Traditional justice systems

Traditional justice systems are increasingly seen as an integral mechanism through which to implement transitional justice (Triponel & Pearson, 2010). Traditional systems are often referred to by other terms, such as customary, informal, community-based, grassroots, indigenous and local (Allen & Macdonald, 2013). Their appeal lies in their potential to resonate more with local populations and thus to be more effective in providing a sense of justice and restoring community relationships. They are more familiar to local populations and allow for local contexts to be incorporated into transitional justice processes. They can also be faster and more convenient to implement.

A comparative analysis of traditional justice mechanisms in Burundi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda finds there are often high degrees of public participation in these mechanisms and sharing of experiences. Some form of truth-telling is integral to many traditional mechanisms and reconciliation is a primary goal, often focusing on the return of ex-combatants. The focus on reconciliation does not, however, exclude desires for acknowledgement, responsibility and restitution (Huyse, 2008).

The focus on traditional justice has gained momentum since the gacaca community courts were set up in Rwanda. The Government of Rwanda gave the public a large role in selecting who would implement the traditional justice system. Judges were elected from among the local population over which they had jurisdiction, following the accepted custom regarding gacaca courts (Triponel & Pearson, 2010).

In Timor-Leste, a smaller-scale grass roots traditional justice mechanism – the Community Reconciliation Process – was adopted, with the aim of reintegrating people who had committed ‘less serious’ harmful acts during the political conflicts into their communities. This involved a series of community-based hearings to determine how to reintegrate perpetrators, for example the performance of community service (Triponel & Pearson, 2010).

Various studies of traditional justice systems have raised concerns about the persistence of ethnic, religious, generational and gender hierarchies and divisions at the local level, which can limit the effectiveness of such practices—and perpetuate inequalities (Valji, 2009; Andrieu, 2010; Allen & Macdonald, 2013; Gready & Robins, 2014). There may also be practical limitations, as community-level justice mechanisms are usually not developed to address the scale or types of atrocities committed during such conflicts (Valji, 2009; Allen & Macdonald, 2013). In addition, if traditional justice mechanisms are ‘hijacked’ by international actors, institutionalised and implemented in a top-down fashion, they may no longer resonate with local populations. There has been much criticism of the implementation of the gacaca system in Rwanda in this regard (Huyse, 2008; Andrieu, 2010; Allen & Macdonald, 2013; Gready & Robins, 2014).

For further discussion, see the section on local ownership in this guide.