30th annual Lynch Lecture explores the intersection of human rights and restorative justice

By Audrey Williams

At the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), Professor Howard Zehr’s Little Book of Restorative Justice is a feature of many students’ coursework, guiding them as they grapple with the different shapes that justice can take during peacebuilding and conflict transformation processes.

On October 30, 2019, rather than hit the books, these students and the broader S-CAR community gathered to hear directly from Zehr himself at Van Metre Hall on Mason’s Arlington Campus, where he delivered the 30th annual Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Lecture. 

In 1987, Edwin and Helen Lynch established S-CAR’s first endowed chair, the Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, to foster engagement with the public on conflict resolution and peace studies. As part of this effort, each year the Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair organizes the Lynch Lecture series to provide the S-CAR community and the wider public with an opportunity to hear from distinguished public officials, scholars, and practitioners on groundbreaking approaches to analyzing conflict and promoting peace.

Past speakers at the annual series have included Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, the President of Malta, in 2017; the Honorable Lee Hamilton, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, in 2007; and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, in 2005.

The Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair and Lecture Series, named in honor of Edwin Lynch’s parents, speak to the generosity of S-CAR’s earliest supporters.

“The faculty, staff, students, and friends of S-CAR are enormously grateful to the Lynch family for their friendship, generosity, dedication, and support to us over the last thirty years,” said Alpaslan Özerdem, dean of S-CAR, in his opening remarks. “In a way, I think the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution has grown with the Lynch family, with their support.”

Since 2017, the Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair has been held by S-CAR professor Susan Hirsch.

“In these first years of my tenure as Lynch Chair, my activities are focused around the theme of justice,” Hirsch said during her introductory remarks. Last year, she invited Georgetown Law professor Paul Butler to speak about the criminal legal system in the U.S. and its policing of Black men.

At this year’s lecture, Hirsch emphasized the importance of “champion[ing] justice as a guiding value” in the field and expanding understanding of not just the ways we might achieve it but also the forms that it takes.

“In striving toward justice in our work, many of us refuse a narrow, pre-defined notion of justice as primarily punitive or retributive,” she said. “Instead, justice must be capacious, healing, forward-looking, and versatile.”

For Zehr, a distinguished professor at Eastern Mennonite University who is known as the “grandfather of restorative justice,” addressing deep-rooted injustices has been a life-long concern.

In his talk, titled “Human Rights Meets Restorative Justice,” Zehr described growing up during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In 1966, he graduated from Morehouse College, a historically black college, and in the 1970s he began teaching at Talladega College, also a historically black institution. These years expanded his understanding of the racial injustices that so many African Americans in the United States experience.

“As a young, European American man, I only had a glimpse of what it must have been like to live through that, but I learned much from my peers,” he told the nearly 300 members of the S-CAR community and public gathered in Van Metre Hall’s auditorium. “I learned a lot about justice and injustice. I learned about privilege and what it’s like not to have privilege. And I learned a lot about what it feels like to be, to live, as a minority.”

According to Zehr, “[r]acial injustice remains deeply embedded in our society, but in some ways, it’s become more subtle and more paradoxical.”

He emphasized that even though the “criminal legal system” in the United States uses race neutral language in its everyday workings, it remains a main driver of racial injustice in the present.

To address injustice, Zehr argued, requires moving beyond punitive approaches to instead seek processes that uphold the human rights of individuals within society in a way that is fair and restorative, rather than in a way that furthers injustice or causes more harm.

For Zehr, the key to tying together restorative justice with respect for human rights lies in exploring “what we mean by human rights [and] what we mean by justice.”

The starting point of this process, according to Zehr, requires a shift in worldview away from focusing on humans as isolated actors.

“The reality is that we are not isolated but we are interconnected. This is true sociologically. This is true psychologically. It’s true neurologically,” he said. “The latest findings of modern neuroscience boil down to this: we are wired to connect with each other; we are made to connect with each other.”

For Zehr, restorative justice is “a relational understanding of justice” that can help societies rethink punitive approaches to justice that impose shame on individuals who have harmed others. He argued that these processes, even when conceptualized as bringing order to society, do not address harms in a whole-of-society way and can in fact reinforce emotions that lead to violence.

Rather than focusing on which laws have been broken, who has broken them, and what those individuals deserve, restorative justice changes the questions, choosing instead to ask who has been hurt, what are the needs of those harmed, and who has an obligation to address those needs.

From the standpoint of restorative justice processes, as Zehr put it, “the focus of justice is on reducing and repairing harm, encouraging responsibility for the harm, and engaging people in the process.”

Read about Sarah Parshall, an S-CAR alum who is putting restorative justice into practice in Fairfax County’s public schools.

Such processes have their challenges and limits, and more work needs to be done to explore the forms that they can take, especially in the criminal legal system.

“[R]estorative justice is not without its critics, especially given its recent, rapid proliferation and given its expansion into institutions where systemic inequalities challenge any quest in the name of justice,” said Hirsch during her introductory remarks. “Yet Professor Zehr is among its critics. Having worked to build the field of restorative justice, quite admirably, he has been deeply reflective and insightful about how to make it better.”

According to Zehr, a turn toward restorative justice is less about finding one-size-fits-all answers and more about starting a conversation that allows society to build approaches to human rights and justice that center on qualities such as empathy, honor, and dignity.

“[M]any people today are calling for a new social movement to address mass incarceration and other issues of structural injustice,” Zehr said. “To do that is going to require us to re-examine some of our assumptions and values, and again, that’s what I see [as] the primary value and primary function of restorative justice, to start that kind of conversation.”