Informal justice systems must be integrated into development programmes – UN study

26 September 2012

Informal justice systems to resolve disputes must be integrated into broader development initiatives to guarantee the protection of human rights, since they are preferred by a large number of people in various developing countries, according to a United Nations study released today.

The report, Informal Justice Systems: Charting a Course for Human Rights-Based Engagement, argues that informal justice systems in countries such as Bangladesh, Ecuador and Malawi, among many others, “may be more accessible than formal mechanisms and may have the potential to provide quick, relatively inexpensive and culturally relevant remedies.”

Women, children and minorities in particular benefit from the impact of these systems, the report says, providing a source of empowerment for vulnerable populations.

“Informal or customary justice systems are a reality of justice in most of the countries where UNDP works to improve lives and livelihoods and government capacities to serve,” said Assistant Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Olav Kjorven.

“The evidence in this report illustrates the direct bearing such systems can have on women and children’s legal empowerment, covering issues from customary marriage and divorce to custody, inheritance, and property rights.”

The report – commissioned by UNDP, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and produced by the Danish Institute for Human Rights – is the most comprehensive UN study on this area of justice to date, UNDP said in a news release. The report draws its conclusions based on research carried out in 18 developing countries.

“There has been little research or literature on children and informal justice systems to date, and this study is important in beginning to document the issues around children’s engagement with informal justice systems,” said UNICEF Assistant Director Susan Bissell. “Reconciling the procedures followed by informal justice systems with children’s rights, and ensuring that international standards about children and justice are implemented, is a challenge that the report clearly documents.”

Both formal justice systems – government-supported laws, police, courts, and prisons – and informal or traditional systems can violate human rights, reinforce discrimination, and neglect principles of procedural fairness.

“The efficacy of working with informal justice systems requires that it be complemented by engagement with the formal justice system and with development programming that addresses the broader social, cultural, political, and economic context of informal justice systems,” the report says. Surveys in Somalia, it notes, found up to 80 per cent of the population preferred arbitration by clan leaders to engagement with the formal justice system.

The report points out that formal and informal justice mechanisms need to learn from and cooperate with one another to widen access to justice and protection of human rights to all citizens. Broader development initiatives in education and health may also help change the way informal systems are structured and help create an environment where human rights can be respected.

“The crucial value in this report lies in its emphasis on what can be achieved in terms of improving access to justice and human rights through informal systems,” Mr. Kjorven said.

“Changes should be evaluated over the long term, but training adjudicators, increasing the number of women in decisions-making posts, empowering paralegals and women’s groups to monitor and engage with customary leaders – all these efforts will continually improve individual and communal experiences of justice.”


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