Course Examines Post-Conflict Reconciliation


A Gacaca Court in Rwanda: Photo from Images of Rwanda

Students in LSJ Professor Arzoo Osanloo’s special topics course, “Reconciliation: The Politics of Forgiveness in a Global Age,” examine how people come together in the aftermath of violent conflicts and move forward towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

During the course, students explored international and local remedies proposed in different post-conflict situations, such as the Nuremburg Trials, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Gacaca Courts in Rwanda.

The first part of the class looked at the idea of reconciliation after mass conflict. The students learned more about the idea of forgiveness in the context of the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials.

Mia Legaspi-Cavin, a senior studying LSJ and Spanish, said that the class was challenging because it was difficult for her to conceptualize the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation with the scale of how many people were impacted by these conflicts.

“When you’re reading about it academically, it’s a lot easier to say that you are willing to forgive but in reality, it’s really challenging,” Legaspi-Cavin said.

Legaspi-Cavin also said that one of the concepts that fascinated her the most was the idea of how people transform from being human to someone who commits crimes against humanity.

“We’ve talked about Adolf Eichmann and [the article we read] was completely different than anything that I’ve ever read about him,” said Legaspi-Cavin. “In the article, [the author] argued that Eichmann just didn’t think and was just following the crowd whereas other writers have portrayed them as evil and a genius.”

Professor Osanloo said that the reaction of students to the material has been interesting to watch.

“I’ve had a few students say that they appreciate this course and looking at it from multiple perspectives,” said Osanloo. “I’ve also had students say that they’ve had a hard time relating to the material.”

She explained that students are struggling with the idea of the fact that people have done such atrocities and the idea of forgiveness.

Osanloo said that as a teacher, she is excited that students are extremely involved in the course and the discussions and questions which are brought up in relation to the class material.

LSJ senior Margeaux Fox said that she really enjoyed the discussion-based environment of the class.

“One thing that is quite nice about LSJ 490 is that we spend a majority of the time discussing the readings we have completed, voicing ideas and drawing comparisons with previously discussed authors,” said Fox. “It is a refreshing environment to be talked with instead of talked to, and I think it improves the quality of the class.”

One of the main themes in the class is the discussion of what justice means to different people and the ways that justice is found in both local and international courts.

“I think for many of us justice is punitive or retributive, and I think that standing on the outside, it’s easy for us to advocate for this, but these are relationships that we are talking about and these are people who have known each other their whole lives and so there also needs to be some kind of focus on what is going to happen at the end of the day and the end of these atrocities,” said Osanloo.

Fox explained that one of the aspects that she finds most interesting about the class was learning about the effect on the victim.

“In our society, we have such an emphasis on penal justice that the effects on the victim and society as a whole remain unrecognized,” said Fox. “Justice we are learning is not fully realized unless every party involved…the victim, the perpetrator and the community in which they live in, is back at equilibrium.”

The second part of the class looked at Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, the International Criminal Court, and the global responses to human rights violations in South Africa, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Students engaged readings from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and French philosopher Jacques Derrida about the role of religious and philosophical traditions in creating solutions. One of their challenges was to discern why some solutions might work in certain contexts but not in others.

“I hope students realize that each situation is very different, whether it’s Rwanda, Kosovo or the Holocaust and they each need tailored solutions. Justice is a composite of elements that include not only punishment through trials but also includes remorse, forgiveness, reparations and truth-telling,” said Osanloo.

Students also learned about the importance of forgiveness, mercy, and the realization of justice among various communities throughout the world.

The third part of the class looked at local responses to restoring justice such as the Gacaca courts in Rwanda, which were set up after the genocide as a way for the community to heal and move on.

Students read selections from the book, As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, and watched the documentary about the book which asks the question: Could you forgive a person who murdered your family?

The story follows two Rwandan women coming face-to-face with the men who slaughtered their families during the 1994 genocide and the struggle for justice and reconciliation they face.

For LSJ senior Brittany Ward, learning about the genocide in Rwanda that killed one in eight people and discussing it in class really put things in perspective for her.

“I think the term, genocide, is a term we can’t imagine especially with the magnitude of death, but in the class we are presented with a glimmer of the horror of what it is, and it’s a knowledge that is hard to accept but it is also essential to have an understanding,” said Ward.

Throughout Rwandan’s history, neighbors have settled disputes through the Gacaca courts, which were a place to discuss personal and community problems. After the genocide, when the government returned over 50,000 thousand genocide perpetrators back to their communities, the Gacaca courts became a place to promote community healing.

Ward said that the Gacaca courts were interesting to learn about how the courts worked and why some of the courts did work and some did not.

“I think in a lot of these places where they are so war-torn and have experienced such desperate conditions, I think people want to forgive and want to heal…[and] they see [forgiveness] as the only option to move on,” said Ward.

Ward said that the idea of forgiveness for her was also linked to a greater sense of optimism and hope.

“I think that if we assume that people who do wrong to society are committed to an evil way, there’s no hope for society, no hope for growth,” said Ward.

For Fox, she said that this class has led her to think about the meaning of forgiveness in her daily life.

“It is incredible to see the strength of human character through this class, and admire from afar the grace these victims display, being able to forgive—truly forgive their attackers without asking anything in return,” said Fox.

Fox explained that after learning about the strength that the characters have, it has inspired her to forgive as well.

“I have to say, after studying the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide, the petty grudges that I’ve been holding seem downright childish. And the truth is this class has helped me see that, and I’ve begun letting things go,” said Fox. “All of the authors are right, it does feel better.”

This article was composed by Charlotte Anthony.