May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Is reconciliation sleeping with the devil?

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Vanessa Johanson

Reverend Benny Giay exemplifies the complexity of approaches needed to resolve Indonesia's conflicts. As well as being one of the founders of the Irian Jaya Forum for Reconciliation (Foreri), he is also a vehement advocate of justice for human rights cases, is writing a book about Papuan heroes to rectify the skewed history in the history books, and was involved in the early days of the pro-independence Papua Presidium Council.

His story demonstrates some of the many dilemmas of conflict transformation work in Indonesia's complex conflicts. How does one stay neutral in the midst of brutality? How does one deal with one's own political preferences when trying to encourage a negotiated process? How does one take a stand for justice, while at the same time insisting on a non-violent, non-confrontational process? And how does one do any kind of work for change in a situation where one's life and one's colleagues' lives are under daily threat?

Many human rights advocates see themselves as being involved in conflict transformation (or its sister concepts: conflict resolution, peace-building, conflict prevention, etc.) and vice versa. It is indeed possible to work in both human rights and conflict transformation at once, but the distinction between the two approaches to social change, peace and justice is quite stark. Conflict resolvers try to work with both or many sides on many levels, in order to bring long-term peace and justice through mutual acknowledgement of the other sides' interests and needs. Human rights advocates focus as a matter of principle on the state as culprit and as the party ultimately obligated to create conditions and institutions which guarantee human rights protection and peace. Rather than dialogue, they tend to carry out investigations, lobby and utilise legal systems to achieve change.

I write as someone who has worked as a human rights activist, a non-violence and peace campaigner, and conflict transformation practitioner in Indonesia and Australia. In my view, Indonesia's many violent conflicts, some involving the state directly, some very indirectly, need many nuanced approaches in order to resolve them effectively. And we need to be clear about the methods we are using and the reason for choosing these methods.

Conflict transformation

The choice to use conflict transformation methods is both a moral and a pragmatic one. The moral choice is in part a recognition that process is as important as outcome, and a belief that, put simply, a conflict transformation approach brings out the best in people, and can fundamentally change people and systems in a moral and not just a legal sense. It attempt to engage and accommodate as many interests as possible by means of activities such as multi-level dialogue based on open mutual recognition of conflict and a need to end it through non-violent means; education for pluralism; joint multi-ethnic, multi-religious activities of all kinds; negotiation and mediation; and media which report and demonstrate resolutions rather than focusing on violence.

Conflict transformation workers do their utmost not to take sides. In fact the only thing conflict resolvers 'advocate' as such is a process which is non-violent and promotes dialogue. Benny Giay expressed the difficulty of neutrality when he explained his involvement in the mediation with pro-independence kidnappers for the release of two Belgian hostages in Papua last year. 'The church was seen by everyone as the most neutral party possible to do the mediation. But some of the people in the community there condemned Christianity, and called on the heavens to open up and bring floods on Indonesia.' In another example, the Irian Jaya Forum for Reconciliation became swept up in pro- and anti-independence politics and is now relatively inactive.

The moral choice of conflict transformation practitioners is also based on a belief that an aggressive approach to ending aggression will ultimately lead to continued bad relations in the future, and ultimately to more aggression. Even conflict transformation's most ardent supporters have their limits, however. Some would draw the line at pursuing dialogue with violent husbands, others with the likes of vicious East Timorese militia leader Eurico Guterres, others would only draw the line at Hitler or military butchers like Benny Murdani.

There are many pragmatic reasons for choosing conflict transformation techniques. Sometimes it is simply a matter of survival, in which case arguments of principle are regrettably less relevant. Continued use of force or vehement argument for change in some situations only invites destruction or endless expensive military deadlock, and therefore dialogue is essential. It is a pragmatic choice of taking the long road of discussion rather than the short one of annihilation or political and economic bankruptcy. Sometimes the pragmatic choice is not so extreme, but dialogue is seen as the most effective technique in a particular conflict, in order to resolve it to everyone's satisfaction and prevent recurrence. Those choosing a multi-level dialogue approach may not deny that the problem was perhaps caused - by commission or omission - by one powerful party, often the state. Nevertheless, in most situations, maintaining sustained peace and justice is something in which everyone needs to be involved, not just the lead antagonist/s in the conflict.

In many countries - Indonesia included - where genocide or long-term abuses have occurred, there are far too many culprits, far too many victims, far too little hard evidence and far too weak a justice system to execute, jail or fine everybody involved. Therefore reconciliation processes are chosen as the best way of achieving a sense of justice without using time-consuming human rights or legal approaches. Unfortunately, in Indonesia, sometimes the mediation road is taken because there is no other effective mechanism - be it strong democratic institutions, reliable media or a functioning, clean justice system - to help solve conflicts.


Conflict transformation approaches, however, have a hard time taking effect unless there is some kind of a justice system, or at least an overall sense of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within which they can operate. This is acknowledged in mediation theory through what is sometimes called 'legitimacy', or a mutually agreed, 'neutral and objective' set of standards. This 'legitimacy' may be a pact like the South African Peace Accord, it may be shared religious values, it may be a law itself like the Geneva Conventions or a national constitution, or it may simply be a shared agreement, for example, that killing is unacceptable whatever the reasons.

Some human rights advocates reject conflict transformation as an invitation to do deals with the devil, to water down hard-won standards, and to deflect the blame for violence onto the victims, or at least onto the 'foot soldiers' rather than the 'generals'. Indeed, conflict transformation acknowledges that there are different versions of 'truth,' 'right,' and 'just,' and that for example General Wiranto should be able to have his version aired (non-violently) just as much as East Timor's Bishop Belo or ousted refugees should. Conflict transformation avoids allocating blame or dwelling on the past, no matter how painful, in order to try to achieve shared futures.

Unfortunately, like many useful terms (such as 'development,' and 'empowerment'), 'reconciliation' has gained itself a skewed meaning in Indonesia, both during and since the New Order. In Pontianak, West Kalimantan, a Madurese community leader told me how he had been asked by the local government to sign a peace declaration with the Dayaks. He was picked up from his house by the military, he recounted, and led to the forum with an already-prepared declaration by two soldiers, and asked to sign. 'It's not what I call reconciliation,' he laughed, several years, and several violent inter-ethnic incidents later.

The recently negotiated Malino Declaration for peace in Poso, Sulawesi, brokered by a flown-in top-level delegation from the government in Jakarta, has attracted much praise as well as criticism. Many see it as shallow and imposed. Others on the contrary see it as providing much-needed political space and legitimacy for community follow-up which will provide lasting peace.

Conflict transformation is far from the answer to all conflicts in all contexts. Human rights advocacy is very much in synergy with the work of conflict transformation by providing the space for dialogue, particularly with difficult and powerful players, by demanding top-level responsibility for abuses and by providing a norm of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Activists like Benny Giay demonstrate this fact in their different choices of approach.

Vanessa Johanson ( is an 'Inside Indonesia' board member.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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