, the wounds of the victims of those crimes are still open and the suffering brought on by their loss can go on indefinitely. Without a process—one that is explicitly designed for deep emotional healing—it is unlikely that they will be able to put the past to rest.
Having facilitated countless dialogues between warring parties in many parts of the world, I have come to the realization that we have failed to address this significant emotional aspect of the human experience of conflict. After years of observing parties in conflict and their inability to sign on to agreements—agreements that appear to address the political interests of all parties—I have concluded that it is imperative for the field to address this missing link. I have come to call the missing link, dignity violations. Using the language of dignity, people feel freer to talk about these underlying emotional injuries that keep conflict alive. By calling these injuries dignity violations, people feel free to discuss them. On the other hand, if I were to say to a group, “tell me a time that you felt emotionally injured by the other side,” no one would raise their hand. Asking people to discuss ways in which they felt their dignity was violated, everyone has a story. The language of dignity allows the “undiscussable” to be brought to the table.
To conclude this question, what I think we need are processes that address the human wounds to our dignity—ways to restore humanity to relationships so that people can put the past to rest, and move on with their lives. Failure to address this dimension in a reconciliation process leaves relationships vulnerable to re-traumatization, where the impulse to dehumanize the other still remains the default reaction.
Can forgiveness achieve this restoration of human dignity? Yes, it is one process, but my experience tells me it is not the only one. I have argued elsewhere that by creating a dignified environment where both parties are able to extend dignity to one another, deep reconciliation can occur.

2. Quali sono le condizioni nelle quali, al di là dell’assicurare gli interessi della parti in conflitto, può essere stabilito un processo incentrato su un senso di equità e dignità?

In my paper, “Reconciling with Dignity” I have elaborated several conditions that appear to be necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) to enable reconciliation. I had written the paper after working with the BBC and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on a television series in Northern Ireland entitled, Facing the Truth, where we brought victims and perpetrators of the conflict together for face to face encounters. I wrote the article in order to describe a remarkable process that occurred between a British police officer who was nearly killed by an IRA man. They had not seen one another for over 30 years, and agreed to sit together in an attempt to “put the past to rest.” At the end of their day-long session, the two men experienced a remarkable reconciliation. What were those conditions that made it possible for them to reconcile? Below is an excerpt from the paper that sheds light on the question.
What Happened?
As if what had occurred during this day-long encounter between the two men were not enough, they and their families went into Belfast that night and had dinner together. And they have seen each other many times since.
I wondered what had happened between these two men to make their extraordinary reconciliation possible. What were the dynamics that enabled them to cross the divide from human disconnection to connection? It had nothing to do with forgiveness; it was never asked for or given. But what did happen was equally as powerful: they honored each other’s dignity and in so doing, strengthened their own.
In no small way, the environment that was created by the BBC and the facilitation team significantly contributed to their reconciliation. The effect of the presence of a trusted, moral authority—Archbishop Tutu—cannot be understated. His dignity, consistency, and uncommon compassion created the nurturing, non-judgmental environment necessary for this difficult work. We created a place that set the stage for the dignity that the two men bestowed upon one another.
In what ways did they honor each other’s dignity? First, they both agreed that sitting down together was worthy of their time and attention; that was the initial step. How common is it to withdraw from those with whom we have been in conflict, and refuse to talk to them?
Second, they carefully listened to one another without interrupting or challenging each other’s story; they listened to seek understanding. How often do we listen to our adversaries only to one-up them or to prepare our attack on what they have said?
Third, they acknowledged and recognized what the other had been through. How many times have we stared expressionless at the person whom we have injured in the heat of a conflict and felt nothing if not justified?
Fourth, they honored and acknowledged each other’s integrity and in so doing, created a bond between them. By identifying with each other’s experience, they could no longer dehumanize one another, excluding the other from their moral communities. Our conflict-driven minds create good guys and bad guys, and when under conflict’s distorting influence, we rarely see ourselves as anything but good. They expanded their understanding by experiencing each other’s humanity. As Gunther Grasse points out, “truth exists nearly always in the plural.” And because they came to understand each other’s reality, the truth they finally uncovered was bigger than their separate stories. This uncommon truth revealed itself with dignity: they were both victims; caught up in a dysfunctional system crying out for change.
By honoring each other’s dignity through careful listening, a desire to understand each others’ experience, to identify with—as a human being—the choices our adversary makes, requires letting go of our death grip on the need to be right.
What it takes to decide to “let go” is something deeply personal, if not spiritual. The Archbishop, when asked to explain the magic that took place between the two men, immediately held his hands up wide above his head, looked up to the sky, smiled, and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Even though it is difficult to identify exactly what contributed to their reconciliation, I would like to attempt to outline some other factors, besides extending dignity to one another, that might have contributed to the positive outcome of not only Ronnie and Malcolm’s encounter, but for the other participants in the program as well. I am reluctant to suggest that these are universal truths, but instead, reflections on what appeared to contribute to the many positive outcomes that Facing the Truth enabled.

