How can we ensure that all Liberians will have access to justice they understand and believe in? We should ask each other how dedicated members of our formal and customary justice system can ensure all Liberians are afforded their rights under the Constitution.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Access to Justice Conference, Gbarnga, Bong county, April 2010
In this article, Pewee Flomoku and Counsellor Lemuel Reeves from the Carter Center describe their organisation’s experiences in promoting justice in post-war Liberia, in particular in linking traditional and formal justice systems.
The justice system that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf inherited when she came to office in 2006 was in tatters. Particularly in rural areas, police and magistrates were largely unpaid and unregulated, and were often operating in their own interests.
A critical peacebuilding challenge for Liberia has been to build its citizens’ trust in the justice system – to persuade them that it acts in people’s interests. In recent years, much work and international support has gone into improving the formal justice system: training judges, magistrates, prosecutors and public defenders; renovating court buildings; and regularising salaries.
But the benefits of these reforms have so far been slow to trickle down to ordinary citizens, especially those beyond the capital, Monrovia. In the absence of strong oversight mechanisms, there are no guarantees that corrupt practices will change.
Rural Liberians pursue justice almost entirely through traditional means. A 2008 survey by Oxford University [see Further Reading] found that rural citizens took only four per cent of criminal cases and three per cent of civil cases to the formal courts.
Chiefs, elders or spiritual leaders resolve disputes based on widely accepted cultural paradigms. But some traditional approaches are at odds with formal mechanisms, and can be highly controversial. A rape may traditionally be ‘talked through’ because it is seen as a problem between families and it is for the perpetrator and his family to make the victim and her family whole again; this can include payment, or sometimes even marrying the victim. The statutory system, by contrast, sees rape as a crime against the individual, which requires individual punishment.
When the newly elected government took power in 2006, the rule of law was so weak in most rural areas that an immediate priority for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) was to educate citizens on how the law should be implemented, as well as to teach people about important reforms such as amendments to law governing rape and changes to the inheritance law to allow women in customary marriages to inherit property.
In partnership with the MOJ, the Carter Center initially worked with three rural community organisations to do this work. Over the course of one month rural citizens in eight of Liberia’s 15 counties were asked about their experiences of the law; based on this research, messages for community dramas and radio were developed by the MOJ for civic education campaigns. This programme made a simple but significant contribution. It showed rural Liberians that the government recognised the daily realities of ordinary people and was trying to act in their interests by providing them with the knowledge needed to exercise their rights, even while formal justice mechanisms would take longer to reform.
Through cooperating with the MOJ and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), the Carter Center’s programming has supported justice reform. We have also increasingly developed a significant ‘bottom-up’ complement to formal international post-conflict rule of law interventions. This has helped to provide information and services to marginalised rural populations, and build bridges between customary and formal justice systems and between rural citizens and the state.