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Policy Dialogue and Reform: Access to Justice in Liberia

In Liberia, formal and traditional systems of justice have coexisted since the founding of the state, although not always in perfect harmony. Local chiefs, elders, and spiritual leaders have used traditional methods of administering justice for generations. Some of these practices have been codified in executive administrative regulations that govern areas outside of Monrovia. As the new government has brought changes to laws and sought to enforce existing ones that impact traditional communities, it has been necessary to both inform communities of the changes and to provide opportunities for people to understand the purpose of the law and discuss ways in which they will impact their communities. For example, two such changes that have the potential to create significant change in traditional practices are the 2003 law that gives women in traditional marriages the same rights to property and inheritance as women in formal marriages and the enforcement of the laws that for years have held that certain traditional ways of determining guilt or innocence through trial by ordeal are illegal and unconstitutional.

The Carter Center, in support of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and traditional leaders represented by the National Traditional Council and working with other stakeholders including the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Gender and Development, and women's and youth groups, has helped to convene trainings and dialogue opportunities to explore the differences between national laws, rural administrative regulations, and customary practices and to begin to discuss ways that national legal reform might be embraced in traditional communities. In 2008, The Carter Center helped to facilitate three regional dialogues between traditional leaders and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (PDF). As a result of these dialogues, the National Traditional Council produced a resolution on its stance on various legal issues and contentious traditional practices. Also, the Center co-convened with the Ministry of Justice and U.N. Mission in Liberia legal and judicial office a lessons-learned consultation on Access to Justice in a Transitional Period (PDF).

In 2009, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Traditional Council, and The Carter Center partnered to hold county-level trainings for traditional leaders on the rule of law and gender mainstreaming in each of the 15 counties. These trainings also allowed the government to solicit input from traditional leaders on issues of legal reform and give the traditional leaders the chance to be heard on important questions that will affect their lives. In this way, The Carter Center is a valuable interlocutor between the government and traditional leaders.

In addition, the Center is helping the judiciary's Committee on the Role of Non-Lawyers to examine the differences between statutory laws and current administrative regulations that govern rural areas. In partnership with the U.S. Institute of Peace and the UNMIL Legal and Judicial System Support Division, the Center is facilitating a group of senior Liberian lawyers to examine related issues. These efforts will feed into the overall reform process leading to constitutional reform, guided by the Governance Commission.

According to Tom Crick, associate director of the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program, the national process will:

"… help ensure that any new laws stand a better chance of being both consistent with Liberia's reform agenda, existing laws — including Liberia's international human rights obligations — and the realities of community traditions and practices, as far as this is possible. Popular understanding and acceptance of the new legal order are critical elements in protecting ordinary Liberians from the historic misuse of state power and thereby eliminating one of the major causes of the recent wars."

Strengthening Indigenous Conflict Management Capacity

In response to requests from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Traditional Council, The Carter Center has launched a new project on April 1, 2010:

"Strengthening Indigenous Conflict Management Capacity in Liberia." With the support of USAID, this project focuses on strengthening the dispute resolution capacity of traditional authorities, youth and women in five target counties: Bong, Nimba, Lofa, Margibi and Maryland. The program was formally opened at a five day "Launch and Learn (PDF)" workshop to analyze conflict dynamics in the target counties and to transfer  relevant skills. The workshop was conducted in partnership with assistance from the UN's Mediation Support Unit.

Following an outbreak of violence in Lofa County in February 2010, The Carter Center carried out a five day assessment mission that produced an assessment mission report (PDF). Subsequently, a team from the National Traditional Council, supported through this project, were able to reach an agreement between Lorma and Mandingo elders and youth (PDF) in the Voinjama area to help prevent further outbreaks of fighting.

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Participants from across Liberia attend a Carter Center-sponsored workshop.

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Participants from across Liberia attend Carter Center-sponsored workshops such as this one, held in March 2009, designed to strengthen understanding of the country's rule of law.
A participant attends a sensitization workshop.
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Sensitization workshops enable a greater understanding of citizens' rights and responsibilities under new Liberian law. 

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Mama Tumeh, leader of the country-wide Traditional Women for Peace—a Carter Center partner—is working to bring a message of hope and empowerment to survivors of the country's 14-year civil war, many of whom lost their husbands and other family members.

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