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Triennale Milano

The criminologist Adolfo Ceretti reflects on the concept of restorative justice

May 22 2020
The first seminar dedicated to the XXIII International Exhibition 2022 took place on March 4, 2020 in Triennale. It was joined by experts in various fields, from astrophysics to philosophy, ethology, visual art, geopolitics and robotics. The criminologist Adolfo Ceretti, who participated as an auditor in the seminar, proposes his contribution here which, through the concept of restorative justice, offers important reflections that will accompany us towards the XXIII International Exhibition.
In a recent book of mine I had reason to state that: "Some experiences shake up our lives in unpredictable ways. I do not mean individual, inner fragments of life, experienced in the nest of one’s own intimacy. Or, at least, not only. What I refer to are those experiences where we find ourselves having to combine or adjust our vision of the world to fit that of others. In order to go beyond the boundaries of our sensibility, to overcome it, and to look at last from the outside, with other eyes. I believe this is the only way we can understand something more about ourselves: by looking at ourselves through the eyes of another."
These words, which I wrote before the outbreak of Covid-19, inevitably reflects some aspects of the period we are going through. For the first time in history, the entire universe has been called upon by a virus to abandon the immediacy of everyday action. It has asked us to put under the microscope the various perspectives that we thought were most normal and acquired in our emotional, amicable, and working relationships, and in our public relationships. We have had to redefine them in a suspended time, without our yesterday, today or tomorrow being able to dictate our actions, whether internal and otherwise. It is therefore something quite new and it is forcing us to deal with the real which, as Jacques Lacan has shown us, is a fantastical, invisible entity – unlike reality, which is the shared physical and social space in which we interact – and thus one that appears to be omnipotent. In other words, the virus maintains its boundless persecutory power over us, also – and, perhaps paradoxically, especially – over those who have not been infected. This is because it manages to avoid being controlled by a symbolic order, and herein lies the excess and the scandal of non-sense. Herein lies the real.
In my field of study, what is real is represented by the violence of the individual and of the masses, of terrorism and genocide. In my work as a criminologist and conflict mediator, I have had the opportunity over the past twenty years to meet both the victims and the leaders of the armed struggle in Italy in the twentieth century and have them interact. And I have done the same with some of the victims and perpetrators of the civil war that has torn apart Colombian society for over fifty years, as well as those who participated in the negotiated transition towards democracy in South Africa.
One thing I am sure of, after having lived with and helped the bodies and souls of men and women, who have inflicted or been victims of evil, to come to terms with those atrocious deeds that have had such terrible repercussions also on civil society: the justice that, deep down, these people are looking for and that they are seeking from the world, is not just that of the courts, but rather a form that is able to give a (new) dimension to the real. In other words, a justice that can give voice, form, and content to the monsters that linger on in their lives after the violence has subsided. In the exact words – that I myself have heard – of those who lived through those experiences in first person: "This group has been important, for it has enabled me to bring the monsters that inhabited my head into the realm of reality. Have you ever felt what it’s like to have monsters inside you?"
The impact with barbarous crimes is the quintessential encounter with a shifted, impenetrable world that can have the connotations of trauma, which is to say of something that the individual finds hard to assimilate – something that goes beyond our cognitive and emotional models. But, in its collective manifestations, the most terrible crimes also tear asunder the relationship between the sphere of the human and that of naturalness. In Colombia, for example, the Truth Commission that was set up after the peace agreement of 2016 is currently working to assess the consequences of the war and of human rights violations in terms of health, democracy, and damage to the communities affected, so that the impact of all these tragic events will not be forgotten. It is not just a matter of drafting statistics of the suffering, together with the number of deaths, displaced persons, forced evacuations, and refugees, but rather of doing something to manage the consequences that all this has had on social coexistence, on health, on the development of communities, on the environment, and even on nature.
photo by Jesús Abad Colorado
“Restorative justice” is at the heart of these terrifying intersections, giving life to a “justice of encounter” between those responsible for the actions and their victims, but at the same time it becomes a place where it is possible to redress the balance between these injured lives and their communities and their home settings. The United Nations states this, by defining it as "any process in which the victim and the offender and, where appropriate, any other individuals or community members affected by a crime, participate together actively in the resolution of matters arising from the crime, generally with the help of a facilitator."
