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Restorative Justice, Restoring Democracy | Reflections from #DemocracyDrinks

25 April 2024

What is restorative justice, why is it such a prime example of democratic decision-making, and what lessons can we draw from restorative justice practices in terms of how we approach and structure our societies?

On 18 April 2024, Anna Matczak, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Criminology at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, Restorative Justice Expert and NHC Committee Member, and Malini Laxminarayan, NHC Programme Officer Rights-Based Justice working on topics of survivor-centered advocacy, restorative justice, and victim rights, reflected on these questions and more, during the April edition of #DemocracyDrinks The Hague – entitled “Restorative Justice, Restoring Democracy”.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice refers to any process which enables those harmed by crime and those responsible for that harm, if they freely consent, to participate actively in the resolution of matters arising from the offence, through the help of a trained and impartial third party. – from the Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)8 of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers concerning restorative justice in criminal matters

While quite a few of the 60+ participants of the event raised their hand when asked if they were familiar with the concept of restorative justice, having a baseline definition helped kick off a lively discussion. Malini Laxminarayan, NHC Programme Officer for Rights-Based Justice, reflected firstly on the organisation’s “supporting catalysts of change” motto, and how this idea is perpetuated in restorative justice practices, with individuals raising their voices to demand change and that their rights are fulfilled.

Anna Matczak, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Criminology at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, addressed how cultural differences can affect restorative justice, and how some societies are more open to the idea of non-punitive approaches than other. Originally from Poland, Anna reflected how the viability of restorative justice in her country became a topic of great interest and research – with a particular focus on the concept of ‘restorative cities’.

What is a ‘restorative city’?

As Anna explained, it is a self-proclaimed title. The concept of restorative city is a way to acknowledge bottom up dialogical, restorative approaches and/or a top-down strategy to popularise restorative justice and mobilise community potential. She explained how she was introduced to the concept when visiting Wroclaw and meeting with a group of local changemakers. Many factors and enablers existed simultaneously in Wroclaw, as Anna recalled: a fertile community ground and many innovative initiatives, local changemakers (“probation officers in this case”), political will and context (“lack of collaboration with the government”).

[What Wroclaw taught us is that] waiting for a better climate for something to happen is a pitfall – the perfect climate may never come. We came to realise that, even if the political climate on national level is not favourable [as was the case in Poland]we can still make change.

What can we learn from restorative justice?

With much talk of restoring as well as safeguarding democracy in this super election year, Malini Laxminarayan considered what lessons we can draw from restorative justice in terms of how we approach and structure our societies.

At the NHC, we are currently working together with the criminal justice sectors in Armenia and Ukraine, developing and strengthening approaches based on restorative justice. We have to consider the role of these ‘catalysts of change’ and what it can mean for a restorative justice movement. From the victim perspective, survivor-led initiatives should be given a platform to engage, not only for the sake of promoting civic space, but also because victims and survivors are best placed to promote and develop restorative justice initiatives, even where other agencies and professionals act in ways counter to this. This is a societal shift that lays the groundworks for the rest – without it we don’t get far.

What followed was a lively discussion with the audience, with both speakers reiterating the main principle of restorative justice being one of consent and advocating for offering more space for survivor groups, not only in terms of their rights (access to all), but also in terms of how restorative justice programmes are developed. When answering questions on transitional justice and restorative approached, the speakers noted that, in these cases, “timing – alongside consent – is everything”.

The timing of offering restorative justice is crucial as all the affected parties need to be ‘ready’ and consent to take part. In cases of large scale [armed] conflicts, the timing for restorative justice involvement is even more crucial, as many victims would first ask for conventional justice mechanisms to see first and foremost accountability.

About #DemocracyDrinks

Originating in Brussels and the brain child of Defend Democracy, Democracy Drinks are a monthly gathering freedom-loving citizens; an informal networking event that attracts a lively mixture of people from NGOs, international institutions, think tanks, national governments and representations, academia, public affairs consultancies, social businesses and active citizens.

#DemocracyDrinks are currently organised in Brussels (Belgium), Berlin (Germany), Budapest (Hungary), Copenhagen / Aarhus (Denmark), Helsinki (Finland), Kathmandu (Nepal), London (UK), Montreal (Canada), The Hague (Netherlands), Washington DC (United States) and Zürich (Switzerland), always expanding.

Here in The Hague, Democracy Drinks are organized by The Hague Humanity Hub, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee. Follow our social media channels and Eventbrite page for more details on upcoming editions.