Traditional & Informal Justice Systems

Last Updated: January 2, 2009

Traditional and informal justice systems undoubtedly have gained an increasingly interest in the international peacebuilding community, at least at a rhetorical level. However, concrete support and experience of engaging them in mainstream practices remain relatively limited. This subsection presents a state of the knowledge accumulated so far and the main challenges that remain unanswered.
The study of traditional and informal justice is marked by a panoply of terms such as "traditional," "customary," "indigenous," "informal," "non-state," "local," "community," "popular," "participatory," often conflated in both discourse and practice. In some instances they essentially seek to capture the same social phenomenon, while in others their meanings are quite different.  This section explains those specificities and the reasons for the choice of the expression "traditional and informal justice systems" as the most encompassing. It also explores further different ways of understanding the notion of "tradition" as well as the different connections and disconnections between "informal" and "formal" systems. It ends by summarizing the different dichotomies at play on that topic.
The literature on traditional justice in post-conflict societies is quite recent and thus in early stages of development. Yet, existing accounts of experiences and scholar works allow situating the importance and potential functions of traditional and informal justice in peacebuilding processes, in particular in post-conflict contexts. The second section explores those, in relation to the specific nature of justice issues in the aftermath of widespread violence. An interest in those traditional and informal systems also lie in the fact that they are the proof that is not necessarily a complete "vacuum" in the societies concerned, even when state institutions have collapsed.
The third section presents the main actors involved in the field (both insiders and outsiders) as well as the main types of activities engaged to support traditional and informal justice systems in peacebuilding contexts, namely: research; reforms and codification; financial and technical support to existing structures; creation of new forums or mixed structures; monitoring; training and capacity building; awareness-raising and information dissemination; advocacy and lobbying. It also addresses the question of strategies as important choices need to be made as to how formal and informal justice systems should be linked.
Traditional/informal justice is no panacea. Its capacity to contribute to the different dimensions of peacebuilding and social reconstruction must be assessed in relation to a certain number of limitations that can be observed in a variety of contexts, but more specifically in post-conflict situations. The fourth section of this writing explores those issues: the erosion and potential distortion of traditional authorities and norms; traditional justice as a potential mask for domination and abuse of power; the system may not always comply with international human rights standards; the system may be the target of political actors and become part of the political game; the question of legitimacy and effectiveness of traditional/informal justice; the limited applicability of traditional and informal justice practices; the false dichotomy "international retributive justice" versus "local restorative justice"; the need for a pragmatic engagement with traditional/informal justice.
The final section turns to a number of case studies, giving concrete elements about how these issues have appeared in specific contexts, namely: Rwanda, Northern Uganda, Tirmor-Leste and Mozambique.

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