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“Escaping the Symbolic Politics Trap: Reconciliation Initiatives and Conflict”

Kaufman, Stuart J.
June 4, 2015

Source: (2006) Journal of Peace Research. 43(2):201-218.

Existing approaches to resolving civil wars are based primarily on the assumption that these wars result
from conflicts of interest among rational individuals. However, peacebuilding efforts based on this
approach usually fail in cases of ethnic civil war, leading sooner or later to renewed fighting. Symbolic
politics theory suggests the problem with these peace efforts is that they pay insufficient attention to
ameliorating the emotional and symbolic roots of extremist ethnic politics. The theory suggests that
resolving ethnic war requires reconciliation – changing hostile attitudes to more moderate ones, assuaging
ethnic fears, and replacing the intragroup symbolic politics of ethnic chauvinism with a politics that
rewards moderation. The only policy tools for promoting such attitudinal and social changes are
reconciliation initiatives such as leaders’ acknowledgement of their sides’ misdeeds, public education
efforts such as media campaigns, and problem-solving workshops. Integrating such reconciliation
initiatives into a comprehensive conflict resolution strategy, it is argued, is necessary for conflict
resolution efforts to be more effective in ending ethnic civil wars.


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