Sustaining Peace, Building Justice: Lessons from the International Development Law Organization

20 May 2019   ·   International Development Law Organization

Strong rule of law institutions are crucial for preventing conflicts and building peace. Effectively promoting the rule of law requires sustained and context-sensitive engagement, quick wins, grassroots partnerships and empowered citizens. Such work needs to involve informal justice mechanisms, combat violence against women and stay engaged during all phases of conflict.

Armed conflict has increased around the world, exacting a very high cost in human suffering and rolling back development gains. There is growing international consensus that in preventing conflict, stabilizing societies and establishing peace, effective, accessible and accountable institutions play a crucial role. However, the international community does not have a strong track record in strengthening institutions. The many failed interventions reveal a “knowledge gap” and the need for greater investment and partnerships.

Many root causes of conflict stem from the absence of the rule of law

There is an emerging global consensus that peacebuilding and development activities cannot wait until violence has subsided fully but must occur alongside humanitarian responses and conflict resolution initiatives. Efforts to prevent conflict and sustain peace must address the root causes of conflict and promote sustainable development.

Many root causes and drivers of conflict such as discrimination and marginalization, unequal distribution of public goods and services, corruption, impunity and lack of accountability stem from or are exacerbated by the absence of the rule of law. The International Development Law Organization (IDLO) has long advocated the crucial role of the rule of law in preventing conflicts, building peace and advancing sustainable development. The organization is greatly encouraged by recent UN resolutions that acknowledge the importance of the rule of law in sustaining peace and sustainable development, and in particular the vital role played by effective and accountable institutions.

Laws and institutions can be a tremendous force for peace and stability by providing equitable access to resources and services, justly adjudicating disputes, incentivizing peaceful collaboration and deterring violence. Through such action they help to break the cycle of violence and instability and lay the foundations for economic recovery and social development.

The development sector has a mixed track record in strengthening institutions

Notwithstanding the acknowledgement of the importance of the rule of law, the development sector has a mixed track record on strengthening institutions. Internationally supported reforms have been criticized for prioritizing form over function, being overly technical, lacking local buy in, failing to build confidence and mobilize political will as well as vastly underestimating the timeframes required for institution building. Increasingly, more emphasis is being placed on context-sensitive analysis, legal pluralism and innovative approaches to enhance local ownership.

IDLO provides technical assistance and supports capacity development for constitutional, legal and judicial reform processes. Most of this work is carried out in transitional, fragile or post-conflict situations. The following eight insights are drawn from IDLO’s ongoing institutional strengthening work around the world.

1. Sustained engagement is essential for developing and transitioning to national capacities 

Institutions in fragile and conflict affected situations are often going through or recovering from profound shocks caused by violence, instability and political upheaval. Those shocks have severely degraded their human, organizational and resource capacities and ability to govern and provide critical services. Building strong institutions in such contexts is a long-term process that involves assessing needs, mobilizing political support, marshalling resources, changing mindsets and effective change management.

2. Quick wins can generate support for longer term institutional reform

The long timescale needed for meaningful change means that establishing the credibility and legitimacy of reform efforts at an early stage is important to help secure the breathing room, political backing and resources needed for longer term institution building efforts. Identifying and implementing quick, visible improvements in key areas of public concern can be an effective way to build momentum and support around important areas of reform.

3. Reform must be contextually sensitive and responsive to evolving local priorities

Rule of Law reform requires acknowledging power dynamics, identifying potential sources of conflict and recognizing issues of leadership. It also involves politically sensitive values and choices on justice, accountability, individual rights and distribution of resources – issues that are best decided by those to whom they will apply. Reforms are also most effective and sustainable when they are nationally owned.

4. Sustaining peace requires building inclusive grassroots partnerships

Building broad coalitions that increase mutual trust between government and communities and can support institutional reform efforts is important, particularly at the grassroots level. Perceptions of exclusion and unfairness can generate grievances that drive conflict even when they are not objectively accurate. Inclusive governance is therefore critical, particularly in fragile contexts where citizens may be marginalized, excluded or alienated from government. Institutional reforms tend to be incremental and iterative and require constant and persistent engagement with the full range of stakeholders so that needs can be identified and consensus can be developed on the nature of the change required.

5. Institutions perform better when citizens are empowered 

Legal empowerment is a bottom-up effort to mobilize and arm those living in poverty with knowledge and tools to engage with those who administer the laws and institutions that affect their daily lives, from local government to social service providers. Laws and institutions are more effective and responsive to public concerns when justice seekers are aware of their rights and know how to access public services. Legal empowerment not only helps citizens to engage with the authorities, but also contributes to building mutual trust and confidence in fragile and conflict affected situations.

6. Informal institutions can play a critical role

While exact figures are unavailable, there is broad consensus that the majority of disputes around the world are resolved through informal means. Although informal justice institutions often lack basic procedural safeguards and do not recognize the full rights of women, children and other vulnerable groups, they are often preferred by communities because of their greater accessibility, affordability and compatibility with local cultures and customs. In fragile or conflict-affected areas, where state institutions are weak or distrusted, informal mechanisms remain the predominant option to seek justice. Given their popularity and significance, informal institutions cannot be ignored but must engaged in a way that promotes reforms to ensure the rights of justice seekers from vulnerable or disadvantaged groups.

7. Combatting violence against women and girls is crucial to peacebuilding

Armed violence affects women and girls disproportionately. Conflict and the general breakdown of the rule of law exacerbates pre-existing inequalities, results in higher incidences of gender based violence and its increasing use as a tactic of war. 

IDLO is committed to promoting gender equality through non-discriminatory, gender-responsive laws and institutions, enhancing women’s access to justice and increasing their participation and leadership before, during and after situations of violent conflict. Post-conflict transitions and reforms can also provide opportunities to address societal structures and customs in place before the conflict to promote greater gender equality and respect for women’s rights.

8. Staying engaged during conflict lays the foundation for post-conflict peacebuilding

Modern day conflict can be a recurring, downward spiral or can morph into a low level of constant insecurity. It is important for international actors to remain engaged during such times to prevent the escalation of violence by ensuring that development activities are sustained alongside the political and humanitarian responses. 

Preserving the capacity of justice institutions, which act as constraints on the arbitrary exercise of power and are responsible for holding perpetrators, including state actors, accountable for violations in the post-conflict period, is particularly important. Preventing institutional failure and preserving capacity to guarantee minimum human rights standards during conflict can also provide a stronger foundation for post-conflict engagement.


International Development Law Organization

The International Development Law Organization (IDLO) is an intergovernmental organization exclusively devoted to promoting the rule of law.