Creating the Conditions for Reconciliation

  1. Need for Public Acknowledgement: As Archbishop Tutu said after the encounters, “there seems to be a need for public vindication that we yearn for when we have been roughed up.” When we have been harmed, especially under circumstances that feel unjust, we have a need for acknowledgement of the pain and suffering the act created. What was striking to us all during the encounters was that the perpetrators, with the exception of one, had gone to trial and served time in prison for what they had done. But that didn’t seem to be enough for many of the victims. Trials and jail time, while serving the need for justice, is not sufficient to address the emotional wounds of the victims. There seemed to be a need on the part of the victims for a kind of public process that acknowledged their human suffering.
    That acknowledgement took many forms. For some victims, they needed to hear from the perpetrators that they were sorry for what they had done, while others wanted to clear up misunderstandings about what happened to their loved ones.
    The need for acknowledgement and recognition of the emotional toll the deaths created manifested in many different ways. It bespeaks the complexity of the human response to violence and loss. What appeared certain for the people who took part in the programs was that the emotional needs related to such personal loss are not sufficiently addressed with the signing of a peace accord or when the perpetrator is sent to jail. For many of the victims, more than 30 years had passed since they lost their loved ones, but judging by their emotional reactions, one would have thought it happened yesterday. Emotional wounds need a different kind of process and they don’t go away with the passage of time.
    The need for acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrators took yet another form. There appeared to be a need to be understood—to tell the story of the undignified and demoralizing conditions under which they were raised. Many of them talked about living in economically and spiritually impoverished settings—both the IRA men as well as the Loyalist paramilitaries. They were not seeking forgiveness, but deeper understanding of all the conditions that contributed to who they were and why they decided to engage in violence as a means for change.
    When the victims acknowledged how difficult it must have been for the perpetrators growing up under the conditions they had described, it shifted the dynamics between them. The acknowledgement enabled them to connect at the human level—restoring the humanity to the relationship.
    It was always a profound moment when the victims acknowledged their perpetrators—what they had been through and suffered. I wondered what enabled their uncommon compassion and generosity toward the people who had caused them such suffering. One thing I learned for sure; never underestimate the power of a victim.
  2. Need for Nurturing: Judith Herman, in her often quoted book, Trauma and Recovery, described three stages of recovery from traumatic loss: establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, and restoring the connection between survivors and their community. The process that we designed for Facing the Truth took these factors into consideration. The BBC producers went to great lengths to assure the safety of all who took part. They spent time developing relationships with the participants months before the programs, and were available to them at a moment’s notice to answer questions they might have had. By the time they took part in the programs, the participants knew exactly what was going to happen and they voluntarily decided to take part. There was no pressure whatsoever on them to participate.
    The facilitation team also met with everyone before the filming. We did as much as we could to reassure them that we were there for them and that our job was to serve their needs.
    Upon reflection, there was another factor besides safety that I believe contributed to the positive outcomes of the programs. Once the safety factor was established, the participants needed to believe that they could make themselves vulnerable—not worry about being re-traumatized by the process or be shamed by it. Along with the feeling of being safe, the participants needed to feel nurtured by the facilitation team. It was critical for their ability to move forward in the process that they felt our compassion, care, and tenderness toward them. As the Archbishop said, “the participants must feel that they are precious and important and that something irreplaceable would be lost if they were not there.” Any harshness or judgment on our part would have destroyed the sanctity of the space shared by the participants. My experience was that we needed to communicate to the participants, most often non-verbally, that we could handle whatever comes up during the discussion and that we would be there to nurture them and to protect them.
  3. Need for Control: In the many discussions we had as a team before we started the programs, one issue became clear: we were not going to have an agenda for the participants. Regarding the issue of forgiveness, we maintained that if it emerged spontaneously for the participants, it would be wonderful. Given the lack of control most victims suffer when a loved one has been killed, forcing them to forgive if they are not ready is another way of controlling them, if not re-traumatizing them. We felt that the victims needed to be in control of their process, not an external prompter. The only structure we set in place was for them to tell their stories about what happened and how that affected them.
    As I mentioned above, each participant came voluntarily to the programs. They were not coerced in any way, nor was there anything about the process that was forced. It appeared, for many of the victims, that being in control of what they wanted to say to the perpetrators empowered them. And they knew exactly what they wanted to say. There was no loss of words. They were articulate, insightful, and without exception, showed an uncanny clarity when talking to the perpetrators. Their exchanges felt fragile but forceful. They all walked away feeling that something had shifted within them. They described feeling relieved and that a burden had been released from their shoulders.
  4. The Need to be Vulnerable. At the end of every session, the Archbishop said to both the victims and perpetrators, “thank you for being vulnerable.” The biggest lesson I learned from these encounters is that vulnerability is where the power lies; the magic happens when one exposes the truth to oneself and others and is ultimately set free by it. That’s quite a paradox. Our instincts fool us into thinking that deception and cover up is a good strategy for self-preservation.
    At the end of one of the other long days of filming the encounters, the Archbishop turned to me and said, “Aren’t human beings funny creatures. We all do the same thing—we just hate to admit we’ve done something wrong.” This is the impulse that stands in the way of reconciling with dignity. If we understood that our instinct to save face prevents us from taking responsibility for our actions—if we could can take the hardwired shame out of admitting we have done something wrong—we would be so much better at healing ourselves and our relationships. Fighting the impulse to save face could save our relationships.
    Fortunately we are more than just our instincts. We are also spiritual beings with other resources of wisdom, if we choose to recognize and employ them. A spiritually intelligent person knows that only the truth will set us free. And the cost of avoiding the truth is painfully high; we become imprisoned by our own deception, and what is worse, the deceit keeps us from connecting to others. The more honest the perpetrators were about what they did, the more our hearts opened to them. My experience was that the more vulnerable they were, the more we could connect with them.


