Criminal justice reform is at the heart of the mandate of the United Nations. Restorative Justice is frequently mentioned as an important way forward, including in post-conflict reconstruction. Below we cite some examples.
In 2000, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) requested the UN Secretary-General among other things to seek comments from Member States and relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as the institutes of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme network, on the desirability and the means of establishing common principles on the use of restorative justice programmes in criminal matters. Download the full document here.
In 2002 they published their Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters, available here in which ECOSOC:
2. Encourages Member States to draw on the basic principles on the use of restorative justice programmes in criminal matters in the development and operation of restorative justice programmes;
It also included the following recommendations:
20. Member States should consider the formulation of national strategies and policies aimed at the development of restorative justice and at the promotion of a culture favourable to the use of restorative justice among law enforcement, judicial and social authorities, as well as local communities.
21. There should be regular consultation between criminal justice authorities and administrators of restorative justice programmes to develop a common understanding and enhance the effectiveness of restorative processes and outcomes, to increase the extent to which restorative programmes are used, and to explore ways in which
restorative approaches might be incorporated into criminal justice practices.
22. Member States, in cooperation with civil society where appropriate, should promote research on and evaluation of restorative justice programmes to assess the extent to which they result in restorative outcomes, serve as a complement or alternative to the criminal justice process and provide positive outcomes for all parties.
Restorative justice processes may need to undergo change in concrete form over time. Member States should therefore encourage regular evaluation and modification of such programmes. The results of research and evaluation should guide further policy and programme development.
It defined the following terms (among others). These are sometimes called the “Marshall” definition. See here for more about the definition.
1. “Restorative justice programme” means any programme that uses restorative processes and seeks to achieve restorative outcomes.
2. “Restorative process” means 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. Restorative processes may include mediation, conciliation, conferencing and sentencing circles.
3. “Restorative outcome” means an agreement reached as a result of a restorative process. Restorative outcomes include responses and programmes such as reparation, restitution and community service, aimed at meeting the individual and collective needs and responsibilities of the parties and achieving the reintegration of the victim and the offender.
In 2005 the 11th Bangkok Declaration of the UN Congress on Crime stated:
32. To promote the interests of victims and the rehabilitation of offenders, we recognize the importance of further developing restorative justice policies, procedures and programmes that include alternatives to prosecution, thereby avoiding possible adverse effects of imprisonment, helping to decrease the caseload of criminal courts and promoting the incorporation of restorative justice approaches into criminal justice systems, as appropriate.
In 2006 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) prepared a Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes (available here). It was updated in 2020: the second edition is available here. In 2007 they produced a Training Manual on Alternative Dispute Resolution and Restorative Justice (available here).
In 2016 in its resolution 2016/17, ECOSOC requested the Secretary-General to convene a meeting of restorative justice experts to review the use and application of the basic principles on the use of restorative justice programmes in criminal matters.
It also requested him to seek comments from Member States, relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, the institutes of the United Nations crime prevention and criminal justice programme network and other relevant stakeholders with experience in restorative justice processes on the use and application of the above-mentioned Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters (ECOSOC resolution 2002/12), and on national experiences and best practices in using and applying restorative justice processes.
It further requested the Secretary-General to report to the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (part of ECOSOC) on the efforts made in the implementation of the resolution.
In May 2017 the 26th session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice published a summary of comments received on the use and application of the above-mentioned Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters. Their conclusions included, among other things:
204. As noted in ECOSOC resolution 2016/17, restorative justice programmes can contribute to a wide range of beneficial outcomes. As an effective and flexible alternative to formal criminal proceedings, restorative justice programmes can contribute to alleviating the burden on the criminal justice system as well as reducing the rate of recidivism. Many offenders, and in particular children within the juvenile justice system, do not fully comprehend the impact of their actions on their victims and communities and the importance of acting in accordance with the law. By giving an opportunity to be considered responsible members of society, restorative justice programmes allow the offenders to experience first-hand the extent of harm they have caused and be held accountable, which increases the likelihood of their reintegration into the community. In addition, unlike the formal criminal justice proceedings, restorative justice programmes gives the victims of crime and affected members of the community an opportunity to play a central role in both the process and the outcome.
In November 2017 UNODC convened a meeting of experts in Ottawa, Canada, to review the use and application of the Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters and to consider new developments and innovative approaches in the field.
Based on this meeting, two restorative justice experts from Canada, both working at the University of the Fraser Valley, wrote a first draft of the new Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes.
In May 2018 the 27th session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice published UN Secretary-General’s report on the outcome of the expert group meeting on restorative justice in criminal matters. This reported that among other things the expert group:
- affirmed the value of restorative justice and the usefulness of the basic principles on the use of restorative justice programmes in criminal matters in promoting the use of restorative justice programmes;
- noting that many Member States underused restorative justice in criminal matters or had yet to explore its full potential, the expert group stressed the need to further develop public awareness and support for restorative justice;
- noted that restorative justice was crucial to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16, on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels;
- observed that, in the past 15 years, restorative justice had demonstrated promising results with respect to a broader range of situations, including serious crimes; cases involving a large number of victims and offenders; historic, systemic or institutionalized abuse and human rights violations; crime prevention; and reintegration. It had also been used in other systems and settings (i.e., schools and communities) to address harm and conflict;
- considered the possibility of using restorative justice in the context of other current serious issues, including terrorism-related offences, hate crimes and intergroup conflicts;
The Commission also passed resolution 27/6, requesting the following, among other things:
12. Also requests the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, subject to the availability of extrabudgetary resources, to develop, in consultation with Member States, educational materials and practical guidance, including the updating of its Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes, to offer training and other capacity-building opportunities, in particular for practitioners working in the areas of crime prevention and criminal justice, and to make available and disseminate information on restorative justice programmes, including successful practices, potential risks, technical challenges and possible solutions, as well as lessons learned;
The draft of the revised Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes was reviewed by a UNODC meeting of experts, this time in Bangkok, Thailand. The second edition was published in May 2020. It is available here.