ILAC and Sida Co-Host Seminar on Rule of Law Assistance and Customary Justice in Fragile Settings

On May 31, ILAC together with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), organised a seminar on “Promoting Complementarity: How Can International Rule of Law Assistance Support Engagement with Customary Justice in Fragile Settings?” at Sida’s headquarters in Stockholm.

The event is part of a series of public seminars, held yearly during ILAC’s Annual General Meeting, that serves as a platform for policy dialogue on rule of law and access to justice. This year, the seminar highlighted the important role of customary justice in fragile settings, particularly for meeting the commitments in the New Deal, Agenda 2030 and Goal 16.

The panel of experts involved in the Seminar interacted with an audience of some 120 people, including representatives of Sida, the Swedish Foreign Ministry and ILAC’s membership. Mr. Helder da Costa, Secretary General of the g7+ Secretariat, provided introductory remarks acknowledging the many challenges faced by state justice systems in conflict-affected and fragile states and the need for organisations such as the g7+ to support their members in embracing rather than confronting legal pluralism.

     We cannot deny that customary justice is vital for ordinary citizens even if it is sometimes imperfect,” he said. “It is important to recognise the role of customary justice and tailor access to justice efforts to specific contexts.”

A two-part panel discussion followed. In the first part, Hon. Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, the former Attorney General and Justice Minister of Sierra Leone, and HH Kabineh Ja’neh, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia and ILAC individual member presented their respective country’s experiences in this area.

Hon. Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara noted that the majority of the population relies on customary law for resolving disputes in Sierra Leone. While the customary system is legally recognised, the rules vary greatly between localities and can be applied arbitrarily. As a result, legal aid offices in Sierra Leone focus not only on representing the indigent, but also on ensuring that ordinary people are aware of their legal rights both under the customary and state systems.

HH Kabineh Ja’neh described similar levels of reliance on customary justice in Liberia, where state court buildings are frequently remote and official legal proceedings lengthy. He noted that the Liberian government now knows a great deal about the nature of customary justice and that Liberia has identified options for greater complementarity with the state system.

A panel of experts followed, including Ms. Maureen Nahwera, Senior Advisor on Human Rights and Gender to the Swedish Embassy in Uganda; Mr. Matt Pollard, Senior Legal Advisor to ILAC member the International Commission of Jurists; Ms. Martien Schotsmans, Director of ILAC member RCN Justice & Démocratie; and Ms. Veronica Taylor, Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance of the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific.

All speakers agreed that it was vital for international actors working on rule of law issues to make a greater effort to understand the role of customary actors in fragile settings, and to maintain a holistic approach to securing access to justice.

     Formal and customary justice are not a binary but a variety of mechanisms in a continuum,” said Schotsmans. “All have benefits and problems and there is no need to idealise either. We need to work with what is on the ground and support necessary improvements.”