Indigenous Justice Mechanisms: An Underutilized Peacebuilding Tool
By Anna Lackey
September 19, 2019

International law, defined by the UN as “the legal responsibilities of States in their conduct with each other, and the treatment of individuals within State boundaries,” is the primary tool utilized in the wake of conflicts involving massive human rights violations. In conflicts like Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sierra Leonne, Cambodia, and many others, international tribunals and special courts have been used to prosecute leaders who are considered most responsible for such heinous crimes.

Historically, the idea of accountability after conflict is a recent one. The current system of courts and prosecution was developed in the wake of World War II, and was designed to prosecute state leaders. In the twenty-first centuries, wars are more likely to be civil than interstate; thus, the changing nature of conflict necessitates creating a change in the nature of conflict resolution.

While accountability proceedings are important, they also have significant drawbacks. They are generally inaccessible to ordinary citizens, costly, slow, and only able to prosecute the highest-level officials responsible. When courts and prosecution are emphasized, the international communities is concentrated on the perpetrators, and not on the people who are most in need of support—the survivors of the atrocities themselves.

Retributive justice has its place in post-conflict situations, but restorative justice—a process which focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation—is just as important, especially at the local level. In the wake of civil war or mass atrocities, perpetrators are usually too numerous to prosecute individually, and victims too numerous to provide universal restitution.

Traditional Informal Justice Mechanisms (TIJM) are a method that addresses large-scale violence in a way that is accessible, familiar and has greater legitimacy among the local populations. Their accessibility and low cost also makes them more sustainable in the years after a conflict has ended.  As a peacebuilding tool, many TIJMs have the advantage of being forward-looking; they serve to both address the wrongs of the past and reconcile previously conflicting parties on society-wide level.

In recent years, TIJMs have been sparsely used in post-conflict situations; most commonly, hybrid courts like the gacacas in Rwanda and Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia, which combine indigenous justice mechanisms with state authority to prosecute and convict.

Since the resolution of the second civil war in 2003, Liberia has made significant strides in becoming a stable, peaceful democracy. One example of TIJM, adapted for the modern age, is the widespread use of women’s peace huts. In the traditional “Palava” system, victim and accused have the opportunity to air their grievances to the community, and hear arbitration from local leaders. In this system, rather than unilaterally handing down a decision, it is the leader’s role to reach a solution or compromise that all parties consider acceptable.

TIJMs are often patriarchal and gerontocratic (favoring the old over the young), and therefore garner concerns that they do not conform to international human rights norms by excluding women or treating them with bias. In Liberia’s case, however, the peace huts are not only inclusive of women, they have become a tool of empowerment and community for women. While conflict-resolution, at both the local and international level, has traditionally been the domain of men, the peace hut system is an example of how TIJMs can be adapted and re-interpreted to suit the needs of marginalized populations. It is imperative that the shortcomings of TIJMs be taken seriously. However, it is equally important to recognize the opportunity they create for legitimate and sustainable restorative justice in post-conflict scenarios.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).