Participants in the research noted that trust in formal justice mechanisms is poor. The majority of people, particularly in rural areas, more frequently refer to traditional and informal mechanisms such as shuras and jirgas, which consequently resolve a greater number of disputes than formal mechanisms – from local land disputes to small-scale armed conflicts.
But despite their prevalence and impact, respondents noted that community-based mechanisms are not without their challenges. They can be unrepresentative and influenced by ingrained and partisan power dynamics, resulting in decisions that sustain power imbalances disproportionately in favour of elites, and that disadvantage the most vulnerable and reinforce harmful practices such as baad – the custom of settlement or compensation whereby a female from the guilty party’s family is given to the victim’s family as a servant or a bride. Also, shuras and jirgas often focus on community harmony, which is generally achieved by arriving at a settlement, and not necessarily on providing justice to the affected individuals. This can limit meaningful transformation of conflicts, allowing discontent to fester.
The NGOs interviewed indicated that while some organisations have worked to strengthen existing shuras and jirgas, many have focused on supporting the establishment of new, more inclusive community-based mechanisms. The most common approach has been to set up village- and district-level peace committees and councils (henceforth peace councils), and a number have been initiated across multiple provinces.
The inclusivity of the councils – ensuring representation of all facets of society – is prioritised to ensure more equitable outcomes. A multi-step consultation and selection process is usually undertaken with various groups within the community to scrutinise and cross-check information about prospective members. Extensive meetings are held between the NGO and the local community to agree on the best approach and composition. In some cases, involving ulema in the peace councils has helped to improve inclusivity, especially in terms of women’s participation. For example, one Afghan NGO’s work with ulema in nine communities in north-eastern Afghanistan has resulted in the ulema championing women’s social participation. This has helped to convince other community leaders such as maliks, khans, landlords and other powerful figures to accept a greater role for women in local committees, which in turn has had a positive impact in ensuring greater gender justice in the councils’ decisions.
Peace councils have been supported to analyse the drivers of conflicts that are impacting their community, and to work to address these underlying drivers and to play a mediation role. Examples of common disputes addressed include conflicts over resources or domestic disputes. Some of the peace councils have also attempted to help alleviate conflicts involving political parties, militias and major ethnic groups. Their existence has helped to improve community resilience in the wake of political tension resulting from elections or political processes elsewhere in the country or seasonal tensions between nomadic groups and settlers.
An external assessment was conducted by Thousand Plateaus Consultancy Services of one peace council project led by an INGO jointly with six ANGOs in eight districts across four regions of Afghanistan. The evaluation confirmed that the peace councils in question have been successful in preventing and resolving a number of community-based conflicts. As a result of the project, decreases in reported disputes were recorded as follows:
- water disputes – 29 per cent
- legal disputes – 19 per cent
- poverty and unemployment-related disputes – 27 per cent
- conflicts stemming from disputants’ different
- religious beliefs and practices – 5 per cent
- conflicts over customs or traditional practices in
- target communities – 15 per cent.
The long-term sustainability of the peace councils is yet to be fully established. Moreover, attributing impact is complicated as their success in a given area depends on several factors including security, social cohesion within the particular community, the nature, size and history of disputes, and the community’s attitudes towards traditional dispute resolution mechanisms. Equally, while the verdicts of the councils are non-binding, if the affected parties are limited in their capacity to access the formal justice sector – whether because of money, gender or geography – then there may be little recourse for appeal, as is the case with traditional shuras and jirgas.
Efforts have been made to give more weight to the traditional dispute resolution mechanisms by formalising them or improving their linkages with state institutions. For example, the Afghan government is considering the viability of bringing these mechanisms under the Community Development Councils (CDCs). However, the CDCs already have a range of responsibilities beyond their role of implementing rural development projects. Adding a dispute resolution function could potentially create tensions between CDCs’ various roles, while such integration could also impact on the inclusive composition of the peace councils.
The NGOs interviewed stressed the value of considering the relative strength of the peace councils as informal independent bodies, and what might be lost if they are formalised. Nonetheless, viable options for linking the councils with the formal sector should be explored further as a way of providing them with on-going support and facilitating their role as key agents in the process of conflict transformation, providing they respect existing institutions’ strengths and customs.