International Order & Conflict

To Combat Sexual Violence in Liberia: A Need for Sharper Focus on Traditional Justice

in Program

The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Liberia has been working to reduce that country’s high rate of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), a legacy of its devastating 14-year civil war. Until recently, however, the mission failed to engage the one institution that most Liberians use most of the time to redress grievances, namely, customary justice.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has worked to elevate women’s roles in post-conflict peacebuilding at the national level. Its Office of the Gender Adviser has promoted a national gender policy, recruitment of female police officers, and training for the Liberian National Police on SGBV-related issues. With UNMIL’s support, the Women and Children Protection Section of the Liberian National Police, established in September 2005, investigates sexual offenses and offenses related to domestic violence and family issues such as child support. It is also in charge of investigating claims of SGBV by police officers. UNMIL’s Legal and Judicial System Support Division (LJSSD) also collaborated with the Liberian government to develop a law in 2006 that criminalized rape for the first time in Liberia.

The main problem with UNMIL’s approach is its relative lack of attention to the prevalent role of traditional/customary justice in Liberia. A 2009 study of Liberia’s dual justice system by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) found that only two percent of criminal cases reached formal courts, 45 percent went to traditional/customary courts, and the rest reached no forum at all. Most magistrate courts and police stations are located in large urban centers; most Liberians are not. The average walking time to police stations and courts is 3.5 hours and can go up to 10-12 hours. In comparison, customary institutions exist in all communities at all levels, and are also much more cost effective. Many formal judicial proceedings will not go forward unless “fees” are paid to keep cases from being neglected. The overall costs for the customary justice system are significantly lower, more consistent and transparent, and sometimes even free.1 

In the same USIP study, Liberians rank chiefs and elders as the arbiters of justice who are easiest to understand; formal courts were ranked lowest on issues of comprehensibility, fairness, and respect for norms. For most cases of rape, Liberians prefer the more restorative and reconciliatory approach to justice of the customary system to the punitive approach of the statutory system.2  Thus, when it comes to facilitating access to justice for women and dealing with SGBV cases, UNMIL cannot afford to ignore the traditional justice system.

Women still face less-than-friendly conditions in the informal proceedings. Customary law disregards women’s voices and consigns women as minors. Rape cases can end in forced marriage or fines to be paid by the survivor of sexual violence. Nonetheless, women and men both prefer customary forms of dispute resolution over the statutory system, and women are more likely to take SGBV cases to the customary system.

UNMIL has only recently started to think seriously about the significance of Liberia’s dual legal system. In April 2010, UNMIL helped organize a conference on traditional justice mechanisms together with the Carter Center, USIP, the George Washington University, Liberian law schools, and Liberian government agencies. Several follow up consultations discussed the role of the customary system and potential policy options for the Liberian government to better incorporate the traditional justice system into the formal one. More recently, LJSSD has been working with the Liberian Ministry of Internal Affairs to regulate procedures in tribal courts and to train tribal chiefs on basic justice principles, due process, and human rights.

The challenge for UNMIL then is to engage the traditional justice system more systematically while promoting greater respect for women’s rights and dignity. UNMIL should also attempt to fully understand the informal system’s grievance and dispute-resolution process in regards to SGBV. UNMIL could use this information to train paralegals and community legal advisors on SGBV issues, and on mediation and dispute resolution in a local context. This approach has been used successfully to facilitate access to justice for women by the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program in Indonesia and Timap for Justice, a Sierra Leone NGO. Additionally, and similar to LJSSD’s training program, UNMIL’s Human Rights and Protection Section in conjunction with LJSSD could conduct women’s human rights sensitivity training for community leaders in the customary justice system. So long as Liberians continue to rely on traditional institutions for redress of grievances, any strategy to address SGBV that expects to be effective must continue to engage those institutions in the interest of fairness and justice for Liberian women.


1 Isser, Deborah H., Stephen C. Lubkemann, Saah N’Tow, “Looking for Justice: Liberian Experiences with and Perceptions of Local Justice Options,” United States Institute of Peace, 2009, p. 4, 25, 31, 70.
2 Ibid., p. 70.

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Christopher Herwig,

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