Dr Morgan Brigg from the University of Queensland says governments and responsible authorities should not overlook the fact that community leaders have the capacity to manage conflict before they escalate.
Dr Brigg has done research on traditional justice in East Timor, Bougainville, Solomon islands, and Vanuatu.
His work was recently presented at a UNDP workshop in Suva, Fiji
Presenter: Joanna McCarthy
Speaker: Dr Morgan Brigg, School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland
BRIGG: It's very important but it's often under-recognised so we don't often, we don't have a lot of data or a lot of information about the types of work that's being done at the grassroots level by chiefs, church leaders, women's organisations and the like. And we often don't hear about this because they're actually dealing with conflicts before they actually escalate or get into the formal justice system at all. I should say though I think we need to be a little bit cautious about calling them traditional justice processes, because in some ways what is traditional is changing all the time, it's been greatly influenced by church processes and also by the formal justice system. But the key point is that it's resilient and often working quite strongly at the local level.
MCCARTHY: And no doubt there is enormous diversity about how traditional justice or this form of justice is metered out in Pacific communities. Can you tell us are there any commonalities as to how this justice system works? Who arbitrates and who decides on the penalties?
BRIGG: Well sometimes it's may be about penalties, for example chiefs may impose fines for minor misdemeanours in a local village. But often it can be about processes of bringing people together to help them talk over disputes that have got them into difficulty, and it can sometimes be about using church processes to engage people in a process of forgiveness. If I had to say what the one common trait was that was sort of linking all these processes, it's the emphasis on relationships, which is often a lot stronger at the local level and able to be worked with in much stronger ways at the local level than it can be through the former justice system. Of course then that work with relationships is linking in with perhaps church values or customary values or other community values that have grown up in particular localities, but it's the relationships that are really key and are really drawn upon.
MCCARTHY: And to that extent if we compare these systems to those that operate in the west, would you say that these forms of justice are more conciliatory and less punitive than western systems?
BRIGG: It's a little bit hard to say that because of course there's a lot of variation within the west as well with us making use of mediation and similar types of processes in some ways. And in countries like Australia we borrowed on indigenous approaches to try and develop restorative justice systems and the like. And I think perhaps what some of the most exciting work at the moment is looking at ways that we might be able to blend local systems in customary context throughout the Pacific with introduced processes. And in a sense get the best of both worlds. This is really exciting too because sometimes when people, outsiders or those involved in the formal justice system look at what's happening at the local level, they get concerned because they think that there are transgressions of human rights happening in these traditional justice processes. And in some cases that can be the case, outsiders may well have well placed concerns about what goes on in traditional and local processes. But one of the key findings of our research is that if all the players, the local people, say the police, say an international intervention mission of some sort, if all the players involved are prepared to sit down and talk through the issues, they can find really constructive ways in which these different approaches can mutually support and complement each other. We actually find that no one of the systems on their own can solve all the problems. For instance chiefs and church leaders are often under a lot of pressure in local communities to deal with disputes, and they need the support and assistance of the formal system. But then there are things that the formal system and the police and courts and so on simply cannot solve. So the two need to be finding better ways to work together.
MCCARTHY: And when there are examples of customary law that would be considered an international human rights violation, how should the formal justice system respond to that?
BRIGG: Well as I say often the formal justice system is there trying to deal with the very serious matters, but often there's not a lot of contact or a lot of exchange between the formal justice system and say local chiefs and church leaders and women's groups. And if they were able to have greater exchange, and I think this is where there's really a role for donors to support the clarification about where the boundaries of different systems are and how they should articulate and talk to each other. If those processes are able to take place, well we find that say local chiefs can be quite readily brought on board with some principles that are in wider circulation in the international community around certain parts of issues, say around gender and young people's participation and how they might be treated in the formal justice system. And therefore those chiefs can become quite strong advocates around those issues. But one of the problems that happens at the moment is that if international and state based processes tend to try to force international norms and so on into local communities without conversation and dialogue and exchange, then it's very hard for them to be taken up locally and sometimes local people justifiably object to that, in part because the outside systems are not recognising that on a daily basis these local people are managing to keep the peace, managing to stop disputes escalating and so on.