Forgiveness and Peacebuilding in Uganda

A generous grant from the Fetzer Institute enabled Professor Daniel Philpott to lead a research project on the attitudes and practice of forgiveness in the wake of armed conflict.  Working in partnership with the Refugee Law Project, Philpott conducted focus groups, interviews, and a 600-person survey in five districts of Uganda. Philpott's final report can be found here, and his executive summary is below.

Forgiveness: Unveiling an Asset for Peacebuilding

Executive Summary

Ugandans approve of and practice forgiveness widely in the wake of armed conflict. If widely practiced, promoted and complemented with appropriate transitional justice mechanisms, forgiveness can be a strong asset for peace-building.

This is true despite the widespread perception among Ugandans that peace in their country is fragile and negative, insofar as overt violence is absent but the conditions of justice and development are not present. Uganda remains hobbled by weaknesses in its political system, disputes over land and other property, a lack of development aid, the breakdown of family systems, and a lack of implementation of appropriate transitional justice measures like trials, truth commissions, reparations, apologies, and memorialization.

Ugandans regard forgiveness not merely as a matter of relinquishing claims against their perpetrators, but also as one of constructing a better relationship with them. The degree of restoration varies greatly. For instance, it is quite common for victims to speak of forgiving “in the heart” perpetrators who are not present.

Ugandans voice support for forgiveness at high rates despite the fact that a range of other measures, including repentance, truth-telling, acknowledgment of wrongs, apology, accountability, compensation, reparations, and development aid are widely absent.

Six broad motivations for forgiveness are identified: religion, tribal traditions, family traditions, the desire for psychological peace, the quest for peace in the community at large, and a recognition of the complexity of perpetrators’ motives. While religious leaders, especially those with strong moral authority, are strong advocates of forgiveness, few Ugandans described feeling pressured to forgive by religious leaders.

Most personal characteristics correlated weakly with forgiveness. It matters little, for instance, whether one is male or female as to whether one forgives. Among religions, Protestant non-mainline Christians forgave  at unusually high rates, while support for forgiveness correlates with the frequency of prayer. The relationship between the period of time since the act of violence and the decision to forgive was ambiguous, and rates of forgiveness varied from region and region. Age, income and education were not correlated with forgiveness.

Our chief recommendation is that those involved in the work of peace-building, whether in an official governmental or a non-governmental capacity, incorporate forgiveness actively into their work. Because forgiveness is best promoted through teaching and example and is undermined when it becomes pressured, programmed, or scripted, it is best promoted by civil society organizations, both religious and secular. Family and traditional rituals are also forums where forgiveness can be taught and practiced. Forgiveness ought to be incorporated into transitional justice practices as well. Political, religious, and tribal leaders can be especially strong advocates of forgiveness, especially when they carry moral authority and practice forgiveness by example.