Over the years, it has become increasingly apparent to me that it is dialogue – a specific dialogue in the specific context of “restorative justice”, in which each party can tell their story to others and be listened to with respect and openness – that makes it possible for the stories themselves to be shared while losing none of their enormity. The attack on the body or on that of a loved one can disfigure a victim even in their own eyes, until – as I see it, at least – they can find and refer, on an individual or collective level, to some symbolic order that can represent them and their relationship with others, even if it is their persecutor. What I was saying earlier finds its fullest significance in this journey along the path towards justice: we can indeed understand something more about ourselves if we look at each other through the eyes of other people.
For the first time since the fundamental achievements of penal enlightenment, it would appear that an invitation is asserting itself in the dense web of interactions between the law, justice, victims of crime, and those responsible for criminal offences. The exhortation is not to drive out evil by catapulting it into its mimesis, which is to say into punitive sanctions, but rather to treat it, by offering society a democratic way of taking on and managing the conflict – including the most destructive of all – and, even though in embryonic form, introducing some instances of “fraternal rights”.
Fragmentos, photo by Alberica Archinto
Here it would undoubtedly be premature to anticipate some of the aspects, concerning what I have thought and written, that need to be worked out in the form of an exhibition. Having said that, in an attempt to come down to earth from on high, I can try to imagine the outlines, and margins of three different areas of expression and experience, each of which aims to retrace a stage on the journey that leads from armed conflict to reparation.
Armed conflict In this case, that of three particular geographical, historical and political situations: the armed struggle in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, the over fifty years of civil war in Colombia (1958-2012), and Apartheid in South Africa (1948-91). This stage could be illustrated by a meticulous selection of photographs (such as those by the Colombian photographer Jesús Abad Colorado), films, and video installations that should not be presented as comprehensive historical testimony but, on the contrary, should create the evocative setting for a space to be brought to life by the experiences illustrated by both the perpetrators and the victims in the flesh and blood.
Justice viewed through the eyes of others While “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life” was the theme of Expo 2015, justice may perhaps be the most essential food for human life, both from a material and a symbolic point of view. I would imagine this stage of the event as a series of face-to-face meetings between some of those who were responsible for the armed conflict and some of their victims (Italians, Colombians, South Africans, Rwandans, Basques, and Israelis/Palestinians to name but a few). Coordinated by a conflict mediator and assisted by a renowned chef, they would meet in the exhibition space, surrounded by images of the conflict, and talk about their experiences and then cook food together and share it with the public. There is no need now to dwell on the potential significance of these gestures. Recordings of these events would, in turn, become material for an exhibition.
Reparation A glimpse of beauty and meaning was given in 2018 by the sculptor Doris Salcedo who, with the help of a group of women victims of the armed conflict, created a space of art and memory in Bogotá. She paved the floors of three rooms by melting down tons of weapons handed in by the FARC guerrillas after the peace agreement of 2016. Fragmentos is a brilliant lesson on the symbolic and social significance of demilitarisation, on the impact of violence, and on countless other issues as well. There is an amazing film of about twenty minutes on this story. It might be used as the third stage – as a sort of catharsis for the visitor, after they have been through the first two.
Adolfo Ceretti is Professor of Criminology in the University of Milano-Bicocca and General Secretary of the National Center for Social Prevention and Defence. From 2016 is Visiting Professor in the Universidade Federal of Rio de Janerio. From 2019 he works in Bogotá for the International Center for Transitional Justice in collaboration with the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz. Among his publications we mention: Cosmologie violente (Cortina, 2009) and Il diavolo mi accarezza i capelli. Memorie di un criminologo (Il Saggiatore, 2020). In 2015 he edited, together with Guido Bertagna and Claudia Mazzucato, Il libro dell’incontro. Vittime e responsabili della lotta armata a confronto (il Saggiatore, 2015).