Restorative justice and peacebuilding

April 20, 2009 by Howard Zehr

As my colleague Lisa Schirch suggests in The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding, here at CJP we use the term peacebuilding as an umbrella concept to include many fields of activity that contribute to just and peaceful societies. Colleague Barry Hart uses a wheel diagram to illustrate this. Each segment or spoke is a way of supporting the peacebuilding hub. The ultimate goal is a just and peaceful society in which conflicts that naturally occur are handled in a healthy way.

Here is Barry Hart’s diagram:

Barry Hart's peacebuilding wheel graphic

We use the term “peacebuilding” instead of “peacemaking” because conflicts arise from specific contexts. To address conflicts and build peaceful communities, we have to understand the contexts that lead to conflict and create contexts that promote peace. As John Paul Lederach, our founding director, says, it takes as long to end a conflict as it does to create it. True peace requires us not to just make peace by ending conflicts but to build an infrastructure for peace.

We use the term conflict “transformation” rather than “resolution” to remind ourselves that conflict is normal and can often be an opportunity for growth. Again, it is important to analyze and address the relational and institutional context in which conflict occurs and to encourage healthy contexts in which conflict is manageable and furthers learning and renewal. (A slogan, then: “Conflict is opportunity. Don’t waste it.”)

CJP is organized around three central fields: trauma awareness and healing, conflict transformation and restorative justice. Several other auxiliary fields include healthy organizations and community development. Each of these, as well as other peacebuilding efforts, is connected to the hub of Barry’s wheel. Each is about building, maintaining and mending healthy and just relationships. Each has their own contributions to make toward this goal.

Restorative justice’s contributions to the peacebuilding field, it seems to me, are these:

1) A recognition that questions of justice and injustice are central to conflict and must be addressed if we are to manage conflict and build peaceful communities.

2) A relational understanding of wrongdoing that focuses on the impact on people and relationships rather than rules.

3) A set of principles to guide us when a harm or wrong has occurred. Put simply, these might be called reparation, accountability and engagement.

4) A group of specific practices that, although they use some skill sets similar to those for conflict resolution, allow us to name and address the harms involved and the resulting obligations. These include victim offender conferencing, family or restorative group conferencing and – perhaps most powerful and widely applicable – circle processes. (The latter are increasingly being used not only to address specific wrongs but also for community decision-making and development.)

5) An explicit grounding in core values that not only guide the processes but are fundamental for healthy relationships. While a number of values are often named, I often identify these core values as three “R’s” – respect, responsibility and relationships.

To summarize restorative justice as a way of addressing wrongdoing, we might put it in a series of “threes:”

3 assumptions underlie restorative justice:

  • When people and relationships are harmed, needs are created
  • The needs created by harms lead to obligations
  • The obligation is to heal and “put right” the harms; this is a just response.

3 principles of restorative justice reflect these assumptions: A just response…

  • acknowledges and repairs the harm caused by, and revealed by, wrongdoing (restoration);
  • encourages appropriate responsibility for addressing needs and repairing the harm (accountability);
  • involves those impacted, including the community, in the resolution (engagement).

3 underlying values provide the foundation:

  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Relationship

3 questions are central to restorative justice:

  • Who has been hurt?
  • What are their needs?
  • Who has the obligation to address the needs, to put right the harms, to restore relationships? (As opposed to: What rules were broken? Who did it? What do they deserve?)

3 stakeholder groups should be considered and/or involved:

  • Those who have been harmed, and their families
  • Those who have caused harm, and their families
  • Community

3 aspirations guide restorative justice: the desire to live in right relationship…

  • with one another;
  • with the creation;
  • with the Creator.