Bildet viser et graffittimotiv fra Liberia Foto: Niels Nagelhus Schia

A LOST OPPORTUNITY: By ignoring the traditional legal system in Liberia, the UN has lost an opportunity, according to senior research fellows Niels Nagelhus Schia and Randi Solhjell (NUPI). 

Liberia - You'll never walk alone?

Published: 26 May 2016

For the past 13 years, the UN has ensured peace and security in Liberia. Now this West African country must paddle its own canoe – but it is still a weak state, marked by recession and political rivalry.

An accessible and well-functioning legal system will be necessary to maintain security and stability in Liberia in the years to come. By ignoring the country’s traditional legal system, the UN has missed out on an opportunity, according to Niels Nagelhus Schia and Randi Solhjell, senior research fellows at NUPI, who have studied this issue through the NUPI research project GENTRA.

Two legal systems

In fact, Liberia has to parallel legal systems: the traditional one, and the modern, state-based one system.

Together with NUPI Research Professor Morten Bøås, Solhjell and Schia have studied these two systems in connection with the GENTRA project, with a focus on gender-based violence. Solhjell and Schia have recently returned from fieldwork in the country.

‘Liberia was marked by conflicts throughout the 1990s and until 2003. As a result, the country today has a weak state and an inadequate legal system. The UN and other international organizations have worked on reforming the police and the judicial system for several years, but weaknesses remain, and resources are scarce. Here we should note that, historically, traditional legal structures have held a strong position in Liberia, especially in the countryside. Also today, village chiefs and local-level systems enforce law and order, in parallel with the state structures’, Solhjell explains.

Researchers from NUPI og Kofi Annan Institute for Conflict Transformation before appearing on a loval radio station to talk about the GENTRA prosject.

Doesn’t work

Even though the international community, with the UN at the forefront, has made massive efforts to stabilize Liberia and build peace, law and order, there is much to indicate that the country still faces challenges in the time to come, the NUPI researchers note.

‘There has been very little focus on the traditional legal structures’, notes Schia.

By the end of June this year, most of the UN troops in Liberia will leave the country, and only a UN police force will remain.

Schia continues: ‘The UN presence will be sharply reduced. By and large, the country will be left to manage security and law by itself. But the state legal system that the UN and other international actors have tried to build simply doesn’t work.’

‘Reporting a crime through the state system will normally involve traveling for about six hours on a motorbike and into the capital. You’ll have to spend a lot of money to stay there, and pay the police for pen and paper – and in the end they are supposed to conduct an investigation they don’t really have the resources for’, Solhjell goes on to explain.

‘When many people began using this system and didn’t get results, that undermined public trust in the state – not that there was much trust to begin with’, he adds.

Strengths and weaknesses

As a result, many Liberians living outside the urban areas opt to report crimes within the traditional system, which they see as being more efficient than the state one.  

‘If something has been stolen, the victim may turn to the local chief. The chief will to listen to the accused, then they’ll all sit down together and try to solve the problem. If a more serious crime has been committed – like a child being raped – a stricter system comes into effect. In some traditional forms, the accused may be executed’, Solhjell says.

These two legal systems have their strengths and their weaknesses.

‘The traditional system is efficient and readily accessible, but the weakness lies in issues of human rights. The state system is somewhat better regarding human rights, but it is inefficient and generally less accessible for the majority of the population,’ explains Schia.

Knowledge gap

The basis for the observations of these NUPI researchers is the ongoing research project GENTRA, which investigates the knowledge gap between established views on how best to deal with gender-based violence (GBV) in Liberia, and how such violence is actually handled.

The researchers have collected data through surveys and in-depth interviews.

In addition to mapping how the parallel legal systems work regarding GBV, the project aims to contribute to capacity building and awareness-raising in Liberia. The work is conducted in collaboration the Kofi Annan Institute for Conflict Transformation (KAICT) at the University of Liberia.

‘The traditional legal structures have been studied and mapped to only a very small degree, especially concerning GBV. By GBV we don’t necessarily mean sexual crime or something that only affects women. It may for instance have a basis in expectations about the tasks a little boy is supposed to perform – for example if he fails to get some income for the family one day, comes home and gets beaten for it,’ Solhjell explains.

The way ahead

Liberia is a country of interest today, for various reasons.

‘The UN presence is being withdrawn. The country is in recession; prices for Liberian exports like rubber and iron ore are low, and the country has problems selling its natural resources. This contributes to even higher unemployment rates among one of the youngest populations of Africa. There will be presidential elections in 2017. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is completing her second term in office and is not allowed to run again. This sets the stage for considerable political rivalry in Liberia’, says Schia, who concludes:

‘The traditional legal system may become a stabilizing component in tomorrow’s Liberia. It is really a pity that the UN and the international community in general have ignored this legal system, which is both readily accessible and efficient. We all have missed out on an opportunity to reform and further develop this system.’