Customary Justice and the Rule of Law in War-Torn Societies

The George Washington International Law Review, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Customary Justice and the Rule of Law in War-Torn Societies


Customary Justice and the Rule of Law in War-Torn Societies, Edited by Deborah Isser. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2011. Pp. 386. $29.95 (paperback).

Customary justice systems-long-standing community-based mechanisms-are the primary dispute resolution system in many conflict-affected countries. Formal rule-of-law practitioners have begun to recognize the importance of incorporating customary systems in post-conflict justice reform. In practice, however, reform efforts continue to focus on imposing Western ideals, because justice reform is seen as a technical legal task. The case studies suggest that justice reform should be an exercise bound with deeply sociological, historical, and political realities.

Customary Justice and the Rule of Law in War-Torn Societies analyzes the tension between customary and formal justice systems, and provides generally applicable lessons for how reform efforts can engage customary systems to promote justice, sustain peace, and enhance state legitimacy. The book is intended for practitioners and policymakers in the field of justice reform and peacebuilding in conflict-affected countries. Scholars of socio-legal studies and international peace operations will also find interest in the original empirical data and analysis of contemporary justice reform efforts.

The book begins with the key constraints of formal justice systems and a general introduction to the complexities of post-conflict states. The editor provides seven contemporary case studies, in chronological order of their reform efforts (Mozambique, Guatemala, East Timor, Afghanistan, Liberia, Iraq, and South Sudan), with an aim to shiftthe view of rule-of-law practitioners toward a more sociological understanding of the role of customary justice as a key component of the justice landscape.

The case study of Mozambique highlights the trend towards more reliance on customary mechanisms. Mozambique's population historically unified along community lines rather than based on national identity. After two decades of post-conflict reform, the Mozambique case is regarded as a success because customary mechanisms effectively held individuals accountable to social groups.

The study of Guatemala discusses the shiftfrom a monist justice system to legal pluralism resting on three pillars (state justice, alternative dispute resolution, and indigenous law) and proposes an approach that focuses on mutual recognition and coexistence, rather than assimilation of Mayan law.

The East Timor case study focuses on the efforts of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.

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