SOAS University of London

Department of Politics and International Studies

Advocating local justice systems after conflict

Through his research on post-conflict accountability and reconciliation, Dr Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics, challenges the suitability of international judicial processes in Central Africa. Controversially, he has questioned the practices of the International Criminal Court, human rights groups and UN agencies, championing instead local, community-based practices which hold both high- and lower-level actors accountable. His work promoting forgiveness and enabling communities to heal themselves has drawn attention from governments and international agencies alike.

A gacaca community court hearing in Rwanda. Photo: Public Radio Internationa
A gacaca community court hearing in Rwanda. Photo: Public Radio International

In his monograph The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers of 2011 Dr Clark examines the model of community-based Rwandan conflict resolution, the ‘gacaca’ justice system. This system allows respected individuals elected by local populations to prosecute cases, which are heard in open-air assemblies before community members; it was used between 2002 and 2012 to prosecute around 400,000 suspected perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. The majority of adult Rwandans participated in gacaca, but the fact that lawyers were excluded proceedings generated international criticism of the courts’ legitimacy. Using original empirical evidence and more than 500 interviews with international, national and community stakeholders, Dr Clark countered this scepticism, arguing that, while not without problems, mass participation in ‘truth-telling’ and accountability has laid a vital foundation for reconciliation. The monograph offers insights into a unique approach to post-genocide justice and raises the important question of whether Rwanda’s experience might provide a model for other African nations seeking post-conflict resolution. It also aims to support the vulnerable stability of post-conflict nations in Africa.

Dr Clark’s research also investigates international approaches to accountability and reconciliation following atrocities. He argues that the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) top-down and distanced approach is ill-suited to address conflicts in which non-state actors, including tens of thousands of everyday citizens, played a significant role. He asserts that the need to achieve results in the short-term has seen the ICC fail to prosecute serving members of government responsible for atrocities, while also overlooking the capacity of local forms of justice to address such crimes. This approach, Clark contends, has made local populations suspicious of the ICC’s legitimacy and has serious implications for the rule of law in countries where, rather than being punished, political actors guilty of serious crimes are ignored or even empowered by the ICC’s operations.

Dr Clark challenges the practices of human rights groups and UN agencies in Central African post-conflict resolution. With their narrow conception of justice and accountability, and questionable evidence-gathering biased by political agendas, he argues, such groups fail to consider specific transitional contexts and customary practices in African countries, and thus undermine the execution of justice. Ultimately, Clark’s research proposes that for genuine long-term reconciliation to occur international actors must develop a nuanced, country-specific understanding of how conflict plays out and is resolved.

He has been closely involved with four cases of war crimes in the UK, US, Sweden and at the ICC and actively engaged with international judicial processes and debates on aid policy. He has provided expert advice to the UK government on re-evaluating donor policy to Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC. Clark’s evidence criticised the government’s proposed withdrawal of aid to Burundi, especially in light of planned substantial aid increases to Rwanda and the DRC, and advocated regional rather than state-based donor assistance in order to advance post-conflict re-building and maintain stability in the Great Lakes as a whole. This stance was eventually adopted by the UK Development Select Committee.

Internationally, Dr Clark has advised the US State Department, the Danish, Australian, Norwegian, Sudanese, Swedish, and Ugandan governments, the ICC, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, UN Group of Experts on the DRC, HRW and Crisis Group on conflict-related issues in Rwanda, facilitating important policy and legal discussions with practitioners.

His clear influence on international debate on conflict and reconciliation in Africa is corroborated by his frequent engagement with the media: since 2010, he has written thirteen op-eds for the Guardian, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Financial Times, The East African, Huffington Post, The Australian and the BBC and CNN websites and has been quoted no fewer than 165 times in broadcasts and articles by a wide range of international agencies.