Reconstructing the Rule of Law: Post-Conflict Liberia

By Carter, Jimmy | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing the Rule of Law: Post-Conflict Liberia


Carter, Jimmy, Harvard International Review


Civil wars mark the collapse of a state's ability to maintain social order through peaceful means. To prevent wars from recurring, new social, economic, and political arrangements must be found that are acceptable not only to the elites present at the peace table, but also to all members of society. Unless people at all levels can develop and embrace new social and political structures for maintaining order, no amount of peacekeeping or post-conflict reconstruction will ensure a lasting peace. An often overlooked yet critical element to achieving this aim is the prioritization of the restructuring and empowerment of community-based justice mechanisms that have been damaged or discredited by the war. Doing so gives ordinary people an active stake in the transition to a more just society and provides some means for people to protect themselves, their communities, and their country from injustices that can lead back to war.

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Liberia today continues to face one of the greatest post civil war peace-building challenges of out time. Liberians suffered unspeakably during the 14 years of internal fighting, which killed 250,000 and drove more than half of Liberia's 3.5 million people from their homes. The war touched every Liberian and almost every corner of the country and region in some way. It destroyed lives and livelihoods, along with physical and social infrastructure at all levels. The war laid bare the country's divisions and created new ones. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government is working extraordinarily hard to rebuild the country and heal its wounds, with critical support from the international community. The task requires sustained drive, patience, and commitment, particularly in the face of setbacks such as rising food and energy prices that can quickly impact any economic progress, particularly among the poorest. As Liberia continues to make progress in its fragile transition from autocracy to a new order guaranteed by the rule of law, it is critical that the population be included in all steps of the process so that their enthusiasm for peace can be sustained.

Community Access to Justice

Thirty years ago, in September 1978, the World Health Organization and its member states signed the Declaration of Alma-Ata, calling for primary health care to be the building block of health policy around the world. The UN General Assembly endorsed the declaration, recognizing that community-based approaches to primary health care delivery are essential if services are to reach and benefit ordinary people. Despite the successes of this approach, a comparable idea that access to justice should be rooted in community-based services has yet to be embraced in a similar manner. While the health establishment trusts trained local citizens to administer basic health care and preventive education within their communities, legal establishments have been much slower to explore ways that problem solving can be devolved to ordinary citizens. One important cause of civil war is when poor or marginalized groups believe they have no legal recourse through which to protect their rights from more powerful elites. In countries recovering from war, this core problem will remain if reform of the legal system does not also include active ways to connect to the citizens' immediate needs, including regaining their trust. Peace-building, therefore, must find creative means to make the law quickly accessible and relevant to ordinary people so they can collectively begin to embrace a new social order and work to protect it.

Almost all peace agreements and post-conflict reconstruction plans contain commitments to establishing democratic systems based on the rule of law. Restoring the justice system is critical to security, economic development, infrastructure reconstruction, education, and good governance. However, more than half of the states that have emerged from conflict will at some time return to war. …

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