From Revenge to Forgiveness: Strengthening Durable Peace in Post-Conflict Societies

The Shia shrine of Sayida Zeyneb is located on a hill overlooking the old center of Shingal (Sinjar). It was destroyed by the Islamic State but was recently rebuilt after the war (Levi Clancy).









In November 2019, GLD and its partners Senior Research Fellow Kristen Kao (Principal Investigator), Michael Bang Petersen (Aarhus University), and Kristen Fabbe (Harvard University) were awarded 3.2 million SEK (approx. 320,000 USD) to study the drivers of reconciliation for rebel collaborators in Iraq. In 2020, Kristen Kao won a grant from the Folke Bernadotte Academy for 396 000 SEK (approx. 42,000 USD) to supplement the project. The project will run from 2020-2023.

Civil conflicts gravely damage the state’s legitimacy. Institutions are rendered incapable of providing security; social trust among its citizenry diminishes; and non-state actors step in to fill the vacuum of power. Following conflict, the state needs to re-establish itself as the legitimate arbiter of processes aimed at bringing former rebel collaborators to justice. Unless it carefully considers subnational variation in the drivers of forgiveness and reconciliation with rebel collaborators, the state may generate new grievances among some communities, increasing the chances of rebel recidivism or the outbreak of new conflict.

This project develops and tests a novel framework integrating political science theories of legitimacy with psychological theories of forgiveness, feelings of (in)justice and desire for revenge. To test this framework, we conduct in-depth interviews, hold focus groups and implement three large-scale surveys with embedded experiments (N=3,600) in Iraq, a country that has endured a series of civil conflicts culminating in the recent confrontation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This project employs innovative tools to identify both the subnational drivers of violent resentment towards the state and the drivers of reconciliation. It provides policymakers with the information necessary to design successful strategies for reconciliation, re-establishment of state legitimacy, and lasting peace. The findings of this project will have lasting impacts in Iraq and beyond. Collaboration with local Iraqi institutions will create lasting international linkages between the project team and Iraqi researchers, policymakers and development practitioners.



Kristen Kao. "From Revenge to Forgiveness: Strengthening Durable Peace in Post-Conflict Societies." Middle East Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School, October 31, 2019. AFS/General Research Seminar, Gothenburg University. 

Kristen Kao. "Retribution or Reconciliation? Attitudes Toward Rebel Collaborators in Iraq." Middle East Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School, December 9, 2019. Hosted by Tarek Massoud. 

Kristen Kao. “From Revenge to Forgiveness: Strengthening Durable Peace in Post-Conflict Societies.” The Folke Bernadotte Academy, Stockholm, Sweden, February 6, 2020.


Upcoming Workshops: 

February 2021: “Developing Survey Measures of Punishment, Revenge, and Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Settings” 

April 2021: “Designing Survey Experiments on the Micro-Foundations of Post-Conflict Reconciliation”



Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and Folke Bernadotte Academy