In Uganda, what’s the role of forgiveness in peacebuilding?

In the war-ravaged African nation of Uganda — a deeply religious country — the concept of forgiveness “seems to be everywhere,” said Daniel Philpott, associate professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. (Email:

Dancers enact traditional peacebuilding practices in Uganda

Students in the Lira Palwo Senior Secondary School in Pader district Northern Uganda perform Bwola dance on 10 September 2010 in a Peace Activities Event sponsored by United Movement to End Child Soldiering (UMECS) in which their school hosted students from Sir Samuel Baker School from Gulu in a day of peace drama, debate, poems, songs, music and dance.

Philpott recently returned from Uganda, where he is exploring the traditional indigenous practice of forgiveness as it is now being practiced among survivors of the two-decades-long civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army — consisting largely of abducted young boys — and the Ugandan government.

Philpott’s ongoing study asks the question: “What role, if any, does forgiveness play in the context of war, in the wake of unspeakable atrocities?”

His project begins as the Uganda war has abated and major efforts are underway to reintegrate thousands of refugees and former child soldiers who had been abducted from their villages and forced to kill, reports Joan Fallon of Notre Dame.

The concept of forgiveness “doesn’t have a lot of status in the international community, including the United Nations, human rights organizations, international lawyers, and diplomats,” said Philpott, an expert on religion and global politics.

[pullquote]“But [forgiveness] has played a role in a number of post-war regions…” [/pullquote]

“But [forgiveness] has played a role in a number of post-war regions.  My hunch was that forgiveness is more commonly practiced than we know, and that it may be flying under the peacebuilding radar in some parts of the world.”

Philpott’s Uganda pilot project, funded by the Fetzer Institute, is the first step in what he hopes will be a multi-year research initiative on forgiveness in peacebuilding.

Forgiveness and peacebuilding in Uganda

Professor Dan Philpott with Uganda's Archbishop John Baptist Odama, a leader of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.

Philpott’s interview subjects included Archbishop John Baptist Odama, leader of the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, whom Philpott first met at Notre Dame in 2008. Archbishop Odama has publicly encouraged Ugandans to forgive perpetrators of war crimes and to observe traditional rituals of reconciliation.

Other subjects included Anglican bishops and Muslim clergy, district government officials, leaders of local NGOs, and “ordinary people,” including the mother of a girl abducted by the LRA from a Catholic girls school, who struggled for her daughter’s release and for justice while also advocating forgiveness. “I want to see what the experience of forgiveness is among the war’s victims,” Philpott said.

His study of forgiveness in Uganda will ask:

  •  Is it practiced widely or just among a few heroes?
  • Is it practiced with difficulty, with controversy?
  • Are there disputes around it?
  • Is it imposed, or does it resonate with what people believe?
  • Do people flourish around it?

Philpott is the director of the Program on Religion, Reconciliation and Peacebuilding at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. His book Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press as part of the Kroc Institute’s “Studies in Strategic Peacebuilding” series.

(Photos courtesy of Jason Cohen and United Movement to End Child Soldiering)

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