Justice for All – The Indispensable Role of Customary and Informal Systems

The global community should increasingly acknowledge the role of customary and informal justice systems upon which most people rely to resolve everyday justice problems in fragile and conflict-affected settings. At yesterday’s event at the UN, co-convened by FBA, attendees emphasized the need for a rights-based approach towards CIJ systems.

In fragile and conflict-affected settings, people often do not resort to formal justice systems to address their justice problems. Rather, they rely on alternative pathways to justice referred to as “customary and informal justice” (CIJ). These diverse systems enable people and communities around the world to realise their rights, seek redress for grievances, and resolve disputes.

The “Diverse pathways to people-centred justice” report, launched earlier in September by the Working Group on CIJ and SDG16+, aims at building a new consensus among justice stakeholders. This international multi-stakeholder initiative, formed in 2019, posits that CIJ systems must be at the centre of efforts in order to deliver on the promise of justice for all by 2030, in line with the Global goals.

Resulting from a four-year collaboration involving over 60 organizations, including FBA, the report presents a pioneering call to action. Its recommendations were discussed at the high-level event at the UN on 23 October 2023. The panel drew the participation of senior policymakers, judicial officials, customary leaders, civil society representatives, grassroots activists, and CIJ practitioners.

 – This dialogue manifested a growing consensus on the need for greater acknowledgment and, where appropriate, a more effective engagement with CIJ systems. This is especially vital when promoting the rule of law, gender equality, human rights and improving access to justice in fragile and conflict-affected areas. Despite the diverse country settings, a number of commonalities can be drawn, not least concerning the role informal justice can play in conflict prevention, said Mila Ceban, Specialist at the Governance Department at FBA.

The report and its launch event, signifies the culmination of a comprehensive consultation venture. This process, which aimed to generate diverse perspectives on customary and informal justice, engaged over 260 individuals spanning nearly 50 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. As part of this initiative, FBA in cooperation with the Embassy of Sweden in Liberia, facilitated a consultation session in Monrovia, in March 2023.

Liberia – a Case Study in Customary Justice

Liberia’s justice framework, highlighted at the event, exemplifies the indispensable role of informal actors. Its customary justice mechanism often becomes the primary avenue for legal recourse, largely attributed to the lack of an extensive decentralized justice infrastructure and the inaccessibility of formal courts for most of its population.

 – Customary justice, constitutionally recognized in Liberia, often becomes the first point of contact, especially in remote areas, for women, people affected by poverty, minority groups, and marginalized communities. Ensuring women’s rights are advanced within customary and informal justice systems is paramount, said Chief Mary Larteh, a traditional leader in Liberia. 

Having served as the Paramount Chief in the Bong County in northcentral Liberia for a decade, Chief Larteh works with her male chief counterparts to champion inclusive and participatory local governance. In her remarks at the event, she emphasized the necessity for both formal and customary justice systems to co-exist and uphold the same standards of justice and human rights.

– Women can assert themselves not only as justice seekers, but also as justice providers by embracing transformative leadership, promoting women’s economic empowerment, as well as community spaces for dialogue, underlined Chief Mary Larteh.

Conflict Settings – Navigating the Intricacies of CIJ Systems

The report underscores the prevalence of CIJ systems in conflict-affected areas, where an estimated 80 to 90 percent of disputes are addressed through informal justice. This reliance often stems from diminished trust in, or the outright absence of, formalized institutions. Such informal mechanisms frequently govern matters like access to land, water, and other resources. Moreover, in conflict-affected areas, CIJ systems often have the potential to adopt specific roles, such as facilitating the reintegration of displaced persons and youth affected by conflict. While these systems typically offer more localized access, they might be also tainted by norms and practices that jeopardize gender equality and infringe on human rights. Due diligence and necessary risk assessments are therefore paramount.

 – FBA recognizes the imperative of thoroughly understanding these informal systems and, where appropriate, integrating them into rights-based programming. In light of this, we’re working on several initiatives examining international engagement with non-state entities and informal actors, playing dual roles as justice and security providers, said Mila Ceban.

Ultimately, the international community needs to constantly assess the real-world dynamics of justice systems. This is also reflected in the UN Secretary General’s New Vision for the Rule of Law launched in June 2023. The vision underscores a people-centred approach to justice, acknowledging the diversity of justice providers.

Read more about:

Diverse Pathways to People-Centred Justice Report and the launch event

FBA’s work in Liberia

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