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Strengthening trust between justice actors and communities in Central Mali

February 24, 2023
Est. Reading: 6 minutes

"In our commune, people no longer go to the courts. When there are conflicts, dozo hunters are called in to settle them; they are in great demand. They come without trying to understand (the issues) and they don't even know the procedures for managing conflicts. They commit a lot of injustice because all the denunciations are not always well founded.” -Young resident in Niono

Access to justice and the legitimacy of the justice sector in Mali has been a concern for communities for decades. In a country where formal justice mechanisms have always operated alongside traditional forms of justice, which communities have trusted the latter more, new types of actors are offering alternatives to formal and traditional justice mechanisms.

The weakening of the state, its security coverage and the provision of basic social needs is correlated with the emergence of other actors, inclined to carry out their own forms of justice and challenge the authority of the formal justice system. These contribute to catalysing a cycle of violence and revenge, as well as greater distrust of the formal state mechanisms from the population.

In the face of these threats, Malians require greater support and guidance from the judicial system to ensure that their rights are respected, to counter the rise of ideologies promoted by armed groups, as well as to guarantee transparent and fair treatment. The magnitude of these challenges calls for a holistic response that goes beyond the strictly security framework to encompass the aspects of governance, development and social cohesion that underpin people's relationship with justice.

It is in this context that the Institut Malien de Recherche-Action pour la Paix (IMRAP), with the support of its partner Interpeace, produced a participatory barometer to better understand and analyse the perceptions of Malian citizens on the challenges of access to justice, the causes of impunity and possible solutions to address them in an inclusive and sustainable manner.

Misunderstanding, corruption and lack of resources as roots of mistrust

The participatory barometer collected the perceptions and experiences of more than 2,000 people in 6 cercles in Central Mali: Mopti, Bandiagara, Djenne, San, Ségou and Niono. Respondents included community members, traditional authorities and justice actors, all of whom were represented and involved in the creation of the indicators, survey, and data analysis.

Results from the barometer showed that a major obstacle in the population’s access to justice is caused by misunderstanding and mistrust of the judicial system. Many participants were unaware of the channels and services they have access to, where four out of ten people said that they did not know where the nearest court was in their locality.  The lack of knowledge of rules and procedures has also led to the further misunderstanding, mistrust and even rejection of decisions in formal justice systems. In addition, the use of French as the primary language in justice procedures and legal contexts, while almost half of the respondents either have not gone to school or understand the language well was an additional hurdle in accessing such systems.

In a region highly prone to poverty, the costs of legal proceedings and the geographical distances involved deter many citizens from taking legal action. The consultations showed that the costs of initiating proceedings, the assistance of a lawyer and bailiffs, and the deposits required (particularly in civil cases) made justice financially inaccessible to a large proportion of the target communities. This observation generates frustration among some participants, and fuels the perception of an unequal and two-tiered justice system.

In order to help litigants bear the costs of proceedings, the State adopted a law on legal aid in 2001 to facilitate access to justice for the poor. In practice, however, the interviews pointed to a limited application of these measures, due to a lack of financial resources and the difficulty of recruiting legal assistants who can provide the necessary help to people involved in proceedings.

In addition, the barometer also shows that suspicions of corruption and interference that put into question the legitimacy of the formal justice system. More than seven out of 10 respondents stated that the rich and the poor are not treated the same in legal proceedings and find that those with more resources are likely to get more favourable decisions.

The consultations also revealed the dissatisfaction of part of the population with the slowness and failure to complete judicial investigations, which fosters impunity and discourages people from filing complaints. Nearly one person in two surveyed by the barometer declares that they have little or no confidence in the resolution of their problems by the formal justice system.

Several magistrates also acknowledged that suspects sometimes escape justice because procedures are not carried out within the time limits set by law. They attribute this dysfunction largely to the lack of material and human resources available to the courts and investigation units.

“New actors”, instability, and the role of women and traditional authorities

For 60% of Malians surveyed insecurity is a major contributor to the increase in impunity in their locality, and three out of ten people cite it as the major obstacle to the application of the law.

Targeted by armed groups, many magistrates and court staff have retreated to Mopti, Ségou and Bamako, leaving behind slow-moving courts and insufficient resources to meet the needs and demands for justice of the population. In a region where 72% of civil servants surveyed said they feared being assaulted, kidnapped or killed while on their daily rounds, insecurity also prevents investigative units from going into the field to investigate crimes.

The withdrawal of civil servants and defence and security forces targeted by the violence has contributed in recent years to the appearance of 'new actors' in the provision of security and the settlement of disputes in the Centre. Faced with the gradual withdrawal of basic social services (security, justice, education, health, etc.) to the regional capitals, the population is increasingly turning to traditional authorities and 'new actors' such as dozo hunters, armed self-defence groups and so-called radical groups, depending on the area.

Faced with the rise in insecurity and growing number of new actors, the research has also shown that traditional conflict mechanisms play a key role in complementing the formal justice systems. Traditional mechanisms use customs, dialogue and religious texts to settle disputes, appease victims and find agreements between the different parties. They benefit from a certain trust and legitimacy among their communities, who call on them to arbitrate disputes and manage family, land and cohabitation conflicts. Seven out of ten people say that they first turn to the village chief to lodge a complaint or obtain information.

Consultations revealed a strong demand for collaboration and mutual reinforcement between the courts and traditional mechanisms to improve the delivery of justice and combat impunity. Those surveyed recognise existing efforts but express the need to expand and institutionalise a frank, structured collaboration that defines the competences and limits of both systems. This better complementarity can, according to them, contribute to relieving congestion in the courts and tribunals, and to a better understanding and recognition of the formal system by the traditional authorities and the population.

The barometer also highlighted the difficulties of access to justice, particularly for women. In the region, women generally have a lower level of education, financial means and less autonomy than men when it comes to the expenses and needs involved in legal proceedings. There is strong socio-cultural pressure to normalise certain discriminatory and violent practices against women and to dissuade them from initiating or pursuing legal proceedings.

The fear of being stigmatised and rejected by the spouse or family, the lack of information about the procedures, and the lack of money, support and time to follow through with the action therefore deter many women from using the institutions to defend themselves and have their rights respected.

Further strengthening trust in justice systems in Central Mali

The creation and research process of the participatory barometer, which started in 2021, has already provided an opportunity to increase awareness and foster trust between communities and justice actors in the 6 cercles.

However, the obstacles highlighted by the barometer call for further action in order to strengthen the justice system in the region. The findings of the research will be used to inform further interventions, engagement with the formal justice actors, as well as traditional authorities and policymakers in the region.

“The barometer, through an assessment of the perception of population from the middle belt regions on justice issues, aims to establish a better understanding around the challenges, realities and opportunities for an improved judiciary system and process,” said Kadiatou Keita, Interpeace Mali Representative.  “The recommendations resulting from this process would increase the population’s understanding of the judiciary systems, and would further strengthen the frameworks for dialogue between population, traditional authorities and judiciary actors to eventually combat impunity and restore trust between the different actors. This trust is crucial in restoring lasting peace.”

Interpeace and IMRAP would like to thank the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the financial support of the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), for their unwavering support for this initiative.

Access all results of the participatory barometer here: https://mali.elva.org/

Read the key findings and recommendations report (in French):