These conditions that were set in place while making Facing the Truth: creating the space for acknowledgment, nurturing, control, and vulnerability were all designed to promote and restore human dignity. The process we created stayed focused on the human dimension and the human cost of the 30 plus years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland. While we did not want to discuss the political issues, we did acknowledge the role politics played in creating the conditions for the conflict—the inequality, the discrimination, and unjust policies. In fact, inequality, discrimination, and injustice are violent acts in and of themselves. The injuries that they create are as damaging as a gunshot wound. For this reason, it was important that the perpetrators described the disempowering and humiliating environment in which they grew up. It was not meant to justify their violent behavior, but to re-create the tableau in which the events emerged and took place.
We wanted to showcase the human suffering—in all of its forms—that violent and unjust political environments create. We wanted to hold it up for full viewing—every aspect and every angle of it. And we wanted to make it personal. Because the truth of the matter is that the human suffering these conflicts create rarely gets acknowledged and addressed. In fact, the emotional distress that people suffer is often ignored, diminished, and even trivialized at the political level. And ironically, it is just these kinds of unprocessed losses and psychological traumas that maintain the divide between warring communities, even after a peace agreement is signed.
We wanted to dignify their suffering by giving it the attention it needed in order to put it to rest. We wanted to give them a chance to be heard, seen, recognized and understood. We wanted to give them control by letting them say whatever they wanted to each other. We wanted to create a sense of possibility for both communities in N. Ireland—to demonstrate what a healing process looked like so that they could imagine a future together, living along side one another, in dignity rather than indignity.
We were looking to create a process that was humane and non-judgmental. We did not want to be the arbiter of truth; we wanted to enable it to emerge. We wanted the perpetrators to hear, in the victims’ own words, what the loss of their loved one felt like: the shock, the horror, the disbelief, and the rage; and what it felt like to miss someone so profoundly. And for those victims who survived an attack, we wanted to give them the chance to speak directly to the men who came so close to taking their lives. We wanted the victims and families to be able to ask questions of the perpetrators—questions that were haunting them since the death of their loved ones. We wanted to create the conditions for every aspect of the truth to be told.
And for the perpetrators, in addition to telling their background stories, we wanted to give them an opportunity to come face to face with the people whose lives they so deeply affected. We wanted to give them a chance to see their victims as normal human beings living with abnormal loss. We wanted to humanize their politicized actions by having them look into the faces of those whose suffering they created.
All of the perpetrators said that they had to dehumanize their victims in order to carry out the killings. What they failed to point out was that they de-humanized themselves in the process: they had to disconnect from the part of themselves that felt the horror of taking someone’s life. We wanted to create the conditions for them to feel the effects of their actions. And ironically, the victims were the ones who helped them do that. Having to listen to the details of the heartbreaking victims’ stories and all the suffering their actions created was an opportunity for them to experience the feeling of what they did. It was an unintended gift the victims gave them.
Because when the feeling returns, perpetrators have an opportunity to re-connect with their full humanity—what I believe true healing is about. They have a chance to re-integrate all aspects of what it means to be human—the capacity to love and to hate, to connect with others and to violently disconnect from them. When one is a member of a paramilitary organization, part of one’s job is to kill. According to the perpetrators, it is necessary to disconnect from the targeted enemy as a human being. And it is also necessary to disconnect from one’s own humanness—from the feeling that results from taking someone’s life. If one is connected to one’s own full humanity, one feels the pain one inflicts on others. It is what we call remorse; maybe even shame. And if healing is the goal, then one must reconnect to those painful feelings, integrating them into one’s self-image. And if reconciliation is the goal, then both the victim and the perpetrator need to reconnect to each other through feeling one another’s loss.
More happened during the encounters than my mind is capable of describing. But what I can say is that what I experienced reassured me that with the right conditions, it is possible for people who have suffered unspeakable losses in violent conflicts to heal and reconcile with one another.

