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Transformative Kiwi Justice and the Christchurch Massacre

By Jeremy Simons

With 50 murder charges and numerous lower charges, as well as the public nature and social media "performance" of the crime, there is little doubt that Brenton Tarrant will be found guilty of murder in the Christchurch massacre. Yet the scale and global magnification of the crime insinuate that the massacre was no ordinary crime scene. Thus, ordinary legal justice confined to the immediate jurisdiction will not do.

Beyond Legal Justice

I am not suggesting that some sort of quasi-legal or extra-judicial intervention be done instead. New Zealand's courts are primary caretakers of orderly due process, so effectively and judiciously pursuing and concluding the legal case will provide a counterweight to the desire by white supremacists to hijack the event for further anti-Muslim propaganda, and on the other side, reduce the potential for this to stoke anti-Christian violence.

However, precisely because of the collective impact and global kinetic repercussions spread via social media, and the limitations of the courts to address these wider issues, it is important that justice not only be left in the hands of legal professionals. This requires wider efforts to prevent further copy-cat attacks and retaliatory strikes by those seeking revenge. These efforts must be collective, varied, electronic, and multi-layered, some immediate and others sustained, as manifestations of what I call Transformative Justice. While I am not the first to use the term, what I mean by Transformative Justice includes not only policing and legal forms of justice, but restorative justice and transitional justice initiatives as well - all woven together in an integrated tapestry that promotes immediate accountability, social healing, and violence prevention.

Legal and legislative efforts to tighten New Zealand’s gun laws are a critical first step. However, moving beyond a purely legal perspective in dealing with the violence and its aftermath will ultimately make our communities safer, assuage the needs of victims more effectively and help channel the energy that might be directed to violent reprisals. This needs to be done in ways that do not create a blame backlash among groups in Kiwi society that feel threatened by the rapid social, economic, and demographic changes that have occurred in New Zealand over the past few decades.

Collective Restorative Justice and the Gender Multiplier

One perspective that can help in this effort is a collective restorative justice (RJ) approach. RJ has already been used both within and without the criminal justice and corrections systems in New Zealand. It generally involves face-to-face encounters between victims and offenders facilitated by specialists who guide the discussion to address three questions: 1) what was the harm caused? 2) how will it be repaired? and, 3) who is responsible for that repair? In other words, RJ helps bring into focus and concretely address the physical, relational, and social harms caused by violence.

Research has shown that restorative processes in tandem with legal accountability consistently produce higher satisfaction for victims of crime than legal or restorative processes alone. Surprisingly to some, in cases involving violent crimes, RJ has even higher levels of victim satisfaction than for lower level, non-violent cases, as well as a gender multiplier effect for women’s empowerment in the justice process. In other words, RJ in coordination with legal safeguards, provides a better response for the deep psychological and social impacts of violence and trauma, especially for those, frequently women, who are more vulnerable to violence and bear the heavier weight of its impact.

I will restate and alter my opening. The Christchurch massacre was not an ordinary crime scene, so not only will ordinary criminal justice not suffice, neither will ordinary restorative justice. In light of the large number of primary and secondary victims, as well as the indirect trauma inflicted on the nation as a whole, a simple RJ approach is inadequate. Rather, a collective RJ approach provides a framework for addressing any harmful behaviour – from the interpersonal to the social to the structural. Therefore, the values and framework of RJ are essential in moving forward a collective, survivor-centred approach.

Transforming Trauma through Cultural Resilience

Central to such a collective restorative approach is highlighting the resilience and capacity of the Muslim community to assert its vision for how the harm can be repaired. Islam is not only a religion, but a dynamic supra-cultural ideology unifying various ethnic sub-cultures. In the southern Philippines where I have been engaged in peacebuilding work for over a decade, a listening process was undertaken which obtained the input of over 3,000 ordinary Muslims, Indigenous Peoples, and Christian settlers as part of a "tri-people" transitional justice component to the formal peace process between the government and Islamic revolutionary groups.

An analogous series of open-ended consultation processes that bring into dialogue direct survivors, the victims' families, informal Muslim leaders, the wider and global Muslim community, with the support of non-Muslim friends and supporters of all stripes and colours, could provide a critical mass and platform for Christchurch survivors to support each other over the long haul. The goal of this process would be to collectively articulate ways in which justice, conceived under a restorative and healing framework, can be accomplished. Also prioritizing multi-faceted and rich Maori experiences and perspectives on justice and healing would in itself redress the historical violence and neglect experienced by New Zealand's own indigenous population, and foreground their necessary participation and leadership if this effort is to claim a truly community-based Transformative Justice identity.

A process built around Muslim-Maori-Pakeha strengths would provide a culturally-safe and appropriate way of processing the trauma of the event, and thus should not be time-bound. This must include specialized training and careful coordination between justice and public safety professionals, social welfare agencies, and non-governmental organizations and individuals with the skills to assist. The recent denial by ACC to support mental health trauma services for the father of one of the victims (as reported in the Otago Daily Times) is indicative of the critical importance of this.

