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Bringing justice to the people: how the UN is helping communities deal with disputes in remote and dangerous areas

Justice can be hard to come by in countries hit by conflict. To ensure that communities can settle disputes, and see criminals lawfully punished, UN peacekeeping missions support mobile courts, which travel to places where no regular court exists.  

This may be because court buildings have been destroyed due to conflict, or because it is too unsafe for judges and personnel to stay permanently in a particular town or region. Mobile courts also sit in regions that are too remote for regular, permanent institutions, but can also temporarily sit in specific settings such as prisons.

Bentiu mobile court starts prosecuting cases in the Mission's Protection of Civilians site (POC). (December 2018) by UNMISS/Isaac Billy

To date, the UN has supported different forms of mobile courts in many different conflict settings, including in Côte d'Ivoire, Haiti, Liberia, Mali and Somalia. Two recent examples can be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. [Read about a recent case in Malakal in South Sudan here

Alexandre Zouev is the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions. One of the responsibilities of his office is to help countries affected by conflict to re-establish the rule of law and security institutions necessary to build and sustain peace. UN News asked Mr. Zouev to explain in more detail how mobile courts operate, and how they can help such countries to recover a sense of normality.

What kind of crimes do mobiles courts cover?

Mobile courts, in principle, function like any other court in the regular justice system; the types of crimes they can prosecute accordingly varies and depends on each country’s legal framework and on the type of mobile court that is preferred by the authorities. However, because of their non-permanent nature, countries will often choose to limit the jurisdiction of these courts to more simple cases that can be treated in relatively short court sessions.

Importantly, mobile courts can also often consider non-criminal cases such as civil disputes and conflicts related to land rights, and play a role in birth and marriage registrations.

How do they contribute to peace and security? A defendant at a Bentiu mobile court swears on the Bible before giving evidence. (December 2018) by UNMISS/Isaac Billy

Mobile courts in peacekeeping settings contribute to a range of goals. They are an instrument in the fight against impunity which often prevails in the remote regions where mobile courts operate and strengthen national accountability systems. They provide victims direct and easy access to justice, and the opportunity to see justice being done before their eyes; this in turn can play a role in community healing after conflicts, and also increase the trust people have in formal justice systems. Mobile courts contribute to the promotion of a peaceful society, as conflicts are settled through legal means rather than through violence. Through their roles in non-criminal cases (chiefly relating to land rights issues, which are well-known conflict drivers) these courts can play important roles in post-conflict normalization of society and build longer term stability. Finally, mobile courts are often accompanied by forms of outreach, which can inform the local population on a broad range of justice and reconciliation related issues.

While doing so, mobile courts contribute to the extension of state authority and improve the visibility of the state in remote regions, as mobile courts brings state officials into regions where they are not usually present; this in turn promotes peace and stability.

What challenges are faced, when it comes to effectively running mobile courts?

Security and logistics are often issues when running mobile courts, as they take place in remote areas or in areas where there is weak state presence. Another challenge is that the local population can perceive prosecutions for acts of conflict-related violence as somehow biased against one of the warring factions; it is therefore essential for mobile court sessions to be accompanied by outreach campaigns that explain the prosecutorial approach. Notably, it is often challenging to manage the expectations of local populations, who sometimes expect quick convictions and/or harsh punishments for defendants. Clear messaging is particularly important in cases where defendants are acquitted or receive lenient sentences.

Can you identify any notable successes?

Mobile courts in the DRC, supported by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), have been a critical tool in efforts to fight impunity. Prosecutions supported by the United Nations - including through the Prosecution Support Cells - have resulted in numerous convictions and sentences, including for sexual and gender-based violence. The United Nations has provided technical, financial, logistical and security support to the organization of these mobile court sessions. The use of mobile courts has allowed for the hearing of cases in remote areas, where the local population would not otherwise have had access to the justice system. This has allowed victims and witnesses to participate in proceedings and to testify, reinforcing a victim-centred approach towards justice. Public confidence in the DRC justice system has improved, as the trials increasingly demonstrate that the national authorities are able and willing to arrest and prosecute suspected perpetrators of atrocity crimes (which are often committed in remote areas).

MONUSCO supports the mobile courts in Dungu, organized by the Haut-Uélé Garrison Military Auditorium. (October 2016) by MONUSCO/Lassana Dabo

Similarly, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has been supporting the implementation of mobile courts since 2018, as a way for national institutions to bring justice for sexual violence and other serious violations committed within UNMISS protection of civilian sites. By January 2019, a total of 61 cases had been referred to national authorities. With UNMISS support, national authorities constituted mobile courts which deployed to Malakal and Bentiu in October and December 2018, respectively. There have been 12 convictions to date, with sentences ranging from 18 months to 16 years; a clear sign that sexual violence and other serious violations will not go unpunished. Importantly, this was the first time that trials took place in Bentiu since the start of the conflict in December 2013.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), The UN Mission in the country, MONUSCO, has introduced mobile courts to allow cases to be heard in remote areas, which would not otherwise have access to the justice system. The courts have a “victim-centred” approach, allowing victims and witnesses to participate in proceedings, and to testify. 

MONUSCO has helped to provide 57 courts and prosecution facilities in the eastern DRC, and has provided training for over 1,000 judicial staff, in areas such as court management and record-keeping.