New book focuses on reconciling societies shattered by violence

Author: Joan Fallon

Ernesto Verdeja

How do you reconcile former enemies in a society shattered by war, genocide or violence?

In a new book, “Unchopping a Tree: Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Political Violence,” published by Temple University Press, Ernesto Verdeja answers this question by examining reconciliation efforts in post-conflict regions from Chile to South Africa to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He proposes a new theory of reconciliation — one focused on a process of public truth-telling, accountability for perpetrators, recognition of victims, commitment to the rule of law and, most importantly, cultivation of moral respect and dignity.

“After war or genocide, former enemies must reach some form of morally acceptable coexistence, even though they have great political differences and disagreements,” says Verdeja, assistant professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. “The key to reconciliation is not forgiveness or social harmony, but respect for each other’s moral worth.”

The book analyzes reconciliation at four levels: among political leaders, through legal and institutional actors (trials and truth commissions), within civil society and among individuals. As the title suggests, the process is often disjointed and may occur differently among political elites and regular people, Verdeja says.

“True reconciliation is achieved in a society only when the conflict-era identities — black/white, left/right, Hutu/Tutsi, Muslim/Christian — are no longer the primary cleavages in politics, and people acquire new identities that cut across those earlier fault lines.”

“‘Unchopping a Tree’ . . . offers a sustained and clarifying analysis of respect and thus moves beyond forgiveness as the key to personal and political reconstruction after mass atrocities,” writes Martha Minow of Harvard University. “The integration of personal narratives into the conceptual analysis makes this an especially valuable treatment of the daunting and demanding challenges for societies recovering from violence.”

Verdeja “does an excellent job of presenting what he finds to be the strengths and weaknesses of the competing major approaches to this topic on the way to constructing and defending his alternative,” writes Ron Eyerman of Yale University. “His style is both pedagogic and clear-sighted. I think this will be an important work that makes a clear contribution to the literature.”

Verdeja earned his doctoral degree in political science from the New School for Social Research in New York City. His research focuses on large-scale political violence, transitional justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, and trials, truth commissions and reparations. He has published articles in Constellations, Res Publica, Metaphilosophy, Contemporary Political Theory, The European Journal of Political Theory, and Contemporary Politics, and a book chapter in “Genocide War Crimes and the West.” He also has co-edited a book on transitional justice and a book on civil society in Cuba.

Verdeja previously taught at Wesleyan University, where he received two awards for his research and teaching. In 2008, he joined Notre Dame’s faculty in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Department of Political Science. He also is a core faculty member of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements and Social Change.

Contact: Ernesto Verdeja, 574-631-8533,