Expanding Circles of Forgiveness, Social Media, and Everyday Anti-racism

A Transformative Justice process also provides an avenue for the generous spirit of reconciliation exemplified by Farid Ahmed, who expressed forgiveness to the man who killed his wife, to be amplified as a vivid example of Islamic non-violence. It might eventually even involve a forum for a facilitated encounter between Brenton Tarrant and representatives of the community he so grievously harmed, a process that has been known to open the eyes of even the hardest criminals to the horrific effects of their actions.

Such efforts are ingredients in a crucial tonic to the potential incendiary rallying effect of the incident, which can be used as propaganda promoting violent Jihad, and which has exacerbated geo-political friction as video clips of the attack were used by Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdrogan for his political campaign soon after the massacre. Encouraging and resourcing social media efforts translating and scaling up Transformative Justice initiatives into various arenas and platforms is an urgent imperative. It would capitalize on the positive potential of the internet to invert destructive social media discourses and curb their incitement of actual, kinetic violence.

Collective restorative justice should not only be integrated with acute legal responses to the Christchurch attack, but utilized as a framework for future grass roots anti-racism efforts. Effective anti-racism programs are not built by banning bigotry, if that were even possible. Rather, they work when people with negative biases, which are invariably based on stereotype, myth, partial truth, and exaggeration, are brought into relationship with the “other” who is the target of those same biases. Doing this requires courageous yet respectful confrontations, restorative conversations, and friendships with those who express such attitudes in everyday interaction.

The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACs) where I am a student has begun this kind of “conversational” initiative, which is an essential part of concretely expanding the circle of response into the everyday life of the community, as well as beyond the immediate crisis response time frame. Zones of peace where such radical disagreements can be expressed have been used in conflict situations around the world to defuse and prevent cycles of violence. These "zones" require intentional "construction" of safe places and reflective spaces for sustained social transformation, another effort that students at NCPACS have initiated through a "Safe Place" campaign at: https://www.facebook.com/Safe-Space-New-Zealand-2177568969017521/ and http://bit.ly/safespacenz.

Transitional Justice

Finally, since both the legal and restorative approach involve inherent limitations, we can borrow from the play-book of transitional justice in constructing an institutional strategy that is complementary with the values undergirding a restorative approach and the procedural justice of the courts. Transitional justice describes a cluster of responses that nations have used in dealing with the shift (hence the term "transitional") from large-scale violence such as civil war, genocide, and the injustices committed by regimes that governed with impunity. While South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is perhaps the most famous, there have been a great many efforts since the 1990s in a variety of countries and contexts that could provide insight for New Zealand’s effort.

After nearly three decades, these transitional justice endeavours have generated a veritable cottage industry of research, institutions, and consultancies around the concept. The creation of a Royal Commission Inquiry into the Christchurch attack in many ways falls in the domain of transitional justice and is an extremely important effort to be commended. Transitional justice can help frame the multiple inquiries that will necessarily compose the work of such a Commission. These can be identified under four rubrics of exploration and engagement: truth-telling, reparations, justice, and non-recurrence for dealing with the past. A series of critical questions based on these rubrics would generate not only productive avenues of inquiry for the commission, but would help expand the circle of stakeholders for the process.

Kiwi Justice - A Beacon of Hope

In conclusion, a Kiwi-crafted Transformative Justice approach that reflects New Zealand’s unique local cultures and maximizes her expanded global credibility is possible. It encompasses an integrated response to the Christchurch massacre that includes legal, restorative and transitional elements. It takes seriously and holistically integrates the individual, collective, cultural and institutional obligations engendered by the atrocity. The mechanisms of legal justice ensure the individual is held directly accountable for the actions he committed. Collective restorative justice provides a paradigm that centralizes the role of the survivors and the cultural voices of the broader community in the process. Transitional justice brings into focus the wider role of the state and other institutions in society to address underlying structural, political, historical, and cultural root causes and prevent recurrence.

New Zealand’s initial response to the attack has already provided a positively viral beacon of hope for communities and nations seeking to navigate polarized and violent realities. Building on this through a comprehensive Transformative Justice approach will further demonstrate that justice and healing are not mutually exclusive, but are soul-mates of reconciliation in a divided world.

Jeremy Simons is a doctoral learner at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. A trainer, mediator, advocate, and researcher, he draws on over 15 years of expertise in Conflict Transformation (CT), Restorative Justice (RJ), Chaplaincy, and Appreciative Inquiry (AI). He has consulted with various academic, organizational, religious, and community organizations in the Unites States, the Philippines and New Zealand. He believes in family, the power of humour in difficult circumstances, and the importance of chocolate, God, coffee, and hugs in facing the challenges of life. His doctoral research focuses on restorative leadership, peace processes, and indigenous justice in the southern Philippines.

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