Eritrean Communities: give us ours and take yours, the government says no way

cropped-2121By Teweldeberhan Gebre

UNDP Eritrea revealed one truth about Eritrea’s community legal services challenges. In the “absence of a formal judiciary system, traditional justice systems and customary practices are critical to ensuring that people have access to justice,” said UNDP. UNDP added, “[i]n Eritrea, many rural communities denied access to dispute resolution as a result of formal legal services where people could present their cases or a legal system that did not take into account cultural or traditional practices.”  In other words, UNDP is affirming that communities are denied access to traditional dispute resolutions practice as a result of the much-touted community legal services which doesn’t consider the cultural and traditional practices of the Eritrean peoples.  In its July 16th annual deliberations, the Regional Assembly of Central Region, also, pointed out that people are complaining about the inefficiencies of the community legal services and their judges.

Also, according to UNDP, due to “the unequal distribution of the formal courts in Eritrea resulted in community members traveling long distances and incurring huge expenses to present their cases in court.” “Some people,” says UNDP “some people in the Southern Red Sea Region had to travel over 300 kilometers to attend courts in Massawa or Assab.” If are people allowed to practice their cultural and traditional dispute resolutions methods, they can avoid the costly journeys and can use their meager savings for another purposes. Although an obvious joke, to alleviate the problem UNDP is supporting the government of Eritrea to implement “a traditional dispute resolution system” so that to complement formal judicial system. I find it difficult to comprehend what kind of support UNDP is contemplating. The government had banned the cultural and traditional dispute resolutions by banning the customary laws.

Unless the government formally lifts the sanction on practicing traditional norms of resolving disputes, what is the point of UNDP’s project? The immediate solution should be officially lifting the sanction by the government and allowing communities to practice their customary laws to tackle disputes and conflicts. If they cannot solve their problems through practicing their traditions, then the formal legal systems can be applied. Moreover, UNDP has indicated that there is a lack of equal distributions of community legal service as in the showcase of the Southern Red Sea Region. Because people are not allowed to settle disputes on their own and do not have access to community legal services they have to incur unnecessary costs by traveling long distances to either Assab or Massawa. In other words, the much-touted community courts are not serving the intended purposes, if any.

Hence, UNDP better advice the government to lift the sanction before any involvement. Otherwise, in practice, UNDP is strengthening the government not the people. Plus, the government cannot be the educator of customary laws to Eritreans. In fact, the government should give scholarships to its court staff to go and attend the practices of traditional dispute resolutions in our communities and go back and amend their legal system which is incompatible with our cultures and traditions. Our people has centuries-long culture and traditions in conflicts resolutions, and do not need assistance to practice their customary laws. What the people is asking is “give me mine take yours.” For the government, the introduction of the so-called community legal services is a means of control. The same can be said about the so-called ‘baito zobas’. Regional baitos are not allowed to pass resolutions but only recommendations. The purpose of community legal courts is not different from that of baito zobas case. In the same fashion, communities should be denied to pass any resolutions, be it in dispute/conflict resolution or any other matters.

In conclusion, UNDP’s immediate work need to be advocacy against the sanctioning of the customary laws by the government. Unless the government lifts the sanction, UNDP doesn’t have any legitimacy to implement projects such as the above. UNDP and UNCDF have tried similar projects in the name of ‘decentralizations’ of regional governments in Anseba and Debub. UNDP and its Fund (UNCDF) implemented projects on decentralization under no any legal provisions and, as a result, the agency and its Fund miserably failed. Time again, UNDP is trying to implement a project that doesn’t have any legal backing by the government.

To make the story short, UNDP and its Fund (UNCDF) have been working with the regional and sub-regional governments of Debub and Ansebthe a in the absence of legally devolved powers in finance and administration since 1998 and miserably failed. Hence, UNDP needs to learn lessons from what happened to its multi-million projects under the so-called decentralization and local governance projects in Debub and Anseba regions. UNDP should have understood two things. First, the government was not and is not willing to decentralize political and administrative powers to regional and sub-regional governments. Second, the government didn’t have resources to complement foreign aid toward strengthening local and regional governments which make difficult to sustain programs such as the above.

