Thursday, 13 August 2009


Two years ago I spent some time in Sierra Leone researching my Masters dissertation. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Index it's the poorest country on the planet. The conflict that tore that country apart is a harrowing story of child soldiers, brutal amputations and destroyed communities. My dissertation examined the gap between the ‘peace’ of Special Courts and Truth & Reconciliation Committees (TRC) and the reality of that ‘peace’ as experienced by men, women and children without homes or prospects and carrying the scars of the conflict.

Central to that debate was justice. On the one hand the belief that criminal justice equates to peace and in stark contrast the reality on the ground. The work of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society addressed the needs of lives torn apart by conflict by seeking advocacy and reconciliation, particularly on behalf of child soldiers.

The consequence was not communities that rejected these men and women, often guilty of heinous crimes, but to actively engage in reconciliation and the rebuilding of their lives together. Clearly it wasn't enough to try Foday Sankoh or Charles Taylor. Not only did everyone know that those indicted were guilty but most of them died prior to facing trial. So what did attempted legal restitution achieve? The lives of those I met were being pieced together by people getting together, talking and forgiving before moving on as a restored community.

This is the poorest and the least developed country in the world recovering from untold evil. Not by punishing the people responsible for those crimes but actively welcoming them back into their midst. Very challenging.

The reason this is brought to mind is the recent media attention surrounding Ronnie Briggs, Peter Connelly and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Briggs has been released from prison on compassionate grounds and it’s being suggested that the same thing should be possible for al-Megrahi whilst the identities of those involved in the death of Peter Connelly have this week been made public. Alongside those pictures have been discussions about giving them new identities when they are released from prison, causing outrange at the waste of taxpayers’ cash.

Predictably there are loud voices of dissent. And it's the same whenever someone is sentenced for a high profile crime. Wherever there is the pain of loss, those responsible need to suffer in a way that ‘fits the crime’. But what punishment ever truly fits a crime on that basis? Is it like for like? One life for another?

I question whether that is a justice that gives peace? If our response is to require someone to suffer in our stead it doesn't stop our pain or make us feel any less raw. The more you punish,the more you pursue an impossible criteria for restitution. And so we’ve developed an incredibly sophisticated justice system that provides an agreed standard of societal justice. The British hand over responsibility for justice to those who have spent their lives studying the law and analysing defendants. On our behalf, and speaking for society, these men and women declare what punishment is appropriate and what justice is.

But then we can't accept that it has atoned for the crime.

Because the issues aren't just with sentencing, they're at release too. When granted freedom ex-cons have atoned for their actions in the eyes of the law (and by extension the rest of society). It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re unrepentant, or seek restitution and reconciliation with those they’ve hurt because that’s beyond the remit of a secular justice system. Except that we don't see it that way. Former prisoners face barriers to engaging with society, which some would say should be expected. But aren't those barriers only going to perpetuate those destructive behaviours? When Tracey Connelly, her picture widely publicised, leaves prison she will do so into the arms of a society ready to exact vengeance on her son's behalf.

Even though justice will have been served.

Not justice in terms of what some would demand but on that day she will have done what the state demands to provide restitution to the population of Britain.

If on that day she requires a new identity it will be because the papers who first bemoan her sentence and then her false identity are the same people who give credibility to a position that says ‘the justice system is broken, it doesn’t go far enough and she needs to suffer for what she did’.

Fundamentally, British society believes that there’s something people have to do to make themselves right with us; some standard of acceptability to achieve; or some punishment that resolves the past in order to change the future.

I don’t believe that.

I found Sierra Leone an incredibly challenging experience for a variety of reasons but fortunately we don’t have to visit West Africa to see life changing behaviour in action. Gee Verona-Walker, the mother of Anthony Walker, forgave her son’s killers. She knew that carrying the pain did nothing. She knows that it is no disrespect to the memory of her son to celebrate his life rather than searching for a potentially non-existent criteria for satisfaction.

As a Christian I fundamentally believe that lives do not have to depend on histories. And I believe that forgiveness, true past-forgetting unconditional forgiveness can heal anything. Impossible? Perhaps. Hard? Certainly. But the things that I believe rotate around that central, crucial, life transforming principle.