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Atonement and the Will to Reconciliation

Since May 2015, there has been an open-ended symposium on 'reconciliation' in the Policy Brief Series of the Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher. More than a dozen policy briefs have been published on different aspects of the topic. There is a list with hyperlinks at the bottom of the page.

These publications suggest that expressions of regret for the suffering of victims of mass-atrocity may reduce the demand for revenge, thus increasing the prospects for 'reconciliation'. Such expressions can take many forms, from guilty pleas in criminal proceedings, on the one end of the spectrum, to artistic expressions, on the other. The latter are not necessarily the same as self-incrimination or admission of responsibility. They entail recognition of the fact of suffering of victims (including family members), and regret for that suffering. Such expressions may affect the attitude of victims and their expectations of peace and justice, and even contribute to 'reconciliation' and building social unity.

German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeled in the former Warsaw Ghetto on 7 December 1970, as seen in the picture on the upper right. This act of kneeling became an important expression of regret or 'atonement' through the choice of body language. It contributed to 'reconciliation' between Germany and Poland after World War II, and to the creation of what became known as the ‘politics of reconciliation’ ('Politik der Versöhnung', see the second picture to the right). By bowing and kneeling, Brandt sought to bring the German and Polish nations a greater measure of unity. 

Conceptual clarity can stimulate artistic exploration. Willy Brandt's will to 'reconciliation' invokes the quality and concept of 'atonement'. Interestingly, ‘atonement’ means ‘to make something into one’: the mind wanders from the Latin ‘ad-una-mentum’ (‘at-one-ment’), through ‘to-one-make’ and ‘to one something’. ‘Atonement’ conveys two separate ideas of a) expressing regret, and b) reuniting or reconciling. The victims and their suffering constitute the object of the concept – that is what the regret is about, and that is where 'reconciliation' needs to be anchored. Subjectively, the regret implies empathy and a moral condition, and the very idea of 'reconciliation' implies a social awareness of and intention to contribute towards unity.

The notions of 'reconciliation' and 'atonement' have influenced several actors in transitional justice, not limited to criminal justice for core international crimes. In his capacity as adviser to the peace process between the Colombian Government and the FARC, CILRAP’s Director Morten Bergsmo explored the concept of 'atonement' further, consulting architects and artists on how the concept and Willy Brandt's legacy could find meaningful artistic expression. He encouraged the parties to use art in the 'reconciliation' process, and he took several steps to empower relevant actors.

Bergsmo involved architect Adam J.T. Robarts (a Canadian who has worked extensively in China since the 1990s) and sculptor Jason Arkles (an American based in Florence since the 1990s) to develop some ideas for how 'reconciliation' and 'atonement' can be expressed in sculpture, drawing on the example of the kneeling figure of Willy Brandt from 1970. Although mere sketches, we include some images in the right column on this page. As you can see, the ideas included both abstract sculpture (capturing the bowing and becoming one) and figurative sculpture (drawing on Colombian history, showing Polycarpa Salavarrieta freeing herself from chains of greed, strife and fear). These ideas were presented to the FARC leadership in the green Havana compound where the Colombian peace negotiations took place.

They are shared here in the hope that others may be encouraged to introduce art in ongoing or future peace or 'reconciliation' processes. The concepts of 'reconciliation' and 'atonement' lend themselves well for dialogue between law, philosophy, art and diplomacy, and for action informed by each domain. Sometimes politicians and diplomats involved in actual peace and 'reconciliation' processes recognise how artistic expression of 'atonement' or 'reconciliation' can speak to public imagination. This can reinforce formal agreements, and in some circumstances even exceed their effect. But the introduction of artistic expression does not depend on the officials engaged in peace and 'reconciliation' processes. Far from it, individual or civil society initiative, such as the Art and International Justice Initiative led by Marina Aksenova, can also affect the will to 'reconciliation'.  

More research and analysis should be undertaken on how artistic expression in peace and 'reconciliation' processes can reflect and stir public imagination or aspiration. Another topic for further reflection is whether the recognition by international law of the fundamental values or interests of 'reconciliation' and 'unity' is adequate.  

The following are among the publications released by the Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher on the topic of 'reconciliation': 


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