We argue that procedural forms of restorative justice, involving redress by offenders, face considerable challenges because communities and governments often lack the coercive capacity or will to hold offenders accountable. In contexts where accountability is lacking we argue that pressuring victims to meet with, and forgive, those who harmed them may be inappropriate. Such encounters should only occur where victims see them as necessary to their own healing.
Despite the procedural limitations of restorative justice, this perspective (ontology) helps us analyse the route to reconciliation in different conflict contexts and reveals opportunities and challenges for justice and reconciliation in each case. This ontology reveals that intra-communal and inter-communal (ethnic/religious) conflicts have dramatically different justice and reconciliation challenges. In an intra-communal conflict, such as in Sierra Leone, offenders need to reintegrate into communities that they or their factions harmed.
The desire to reintegrate into communities that condemn their crimes while accepting them provides opportunities for young offenders to address their crimes. In ethnically divided societies, offenders are often seen as heroes in their communities and may not have to address their crimes until the communities themselves condemn them. This makes restorative justice and reconciliation much more difficult, as communities do not take on the role of promoting accountability for their own members. In such cases, restorative justice efforts must promote social trust between groups.
In both intra-communal and inter-communal conflicts, victims are often marginalized by their own communities and receive inadequate assistance. Restorative justice shows us that much can be done to help young victims, and this should become an explicit part of the justice picture. Finally, we argue that traditional justice is not synonymous with restorative justice.
While traditional justice is community based and often meaningful to people, many of its forms are retributive; deny a voice to children, youth and other disadvantaged groups; or place community reconciliation above individual justice. Therefore, traditional justice practices should be assessed case by case if they are to be claimed as restorative justice equivalents.