‘We are increasingly coming into contact with multiple definitions of justice’

Ivo Aertsen

Ivo Aertsen

Ivo Aertsen is a professor of Criminology at the Leuven Institute of Criminology at the Catholic University of Leuven. His main fields of research and teaching are victimology, penology and restorative justice. He has acted as an expert for the UN, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union and he is the coordinator for project ALTERNATIVE.

‘Project Alternative is a research project in the tradition of the University of Leuven. It has different partners throughout Europe and it has strong ties with the practice, like the action research for example’, Ivo says. ‘The project does have some peculiarities, though. The research grant is for four years. Most European Union funded Action Grants are only for a year and a half or two years. They are also often aimed at the practice, so with less attention to the theoretical. Project Alternative is more fundamental research that adds practice. It is a very attractive combination that has not been around enough in the last ten years.’

‘It would probably be more comfortable to have less diversity in our research sites’

Every project has its own difficulties. Project ALTERNATIVE is no different. ‘We have an original onset’, Ivo says. ‘It is not easy with four different research sites, in Serbia, Northern Ireland, Austria and Hungary, but we knew this from the beginning. It was important to us to be able to use our research on a micro, meso and macro level. It would probably be more comfortable to have less diversity in our research sites, to have for example only two and not four different sites.’

‘As the head of the project, my biggest challenge personally is the final output’, Ivo explains. ‘To bring out really new insights. To show how science has developed. We are able to do that through the films, the books, and the other deliverables.’

Even with these difficulties, the project is still very close to Ivo. ‘My heart is in this project’, he says. ‘Restorative justice is very dear to me, as well as the cooperation and solidarity between the researchers. This is a team. It is clear that in the community of restorative justice researchers, there is a culture of team work, of horizontal structures, of democratic decision making. That kind of spirit is what attracts me.’

‘An answer to extremism and polarisation’

The ALTERNATIVE project looks at conflicts in intercultural communities. ‘Intercultural tension is our center point’, Ivo explains. ‘Justice and its alternative forms or meanings is what appeals to me most. Abstracts notions such as justice, security and interculturality have been translated in operational terms, so that concrete observation becomes possible, for example in Kisvaros, the Hungarian village.’

‘We are increasingly coming into contact with multiple definitions of justice’, says Ivo. ‘Justice is no longer being defined by the ruling class or a dominant institution, but is shaped by multiple cultures. We have to catch up, because if we do not, we will get a society where one definition of justice is dominant, and where growing groups will no longer recognise themselves in the ruling ideology of justice, which can lead to extremism and polarisation, and hence to violence.’

‘It is our role to push boundaries’

The definition of justice is not the only challenge. ‘In our justice system, we do not look enough at societally structured injustices when people commit crime’, Ivo explains. ‘We mainly look at the individual responsibility and no longer at the societal context and economical status. Crimes are often based on deprivation, a limited participation in society and its social provisions. Our justice systems are not equipped to question social factors adequately. If discrimination is the cause, it needs to be analysed, not just individualised. Our society might not be ready for this, but it does not have to be. As scientists, it is our role to push boundaries, to try things, but in a realistic manner.’

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