By David Marshall, HRP Visiting Fellow 2012-2013, and UN Staff Member, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In 2011-2012 I was deployed to South Sudan to lead the UN’s development of the justice and prisons system. It was a startling experience. Though the international community has been engaged in rule of law reform since 2005 there was a profound deficit in knowledge about the justice ‘system,’ its actors and processes. Moreover, there appeared little interest in understanding, and learning from, years of international rule of law programming in the country – what worked, what did not, and why, or applying lessons learned from similar contexts. Much of the assistance focused on ‘law and order’ issues, with most support going to police and prisons. The international community’s rule of law assistance seemed trapped in an ‘impoverished’ view of the rule of law, with little, if any, impact in actually addressing injustices in the country.
The experiences in South Sudan are replicated in other post-conflict and fragile states, where unprecedented international attention is placed on state-building, with a primary focus on rule of law reform. Enormous amounts of money and effort have gone into rebuilding and often changing entire justice systems, with modest success. This attention raises profound questions about the objective, approach, methodology, and consequences of these efforts. The evidence suggests that trying to change such legal systems is an unproductive endeavor.
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