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Opinion & Analysis

Justice as peace

By Amber Turner

Some of us are called to become lawyers or judges when we suffer an experience of injustice as children. Bullying in the playground, the premature death of a loved one, warring or divorcing parents, the list goes on. As law students, the world of duality comes into sharper focus as we are trained to practice in traditional adversarial (oppositional) law systems. There are no shades of grey, just the judgmental lenses we are prescribed which promise to guide us in our careers to, ‘right the wrongs’ and ‘do justice’. In court we ‘win’ cases, or we ‘lose’ them. Yet in my 17 years’ litigation experience I understood that winning cases does not necessarily lead to justice.

My awareness towards a more humane, compassionate and non-judgmental approach to law practice was thanks to many of my clients. They trusted in me, sharing courageously and vulnerably about their past, their pain, their traumas, also stemming from childhood. Some clients were ‘victims’ and others, ‘aggressors’, yet in many cases, ‘aggressors’ had been child victims of adults in their lives abusing them in turn, in cycles of intergenerational trauma. As I learned post law school, “only people in pain cause pain”.

Organically, I introduced into my law practice splashes of colour through the integration of wellbeing tools such as active listening and mindfulness. I dropped judgement and became more curious to understand (not justify) the self-sabotaging behaviours that lead people to conflict and legal disputes. My conclusion was that the root cause of destructive behaviours is always, unresolved trauma. Their unhealed past was driving their present life experience. In examining not only their case but the client’s core wounds, my level of understanding, compassion and empathy flourished, deepening the lawyer-client human connection, leading to more successful and just outcomes. I began to view my clients and cases, holistically. The question arose then, if lawyers are not trauma-informed, are we attaining true justice for ourselves and our clients?

Dr Gabor Maté, global trauma expert (‘The Wisdom of Trauma’ documentary) who I was privileged to meet in Bulgaria in 2022 told me that trauma is not what happens to you, it is what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you. Inside we become dis-connected, and that fracture is then mirrored in our relationships on the ‘outside’. Healing trauma (conflicts and legal disputes) then, requires re-connection. Justice then, requires restoration. Martin Luther King Jr, (1963) described beautifully the world of non-duality, where we understand that we all belong in our one, human family, and that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I have since my law student days, reframed justice from ‘winning’ cases to justice as empowering clients to work on their internal re-connection and re-integration, to experience clarity of mind and peace of heart. Only then can we experience peace in relationships with others, and can we co-create a more peaceful and just world. Whilst we remain in judgment, excluding, separating and dis-connected, we will remain at war with ourselves and others.

For over 20 years I have studied more therapeutic justice systems and models around the world, based on the restoration of people’s mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing; at times, through victims and offenders meeting to discuss what happened, and crucially, why.

In 2023 I was invited to speak on Molly Rowan Leach’s USA ‘Restorative Justice on the Rise Podcast’ and we became friends. Molly suggested that we meet at the European Forum for Restorative Justice Conference with another 365 participants gathered from 47 different countries, at Tallinn University. I had heard of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like restorative justice body authorised by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Desmond Tutu in South Africa in 1996 after the end of apartheid, which the movie ‘In My Country’ powerfully depicts. The Commission invited witnesses identified as victims of gross human rights violations to give voice about their experiences and selected some for public hearings. The perpetrators of violence could also give testimony. This provided opportunity for acknowledging the pain, processing grief and healing. Perpetrators could also give testimony and seek amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. At the conference I heard first-hand about similar Commissions set up today in other countries where wars have and continue to rage. “We cannot wait for the war to end before working on restoration - the restoration occurs during the war…” one speaker explained.

A 22-year-old lady, mature beyond her years, Elina Khachatryan, from Armenia, shared her personal experience of the Armenian War. She reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr’s words and I reproduce her address below in its entirety, and with her permission:

“My name is Elina. Perhaps you have never heard of my country; it is quite small and located in the southern Caucasus, home to almost 3 million people. However, we all share a common thread: the pain of loss. Today I would like to share the pain that unites us all in Armenia.”

“Let's go back to 2020 when an intense war broke out again between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Imagine waking up to news of war instead of a good morning greeting from your loved ones. I had heard similar news in the past, but this time it was different because my brother was in the army.”

“The war, which I had imagined as something abstract, was now becoming real. It had a body, a hundred legs, and it was chasing my brother, along with other brothers, fathers, lovers, friends, colleagues...”

“The first feeling I experienced was a sense of smallness and powerlessness. For 44 days, I lived from one phone call to another, feeling alive only when I heard news from my brother. Every day I felt frustration, but most of all, I feared 9 o'clock. It might seem strange to hate a specific moment of the day.”

“Every day at 9, we received a list of the day's losses. Everyone in Armenia hated that hour. We opened the long list of deceased people, hoping not to see the name of anyone we knew. We read something so sad, yet it became a reason for joy if we didn't know anyone on that list. It's a tragedy, and now that I say it out loud, it sounds absurd.”

“But I started thinking unconventionally.”

“I wondered if there was a list on the other side too. They were also losing people, right? Did it mean we shared the pain with our enemies? We shared the same pain, the same suffering. Are we still enemies if our pain is the same?”

“If I had shared these thoughts with other people, they would have considered me a traitor… those were the times. Sometimes I wanted to find someone on the other side, someone asking the same questions, and ask, "How are you? I hope your family is well and that this disaster ends soon." I never did it, because I was afraid there was no one on the other side thinking that way. It's not easy, it takes a lot of courage to turn off the phone, the TV, to distance oneself from the news, from hatred, to be higher than the war and think about people, without separating them into us and them, good and bad, right, and wrong, victim and villain.”

“After 44 days, the war ended, but the feelings and questions I had remained in my head until the day I finally met someone from the other side. Before the meeting, I had millions of questions, but the moment I saw him, I forgot them all. Because when I saw him, he was just a person, regardless of nationality, I felt no hatred, we were on the same side and had gone through hell together. I realized that the pain we felt was not exclusive to the 3 million in Armenia; it extended beyond borders. They had the list too. People mourn the same loss. And the pain both sides felt is not just for us to bear. In a world where wars still exist, all of humanity bears that pain. And perhaps you have never heard of a country, but your heart breaks every time you hear about a war.”

“How do they choose war over peace, over love? I am glad I don't understand it and I'll know I've lost my mind if one day I start understanding it.”

As unsurmountable as fear and deep-rooted pain can feel, I have witnessed that humanity has the greater capacity to love and forgive, to grieve and heal, and to finally break chains of intergenerational trauma that keep us trapped in war, be it in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world at large. As Ghandi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”. Adopting a holistic, unity lens and a Restorative Justice approach to law practice provides a different kind of justice, from retributive to justice as peace.

Amber Turner is a barrister, mediator, holistic legal consultant and advisor to the International Bar Association Board on wellbeing in legal education.

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