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Sustainable peace thorugh reconciliation

NewsNotes, March-April 2009

Recognizing that reconciliation processes “are particularly necessary and urgent in countries and regions of the world which have suffered, or are suffering, situations of conflict that have affected and divided societies in their various internal, national and international facets,” the United Nations General Assembly has named 2009 the International Year of Reconciliation.

According to the UN’s Department of Public Information (DPI), “Reconciliation is a complex process that begins with the individual and extends itself into all levels of society and community, reaching out even to the international level. The process of reconciliation improves our understanding of our differences and allows us to move past them to a more harmonious world. The resolution establishing the Year of Reconciliation invites international and non-government organizations as well as governments to support reconciliation processes among divided societies. It also asks them to plan and implement adequate cultural, educational and social programs to promote the concept of reconciliation including holding seminars and conferences in order to disseminate information on this issue.”

On February 5, the UN DPI held a briefing focused on the prospect of sustainable peace through reconciliation. The session opened and closed with a moving drum and flute musical performance by Jackie Tice and Dar Khabbaz, both Native Americans, which demonstrated the power of the arts to bridge painful life experiences.

Of the four speakers, the most tragic and yet in some ways the most encouraging presentation was given by Jacqueline Murekatete, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Murekatete, who was very young in 1994, lost her entire family as they tried to flee from the machetes of their neighbors, friends and classmates. Not only the one million people slaughtered but also their killers, some of whom were young children, were victims of an indoctrination of hate perpetrated by the government over a long period of time.

In Rwanda, the challenge of reconstituting a post-conflict society is very great. Both victims and perpetrators must find a way to live together. The nation is undergoing a major drive to forge a new identity; reconciliation is part of all government measures. No longer is the emphasis on ethnic rivalry, but rather it is on national identity as Rwandans. The most important tools being used to create a new society are education and the switch to English from French as the national language, which provides a common project in which everyone can engage.

Speaking of the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide has to be guided in a very delicate way because most of the young adult population participated in the destruction of the country. After education and language, the government program uses music, sports and work to bring people together. During the DPI briefing, an excellent and very hopeful documentary about Rwanda, “Once Enemies Now Friends,” was shown. The country has a long way to go but some significant signs show that it may well succeed in its journey toward sustainable peace.

Another speaker at the briefing, Judge Felicitas Hoffman from Germany, gave a thoughtful summary of her research regarding language and rituals of reconciliation. Among other words of deep meaning, she referred to the powerful Hawaiian word Ho’opono pono, a term for setting things right. Possibly it is related to the Tagalog word in the Philippines, O’po, which means to express respect for another. This word is rooted in an ancient term of deep Tagalog, Opo Poon, which means that one looks beyond the obvious in the other to acknowledge the presence of the Holy One. These words and phrases from our indigenous sisters and brothers remind us that moving beyond the realm of judgment is essential to the reconciliation process.

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