Week Four: Harmonizing Two Different Justice Systems

     Four weeks down! Hard to believe I’ve been here in Uganda for a month already—the time has really flown by! This week was rather slow in the office because many of my colleagues were away at a conference, but I still managed to attend a number of interesting meetings. I went to a workshop which hosted a national dialogue about large-scale land acquisitions and their implications for women’s land rights in Sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, I went to a meeting with the Ugandan Judiciary, which aimed to harmonize how land justice interventions are handled by two different adjudication systems.

     I am gaining a more in-depth understanding of the disjunction between the formal and informal systems in Northern Uganda. They are both used to address land issues, sometimes inharmoniously. On the informal side, traditional clan leaders and village elders oversee land disputes. Additionally, NGOs in the area are involved in training the village leaders in “ADR” (alternative dispute resolution) to facilitate these proceedings. However, there are no universal standards for this ADR, and the process does not meet a legal definition of mediation. On the formal side, there is the court system. Part of the problem is the disjunction between the two systems. Often, a decision will be reached through an informal approach, but if the more powerful party does not like the outcome, they can afford to take the issue to the courts instead. They can then continuously appeal the case higher and higher, until they reach the decision that suits them. Although the informal system is constitutionally recognized, the courts often disregard any decision made through an informal process. This leads to forum shopping and breeds public distrust for the courts. In particular, the massive displacement of people during the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army has severely degraded the capacity of legitimate, traditional adjudication systems, and land grabbers seize on the confusion to dispossess poor land owners. Meanwhile, the courts are facing an immense backlog of cases dealing with land disputes, many of which escalate into violence. And, the cost of pursuing a case in court too often means that justice is too costly for many parties. Of course, when the system is not working properly, it is the poor who suffer the most.

     SAFE is working to harmonize these two systems—a lofty, but worthy, goal shared by many. SAFE may help do this by facilitating round-table discussions between members of the Judiciary, traditional leaders, and NGOs to improve information about each of their roles in the system. SAFE also may be able to train members of the Judiciary in ADR, so that when they encounter ADR outcomes, they have a deeper understanding of what went into reaching that decision. At the meeting with the Judiciary, they seemed open to taking some of these steps forward with SAFE’s help. These steps would still only be one small piece in a big, complex puzzle to solve. But, it was exciting and eye-opening to have a seat at that table, witnessing how such a systemic issue can be addressed through collaboration and reaching for a deeper understanding.