The restorative justice approach has great potential in responding to terrorist acts, and the ensuing polarization, because it focuses on forms of political and pre-political communication, exchange and encounters that are able to allow ‘difficult’ but respectful conversations in societal space.

…it seems to me, that there's something false in our resistance to evil, as though there were something concealed or unsaid. Perhaps man is mistaken in thinking that he is obliged to resist evil and has a right to do so, just as he is mistaken in thinking, for instance, that the heart looks like an ace of hearts. It is very possible in resisting evil we ought not to use force, but to use what is the very opposite of force…
— Vera Semyonovna in Excellent people by Anton Chekhov

The quote is taken by an enigmatic conversation taking place between a brother, Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky, and sister, Vera Semyonovna, in the short story Excellent People by Anton Chekhov.[1] The conversation unfolds during several days and does not end with a synthesis, but with the remaining different convictions of brother and sister on how to respond to evil. Whatever side one takes in this conversation, its faint echo lingers, as perhaps Chekhov meant it to. Moving along within its resonance (resisting evil with non-evil), I will try to bring together here two seemingly incompatible phenomena: restorative justice (RJ) and terrorism.

Originally conceptualised as an idea of justice that aspires to change the way in which contemporary societies react to crime, in recent decades RJ has been ‘upscaled’ as a response to political violence and large scale conflicts. The principles underpinning RJ may facilitate projects of political reconciliation by calling upon wrongdoers to acknowledge the wrong they have caused, offering recognition of victim suffering, providing opportunities for truth-telling and norm-clarification for all sides, and starting the process of bridge- building between divided parts of societies. In this ‘upscaling’ process, there are inevitably major adaptations needed and contexts and histories to account with. Experience inevitably trumps theory, and during the last years there were significant restorative justice initiatives to deal with terrorism. Following Zernova’s article (2017), I will present here an overview about the Basque Country, but there are also other important activities in Italy (Bertagna, Ceretti and Mazzucato, 2015) and Northern Ireland. While the initiatives in the Basque Country and Northern Ireland had official institutional support, the Italian one, despite its breadth and number of people involved, was completely private.

RJ initiatives in the Basque Country

In the Basque Country there has been no major form of truth and reconciliation initiatives regarding ETA’s terrorism, but only some smaller ones, among which a programme of Victim-Offender encounters and various Community Forums. The former, a standard RJ format, launched in September 2011, shortly before ETA’s declaration of a definitive end of its armed activity, and took place in the Basque prison of Nanclares de Oca. A group of about 20 prisoners who were serving prison sentences for assassinations, attempted assassinations and kidnaps, but who had distanced themselves from ETA, had been transferred to this institution in the previous years. The RJ programme started following a request of these prisoners who petitioned the Basque government’s Directorate for the Attention to Victims of Terrorism, asking for an opportunity to meet their victims. Professional mediators were employed to facilitate encounters between them and victims (survivors of terrorist attacks or their relatives). The prisoners received no penitentiary benefits as a result of their participation.

Out of the 14 encounters, some brought together victims and offenders from the same terrorist act, while others involved meetings between victims and offenders from different acts. The aim was to promote a restorative dialogue and facilitate individual healing and closure. The team of mediators carefully assessed attitudes of offenders in preliminary meetings so as to evaluate their suitability for restorative encounters in the attempt of preventing re-victimising victims. This meant that they accepted only the offenders who had fully distanced themselves from ETA and rejected its ideology, while excluding those who politically justified their crimes or claimed a victims’ identity vis-a-vis the state. There was therefore a conscious effort made to de-politicise these crimes, treating them the same way as other serious crimes, as acts of violence carried out by offenders against their victims. This effort conceals the fact that ETA’s violence was part of revolving cycles of violence, in which the state itself was an actor, that there are layers of victimization and competing narratives of what has happened, that individuals move between the ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ roles over the course of the conflict, without mentioning significant degrees of public participation and complicity.

Although there was no official evaluation of the programme, interviews with victims and offenders that appeared in the media, and written accounts have indicated that both victims and offenders found the encounters helpful, and personally transforming. Nevertheless, the programme left some important gaps that other initiatives in the country tried to fill. For example another programme organised again in the Nanclares prison, called Workshops of Coexistence, brought together besides the ETA prisoners and their victims, also social activists, academics, politicians and journalists. The participants questioned not only ETA’s violence, but also the social context that sustained it, and forms of violence proliferated by the different sides of the Basque conflict, such as GAL and state agencies, police and security services.

