Celebrating The International Day of Peace

Each year the International Day of Peace is observed around the world on 21 September. The UN General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, through observing 24 hours of non-violence and cease-fire. The 16th sustainable development goal refers to “peaceful and inclusive societies”, “access to justice for all” and “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions”. Peace is commonly used to mean a lack of conflict (such as war) and freedom from fear of violence between individuals or groups. Throughout history, leaders have used peacemaking and diplomacy to establish a certain type of behavioral restraint that has resulted in the establishment of regional peace or economic growth through various forms of agreements or peace treaties. Such behavioral restraint has often resulted in the reduction of conflicts, greater economic interactivity, and consequently substantial prosperity.

The scale and complexity of the challenges facing societies affected by conflict mean narrow approaches that prioritize one over the other will miss the mark. We need to find creative ways of integrating efforts to prevent conflict with the promotion of human rights, justice, and the rule of law. Too often, justice is taken to mean improving and implementing laws. As a result, actions tend to focus on increasing the capacity of law institutions, such as the police and courts, to improve access to justice.

One in every four children around the world — about 535 million — currently lives in a country impacted by conflict or disaster, according to the United Nations. Some have been recruited to fight in armed groups, others have been injured by landmines or attacks on civilian infrastructures, such as schools and hospitals.

Often, youth in conflict are seen only as collateral damage to the political games of adults. Rather than just thinking of children as victims, it is also necessary to engage with them as potential partners in peacebuilding. In order to sustain peace across generations, funders must invest in youth by incorporating them as key participants of peace processes and peacebuilding strategies.

There has been an increased focus on youth — especially young men — as the perpetrators of violence and a threat to security and stability. In the media and popular literature, boys and young men are often portrayed as cheap, ruthless manpower, manipulated by warlords or extremist groups and induced by drugs, alcohol, spiritual or material rewards to commit atrocities. Some commentators have warned that a “surging” youth population or “youth bulge” — combined with high unemployment and rapid urbanization — is leading to increased violence and insecurity, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, most recent analyses of violent conflict identify some form of “youth factor” in the generation or perpetuation of violence.

There is certainly data and evidence to demonstrate the suffering of children due to war and violence. In 1996, Graça Machel authored a seminal report on the devastating impact of violent conflict on children5, which provided the basis for the establishment of the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict as well as a new framework of international laws and policies aimed to protect children and prohibit their recruitment into armed groups.

However, when we dig deeper to consider the findings of a wider range of research studies on the roles and experiences of young people in situations of violence, the picture becomes more complex than these dominant headlines and dichotomous images of children as victims and youth as perpetrators of violence.

Firstly, whilst a significant number of children under 18 suffer from the direct and indirect effects of violence, data shows that the majority of casualties of lethal armed violence worldwide are young men aged 15 to 29. This demographic suffers the highest rates of death by homicide internationally with young men also four to five times more likely to be killed by violence than young women.

Young women, on the other hand, represent a disproportionate number of the victims of physical and sexual abuse and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), both in peacetime — mostly perpetrated by intimate partners and family members — and in times of violent conflict when violence against women perpetrated by both family members and strangers escalates

Access to a system that helps to manage disputes between people is important — but it is only part of what’s needed for peace. “Access” is no guarantee of the quality or fairness of a justice system, while equal access to the law is very different from equality before it.

But while the fairness of justice systems, formal or informal, should remain a common preoccupation, we also need to tackle the much larger question of how to build more just societies. Justice is not something that is merely dispensed through courts and the police. Instead, it is experienced either positively or negatively through the quality of opportunities, relationships, transactions, and behaviors right across society.

Lack of confidence in the justice sector has a profound impact on governance in a society. According to a recent survey conducted in 26 African countries, respondents who expressed confidence in their judicial systems were more than three times as likely to say that they have confidence in their national governments. Indeed, the relationship between confidence in national government and confidence in the judicial system was the strongest among any other institution surveyed — including the military, electoral systems, and religious authorities. In other words, trust in the judiciary is often a litmus test of citizens’ judgments of their governments. The lack of predictability in the legal environment, furthermore, undermines private sector investment, and development.

Some of the innovative solutions that are contributing to peace include Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), it encompasses a series of mediation mechanisms for resolving conflicts that are linked to but function outside formal court litigation processes. Whereas trials are formal affairs governed by strict rules, mediation involves third-party neutrals facilitating negotiations between disputing parties. The focus of mediation is usually on the interests of the parties themselves as opposed to their negotiating positions. It is designed to provide an opportunity for claimants to have their views heard and undertake a process that satisfies all sides in a way that a court proceeding cannot.

The process usually begins well before the parties meet in mediation. The mediator makes sure that the parties understand what the process entails, that it is voluntary and resolution-seeking and that the parties agree to participate. Wrongs are also acknowledged and recommended future behavior is emphasized. Mediation assumes that the parties are willing, rational, able, and motivated to settle. The motivation of the parties to settle is weighed against the consequences of an imposed judgment, stalemate, or “self-help” (that is, parties taking matters into their own hands).

Mediation — and ADR more generally — has helped courts around the world reduce delays and costs to litigants, deliver justice faster and fairly, and allow parties to exercise control over their case resolution without feeling alienated.

The notion of ADR fits comfortably within traditional concepts of African justice, particularly its core value of reconciliation. Pioneering ADR projects in Ghana, Ethiopia, and Nigeria have generated positive results and illustrates the suitability of ADR in African contexts.9 Under these arrangements, ADR was used as the default resolution method. Formal court litigation, or instances where the judge actually judges, are reserved for cases of constitutional or legal interpretation, where there is a need to set precedence, in cases with major public policy implications, or as a last resort after ADR has been tried.

As part of a project on judicial reform, for example, Ghana held its first mediation week in 2003 in which about 300 cases pending in select courts in Accra were mediated over 5 days. The effort was a major success, with 90 percent of surveyed disputants expressing satisfaction with the mediation process and stating that they would recommend it to others. The achievements of this initiative led to a followup ADR round in 2007 where 155 commercial and family cases from 10 district courts in Accra were mediated over 4 days. Almost 100 cases were fully mediated or concluded in settlement agreements. Eighteen cases reached a partial agreement and were adjourned for a later mediation attempt. A total of 37 cases were returned to court.

HiiL (The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law) is a social enterprise devoted to user-friendly justice i.e accessible, easy to understand, and affordable.