3. Quanto il perdono è essenziale alla dimensione della riconciliazione? Alla radice della Sua cultura politica e/o della Sua fede religiosa quali sono i principi che implicano o escludono il perdono? Quali versi o detti che fanno parte del Suo personale patrimonio spirituale possono, nella sua opinione, avere un significato universale

As I have argued above, the reconciliation process we experienced did not require forgiveness. “Reconciling with dignity” is a different approach than forgiveness. It assumes that both sides are in need of understanding—that we have both contributed to the breakdown of the relationship, that both played a role, recognizing that the role may not be equal. That said, I believe that when forgiveness comes about in a genuine way—when it is not forced upon people—it can be a powerful tool for reconciliation. My colleague, Father Leonel Navarez from Bogota, Colombia, has developed a methodology that helps people prepare themselves for forgiveness. At the end of the process, people decide for themselves if they wish to forgive their perpetrators. I believe that there is great danger in forcing people into any kind of process that does not feel genuine to them, or that they are not ready for. As I have argued in another paper, people need time to grieve and accept their loss before moving toward forgiveness. There is nothing more profound and healing than genuine forgiveness, but false forgiveness can create more harm than good.

4. Il perdono richiede qualche forma di pentimento da parte di coloro a cui il perdono viene offerto? Il perdono ha condizioni o è senza condizioni?

I am not an expert in the process of forgiveness, but my guess is that some people need repentance and some do not. I don’t believe we can say one way or the other what is required. It is psychologically a complex process, and it would seem to depend on where an individual is in her or his own emotional development.

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