The so-called Glencree initiative, promoted by the same Directorate in 2007, brought together 27 victims of violence. Among those who took part were people whose relatives were kidnapped, tortured and assassinated by ETA, GAL or extreme right organisations, as well as direct victims of the police torture and people whose relatives were tortured or killed by the police. This initiative inspired subsequent citizenship and educational programmes supported by the Basque government in 2013 aiming to create spaces and public forums where citizens could engage in a dialogue and collective reflection about politically-motivated violence, its consequences and social co-existence in its aftermath, where victims of all types of violence visited colleges and provided their testimonies to students to de-legitimate terrorism and call for peaceful coexistence, and where testimonies from all sides would be heard, accompanied by documentary films and theatrical plays.

One important feature of these initiatives is their attempt to engage a wider circle of participants beyond individual victims and offenders, so as to provide a forum for collective forms of reflection and a multiplicity of narratives (a feature found also in the Italian experience). As Zernova (2017) points out, they were very significant because they reset lost communication between parties from different sides of the conflict, and disrupted the ‘official narrative’ promoted by the Spanish government who denied the existence of the Basque conflict, defining the problem exclusively as ETA terrorism. Moving beyond the criminal law frame, these initiatives acknowledged the existence of multiple victims and multiple forms of violence and enabled multiple narratives to emerge. Only an approach which recognises the political breadth and complexity of the problem and the existence of suffering on all sides of the conflict is likely to provide a solid basis for the project of political reconciliation, compared to the approach adopted in the victim-mediation programme (which in fact did not have the ambition of resolving problems of co-existence in the Basque country).

The experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission looms large as a reference and anchorage for many restorative justice practitioners, and is explicitly referred to by Bertagna, Ceretti and Mazzucato (2015), aiming to conduct an ‘exemplary’ experience of justice, something that ‘is as it should be’. The Constitutional court judge Albie Sachs, an extremely influential figure in the democratic process of South Africa, put forward the idea of ‘soft vengeance’. By this expression he uses the idea of vengeance as something to hit back with, to return to whom has harmed you, but he fills it instead with actions such as lawfulness, coherence, constitutionality, giving back the exact opposite of bad. Is ‘soft vengeance’ what Vera Semyonovna means by ‘resisting evil with non-evil’?

What role for restorative justice?

Can restorative justice play a role and contribute to respond to the harms of current forms of terrorism in democratic societies? I have no doubt about its potentials or its necessity, but as evident from the examples, we should draw lessons from specific contexts and work with the concept of anchorage, where the restorative approach is a pillar or a guiding concept instead of a prescribed programme. The context should play a predominant role in the design and implementation of the envisioned mechanisms, which can vary from prevention oriented programmes, such as so-called exit programmes, encounters between victims and offenders (or between different types of victims), to public rituals, collective forms of deliberations, and so on. As Nils Christie writes in his article on ‘Answers to atrocities’ (2001), we must find ways of both prevention and reaction to atrocities where we mobilise the ordinary stock of knowledge on how to handle social conflicts. I would like to conclude with a few points which are worth highlighting when thinking about restorative justice approaches to current forms of terrorism.

Attention to the victims of terrorism

In her book Horrorism, Adriana Cavarero describes the scenes of a massacre: “Mass murders give themselves glorious names: martyr and combatant. In the West, they tend to be called terrorists. Though the terms are in opposition, both labels imply that the massacre forms part of a strategy or simply a means toward a higher end. But if we observe the scene of massacre from the point of view of the helpless victims rather that of the warriors, the picture changes: the end melts away, and the means become substance. More than terror, what stands out is horror” (2007: 1).

In current forms of terrorism where the victims are ‘random’, ignoring their suffering and their voices by the state, the justice system, or the community creates a double trauma. We need to learn therefore from initiatives that give victims’ narratives an important place, restoring their voice, sense of self, and sense of future. For our societies victims are abstract, discursive elements, or mediatic images, not real human beings with a face and a voice. Even though we have developed the most extensive victims’ rights directives and organisations, deep down we remain victim-aversive and ignorant.

