Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Governing through Crime in Post Conflict Societies: Notes from Belfast

Reporting to you from Queens University, School of Law in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I am in the middle of a fascinating two week visit at the kind invitation of the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, where I will deliver the annual lecture tomorrow at 4 pm (it is open to the public so please join us if you can get here by then).

Belfast is a beautiful and vibrant city full of young people and wonderfully preserved old buildings. It gets overlooked in comparison to its flashier cousin in the South, Dublin, but has many many charms with very few pretenses and better prices (think Melbourne compared to Sydney, Strasbourg compared to Paris,Manchester compared to London). Yes the wounds of the conflict are still visible and felt, but they share the present with evolving experiments in constructing the future; often visible in the extraordinary collection of murals painted on buildings all over the city which memorialize the conflict and interpret its meaning for the future.

For those who share my interest in both criminology and human rights there are few law schools in the world that combine the depth of expertise in both fields with collaborative engagement between them (Shadd Maruna who is Director of the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice sits in an office with a sign on the door saying "Centre for Comparative and International Human Rights Law", which he attributes to office assignment vagaries but seems to me highly appropriate, if confusing). Professors Kieran McEvoy and Phil Scraton both combine criminological and human rights themes in their research.

While here I am holding conversations with these and other colleagues and the very strong group of post-graduate students here at the law school around two themes. First, how influential are governing through crime logics in a post conflict polity like Northern Ireland (with its own devolved Assembly but still part of the United Kingdom)? I have two hypotheses. First, it may be that post conflict societies like NI are resistant to governing through crime since efforts to appeal to an idealized crime victim "everyman" is refracted through the politicized nature of both interpersonal and state violence. This community has powerful memories of violence that is terrible but not "senseless" in the sense of beyond understandable and human narratives. Second, it may be that in post conflict societies the enduring deposits of power in security forces and institutions will work ceaselessly to create a new foundation for legitimacy, perhaps through turning from violence to less political crimes involving drugs and anti-social behavior.

The other topic I am learning about is the role of hope and dignity as values that helped carry people through the conflict in shaping a new agenda for post-conflict justice. There are tremendously motivated cadres of educators, social workers, lawyers, and human rights advocates in this city whose perspective has been shaped by growing up in the midst of the conflict and who bring these values to bear in constructing strategies to address the more mundane but consequential problems of poverty, educational failure, and disempowerment. I am interested in learning how post-conflict themes can shape a new agenda for restoring legitimacy to institutions deformed in the US by mass incarceration, particularly police, prisons, and the juvenile justice system.

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