(2011) JLP 63: 73-109
Stephen Lubkemann, Deborah Isser and Peter Chapman
In this article we provide an empirically grounded critique of the internationally-driven ‘Rule of Law’ policy approach in post-conflict Liberia by highlighting the consequences of policy-makers difficulties in coming to terms with the realities of legal pluralism. Informed by a ‘progressive’ intent to establish a single formal justice system for all Liberians, this approach has promoted policies that ignore or seek to constrain customary justice institutions because they are seen as violating human rights and falling short of international justice standards - even though they are preferred by most of the population. These efforts also involve a top-down approach to reconstituting and reforming the formal legal system that, to date, has largely neglected capacity-building at the local level while emphasizing narrow technical remedies (such as legislation revision) that fail to account for social, economic, and political realities. This approach has undermined the customary justice systems without improving the capacity or performance of the formal justice system - resulting in a growing ‘justice vacuum’. For most Liberians the quest to obtain justice in this ‘vacuum’ has increasingly become little more than an effort to secure advantage over opponents through the mobilization of social networks, by exercising political and/or economic power, or through other extra-judicial means. In this context ‘customary and ‘state/formal’ justice institutions are not approached by most Liberians as distinct avenues for seeking justice but rather as poles in a single power topography. This topography includes a wide array of other actors and institutions that are not a part of either the formal or the customary justice systems but who are often appealed to and frequently affect justice outcomes. In conclusion we consider several political effects of the constraint of customary justice and the broader implications of dismissing pluralism for Liberia’s delicate post-conflict peace building and political development processes.