In the same way, if the agency decided to go ahead with its current project of supporting the government so that communities to practice traditional dispute resolutions it should understand that this will not work. Otherwise, the straight and direct answer to the problem is lifting the ban on practicing traditional dispute resolutions by the government. In other words, the peoples of Eritrea are reclaiming their traditional rights to resolve their issues locally. In short, they are reclaiming traditionally and locally devolved powers against the highly centralized system.

  • robel

    Selam Teweldeberhan

    I think the government has sanctioned practicing traditional norms of resolving disputes because some of those “traditional norms” for a large portion of our society involve the Sharia. And without sugar coating it, the Sharia is an outdated and barbaric way to govern any society. So in order to appear neutral, I believe the government prohibited all forms of traditional ways of resolving disputes.

    • Robel,

      “Sharia is an outdated and barbaric.” Let me correct you, my fellow country man.

      (1) Sharia Law and courts are systems like any system of region and formal judicial system of laws. I learned in my law school that all laws and legal system are barbaric because they are created by man.

      (2) Traditional dispute and conflict resolutions are outside the religious and the formal legal regimes which were true in Eritrea, too.

      (3) In many countries including in Eritrea, Sharia courts have the jurisdictions over civil cases provided disputants agree to take their cases to these courts. If one of the disputants disagree to take it to the Sharia or Christian courts, the chance is to take the matter to the civil courts.

      (4) In Saudi Arabia, for instance, Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases. Meaning, Sharia courts are part of the government court systems. But, in other countries this is not the case. If I am not mistaken Saudi Arabia is unique in its legal and judicial systems. Not all Muslim countries have such legal arrangements. So, Eritrea is not even different from all Muslim countries legal systems.

      (5) Sharia Law is misunderstood by many though mostly by the western world. Sharia courts in Saudi Arabia, for instance, are accused of death penalties. Well, many countries including the US have death penalties too. So, what is the difference? The difference is how you execute the alleged ‘criminal’ which is secondary and subjective.

      But, I don’t want to close my response to you without underlining the followings:-

      Like the formal legal regimes, traditional systems of dispute resolutions have weaknesses and strengths. In fact, traditional dispute/conflict resolution methods are more humane than the formal legal regimes. In the formal legal systems, judges use not their brains but by referring papers, and the possibilities to permanently eliminate disputes are less likely than the traditional systems. The formal systems are also expensive and time consuming.

      Traditional dispute resolutions are outside the religious and the formal legal systems. The government of Eritrea disregarded or banned the traditional dispute resolution practices for other purposes, and that is to control every decision makings by citizens at all levels. Remember that, by law, outside of the government’s knowledge, three or more people cannot meet and discuss issues that matter them. Therefore, there is no particular reason to ban traditional dispute resolutions other than controlling every aspects of the people’s life. They do it in the name of “community legal services”. But, what is the purpose of banning traditional dispute resolutions service? It is like any other service communities have to enjoy. The irony is even the judges in the formal courts encourage people to try it through traditional means. Now, the difference is people are not allowed to practice traditional way of dispute resolution before the judge told them to try it. It means the government is now aware of the gatherings of the traditional ‘judges’ and nothing to worry about it.

      I gave my followers the examples of baito zobas. We were told that the people elected members of the baito zobas. However, these baitos report to the zoba administrator and through him to the minister of local government. How come a baito report to the executive? Not only that, but also baitos cannot pass resolutions, approve budgets and regional plans. They can make only recommendations. Nonsense! I wouldn’t even consider them as people’s assemblies. This is a ridiculous political game and our leaders are simply fooling themselves not the people of Eritrea.

      Finally, Sharia Law is not barbaric. It is like any legal system with weaknesses and strengths. We should not be scared about Sharia Law and its court system. Eritrea will remain as a civil state and Eritreans have all the rights to enjoy with a diversified legal systems. Our Muslim brothers and sisters have all rights to take their cases over their preferred courts. No body has the right to tell them to which court of law should they refer their cases. If Eritrea is not for all of us it cannot be Eritrea. That is my dream and hope you agree with me.

      I hope this gives you some ideas.