Attention to the offenders

Consistently absent from the discourses of radicalisation and terrorism are the voices of the so called radicalised. Terrorism related laws and obligations have increased throughout Europe. Incapacitation oriented imprisonment, without any meaningful purpose, is often the fate of people sentenced under these laws. Once in prison, assessment oriented, isolationist, immunitary and confused policies prevail, at the expense of constructive interactions. Restorative modes of interaction and interventions which are relational, face-to face, open ended, and non-directive interventions are in fact the most capable ones of facilitating processes of deradicalisation, disengagement, desistance, or dissociation but continue to remain underrated. Clearly without an intention and adequate plans of reintegration, deep pockets of insecurity are created within our own institutions.

Always a door open for encounters

Even if restorative encounters can often be considered only on a longer term perspective, they may never be excluded for anyone: victims, offenders, family members, or communities. What we should learn from both the Basque and Italian experiences is that the option for a constructive restorative dialogue can never be totally excluded over the longer term, even when at the moment of the deed it seems totally excluded. Such encounters can have a great impact for the immediate stakeholders. Resorting to concrete experiences of harm can provide an antidote to ideology-driven images of fear. The possibility of giving a public dimension to the outcomes of such encounters should be considered together with the stakeholders with rigour and care.

Attention to the community

Often for current forms of terrorism, the essential victim is the public, the so-called vicarious victim. The terror attacks are meant to send a terrifying message to the public in order to induce fear and to disturb social life. The first response to the attacks that have taken place in Europe (London, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Oslo, Barcelona, and others) was obviously to stop by all means the terrorist events and to limit their aftermath. Priority for public security understandably overrules the pursuit of any other response. Nevertheless, in some of these cities, like Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen and Barcelona, impressive massive demonstrations took place, focusing on the values that bind the community together rather than on what divides and threatens them. These demonstrations can be seen as rituals with deep restorative meaning, if they are really inclusive. As a ritual of rejection of the deed and of vindication of the victims, as a balm to the wounded public, but also as inclusive to the Muslim community. If the response to terrorism is inspired by fear and focuses on more control and repression, to the detriment of democratic values, terrorists have succeeded. That is why the response to terrorism must first of all strengthen the bonds on the collective level, and reduce the ethos of conflict and polarisation itself (see Walgrave 2015).

Proliferation of restorative language, policies, and practices

Radicalisation processes in European societies, based themselves on reactionary mechanisms, breed the ground for other radicalised movements or polarization. This is most evident in the rise of the right wing movements, or anti-immigration sentiments. The importance of a restorative language and the proliferation of restorative policies and practices in our societies is therefore huge. We need forms of political and pre-political communication, exchange and encounters of a restorative character that are able to allow for but also to organise ‘difficult’ but respectful conversations in societal space.


Bertagna, Guido, Adolfo Ceretti and Claudia Mazzucato (eds.) (2015). Il libro dell’incontro: vittime e responsabili della lotta armata a confronto. Milan: il Saggiatore. [for a review and overview in English see Ragazzi, Mario, Restorative Justice, 4(2), 271–275, 2016.]

Cavarero, Adriana (2007). Horrorism: Naming contemporary violence. Columbia University Press.

Christie, Nils (2001). Answers to atrocities: Restorative justice as an answer to exreme situations. In Ezah Fattah and Stephan Parmentier (eds), Victim policies and criminal justice on the road to restorative justice: Essays in honour of Tony Peters, pp. 379-392. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Zernova, Margarita (2017). "Restorative justice in the Basque peace process: some experiments and their lessons," Contemporary Justice Review, 20:3, 363-391.

Walgrave, Lode (2015) "Domestic terrorism: a challenge for restorative justice." Restorative Justice, 3:2, 282-290.


Cover photo: Enrique Dans (CC), January 2007, D module of the Terminal 4 parking, Madrid Barajas airport, bombed by ETA on 30 Dec 2006 killing Carlos Alonso Palate, 35, and Diego Armando Estacio, 19. Another 52 persons suffered non-fatal injuries.

(CC) Enrique Dans

  1. The conversation of brother and sister in Excellent people, as well as other Chekhov's stories, have been taken up by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan in his 2014 movie, Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu). ↩︎