The TRC report, submitted to the Government of Liberia (GoL) in 2009 has of late generated huge public interest with focus placed mainly on those recommendations concerning lustrations and prosecutions.
Apparently lost in the debate have been the issues of Reparations and the Palaver Hut. The past government and even officials of the current government maintained that some progress have been made in the implementation of the Palaver Hut.
But just what progress has been made is the question. The Independent National Human Rights Commission maintains that it has been conducting the Palaver Hut although these claims have been contested. It does however appear that there is much public misunderstanding about what the Palaver Hut is and how its proposed structure should look like. Join me for a while as we walk through what and how the TRC perceived the Palaver Hut to be.
According to official statistics, a total of 17,000 ex combatants were disarmed and demobilized as per the Accra Peace Agreement. To facilitate their reintegration into society, they were provided with an allowance referred to as Transitional Settlement Allowance (TSA) and opportunities for education and skills training. In the eyes of local communities, the ex combatants were being rewarded for the wide range of atrocities committed against them, while they were left to their fate. Such perceptions were reinforced to a large extent by the displayed arrogance and unremorseful attitudes exhibited by most ex combatants and their leaders.
During public hearings conducted around the country, victims recounted the callousness and on insouciance ex combatants have, since the cessation of hostilities, displayed in their interactions with host communities. It was not surprising therefore that during hearings victims made resounding calls for justice. But responding adequately to such calls is indeed fraught with difficulties. At the end of its work, the TRC will make recommendations, among a host of others, for prosecutions. Given such a huge universe of perpetrators, it is hardly likely that the court system, overburdened as it is with crowded dockets will be able to handle such a case load.
Moreover, the lack or absence of courts, lawyers, penal institutions, police officers, in large parts of the country would suggest the consideration of alternatives that would provide room for reconciliation and justice. In this regard, the challenge will be finding the nexus between the country’s dual legal system and tailoring it to address the exigencies created by the imperatives for justice, reconciliation, institutional reform, amnesty and reparations.
The Palaver Hut Approach
The Palaver Hut approach, common to rural communities around the country could prove useful in this regard. The palaver hut forum is a conflict resolution mechanism wherein select members of the community will sit to determine matters of grave concern to the community or to resolve a dispute amongst or between individuals in the community. Decisions reached at such forums are considered binding.
It must be observed that such forums derive legitimacy from a host of cultural influences including the Poro, Sande and Bodio institutions and have greatest legitimacy and viability in rural areas. Local structures (District Development Committees) currently in place, could have their functions expanded to include transitional justice. Perpetrators accused of violations that do not transgress the boundaries of international humanitarian law, human rights law could be made to appear before such forums.
There are however challenges, key amongst which are the weak institutional capacities, and the lack of coherent structural arrangements within which such activities will be conducted, particularly in rural communities. Further is the issue of enforceability. It remains to be seen how, under current arrangements, decisions arrived at will be enforced. Will, for example, local communities have recourse to law enforcement and judicial remedies should an individual elect to flout decisions arrived at in Palaver Hut forums?
Another challenge is the workability of such arrangements in urban areas where the sense of community is not as strong as compared to rural areas, and where the District Development Committee is of little or no relevance. Additionally, what will be the scope of authority of the Palaver Hut Forum and how will such forum complement or come into conflict with local quasi judicial structures like the Justice of the Peace?
Moreover, how will for example, individuals who were active in several communities around the country and at different periods be handled by the forums? Will they, for example, be moved from community to community to atone or will the determination of any single Palaver Hut forum suffice and, will there be adequate record keeping and tracking mechanisms put into place to deter would be elopers?
Composition and Life Span of Palaver Hut Commission
Given the above, the government should move to set up a body known and to be styled as the Palaver Hut Commission. This body should be composed of one representative from the Interreligious Council, one from the Traditional Council, one from the National Human Rights Commission, one from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and one from civil society organizations, preferably human rights or pro democracy organizations. The Commission could then be tasked to organize Palaver Hut forums in each of the country’s 64 political districts.
This Commission, (the Palaver Hut Commission) should have a life span of one calendar year within which the entire case load should be exhausted. Another question is whether the Palaver Hut commission will exercise appellate jurisdiction over the district forums. If `not, then will decisions emanating from the District forums be considered binding and final? Finally, what will be the role of the Legislature and Legislators in these arrangements aside from the need to enact enabling legislations to enhance and facilitate the work of the Palaver Hut Commission?
These are indeed difficult questions which are likely to confront policy and decision makers in the post TRC period. The Ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs, both being key players in this regard are challenged to develop appropriate collaborative frameworks that will serve to strengthen and enhance the rule of law and increase access of the vast majority of the people to justice, particularly at local levels.