“Palava” is an English-based creole word that loosely translated to “problem” or “issue.” The Palava Hut System is a traditional-oriented system that offers a reconciliatory space for healing and peace through community-based interactions.
Problems and Purpose
Liberia’s history of incessant political instability and armed conflict has resulted in gross human rights violations (death, abuse, and displacement) and related experiences. For instance, Liberians were subjected to “the most debased and cruel acts imaginable” during the 14-year civil war. According to the World Vision survey in 2004, 40 percent of Liberian women were subjected to sexual violence during the civil wars.[i] In post-war Liberia, the scars of these experiences have affected development as well as communal relations in all ramifications within Liberia. Therefore, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia was established to ensure healing, peace, and reconciliation.
In fulfilling the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, the Palava Hut System was formed based on the premise that “sustainable peace in Liberia cannot merely be based on the absence of war, but should be measured by how secure, safe and peaceful Liberians feel.”[ii] Thus, the Palava Hut system achieves its purpose by providing a forum for free expression and interaction.
Origins and Development
In 2009, the Palava Hut system was published as one of the 142 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia is a Parliament-enacted organization that provides a conducive environment for constructive interchange between victims and perpetrators of human violations and armed conflicts in Liberia to recommend mechanisms for healing. On October 19, 2013, the Palava Hut program was officially launched by the then President of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first publicly available comprehensive mapping of human rights violations, discussion of economic crimes and the exploitation of resources as a principal source of conflict, and the protection of vulnerable populations.
The traditional Palava Hut process was evident in pre-settler Liberia as a “reconciliatory dispute resolution mechanism convened by elders to settle community matters such as extramarital affairs, divorces, land disputes, debt, and occasionally theft and murder.”[iii]
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
The Palava Hut system is based on traditional dispute resolution mechanisms for justice and national reconciliation. In its traditional form, the perpetrator or accused confesses, apologizes for the wrong committed, and seeks forgiveness from the victim. It fosters peacebuilding, healing, and national reconciliation at both the national and district levels. Anyone who has committed (intentionally or not) against an individual, group, or the state is eligible for pardon or forgiveness provided the accused affirms the crime committed. Subsequently, cleansing rituals and restitution are carried out to complete the process.[iv] Failure to adhere to the Palava Hut system could result in dire consequences such as public sanctions, debarment from holding public office, lustrations, criminal and civil prosecution.[v]
Anyone who has committed (intentionally or not) a crime against an individual, group, or the state is eligible for pardon or forgiveness provided the accused affirms the crime committed. The participants include victims, perpetrators (including warlords, financiers, organizers), and witnesses. The hearings entail statement taking, vetting of witnesses, and professional psychological support (before and after the hearings). In statement taking process, the concerned parties recount their experiences either as victims or perpetrators. A vetting process of witnesses follows this to ensure transparency. The hearing is overseen by traditional elders and community leaders guided by the INCHR. The accused or perpetrator acknowledges wrongdoing, seeks forgiveness from the victim, and all parties embark on healing and reconciliation. In essence, it “aims to bridge the divide by gradually addressing sources of conflicts within Liberia’s beginning, this form of accountability, tends to focus on the future rather than past wrongs, and centres mainly on state- and institution-building.”[vi]
The Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) manages the Palava Hut System with support from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Liberia office. A Palava-Hut Committee is set up in Liberia’s sixty-four districts to ease accessibility, participation and provide a platform for healing, reintegration, and reconciliation.[vii] It is limited to public sanctions for supporting warring groups, factions, and lesser crimes only (lesser than gross violations as stated by the Liberian TRC). Its jurisdiction excluded those prosecuted for international crimes. However, a recommendation in favor of anyone accused of a high crime or gross human rights violations can be made to the Head of State or equivalent court. The lesser crimes are but are not limited to assaults, arson, destruction of property, forced displacement, looting, robbery, and extortion.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The victim’s confrontation of perpetrators could be considered a mental-tasking process, especially for victims who have struggled with their experiences at the hands of their perpetrators. In some cases, the mental consequences of this system have been oversimplified. As a result, some Liberians have rejected the system and decided against reliving the traumatic experiences evident in declarations such as “We don’t want to explain it to anyone again; we don’t want the memory to come back.” [viii]
While the motive behind this system is commendable, its impacts have been limited due to financial constraints. In 2013, Joseph Blamiyon, the Coordinator of the Palava Hut Program at the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), called for an increase in budget allocation to complete its activities effectively. [ix]However, the Palava Hut system has been commended for bringing “closure to victims and provided a space for people, families, and communities.”[x]
[i]Tamasin Ford, “Wronged women of Liberia reluctant to revisit human rights abuses,” February 28, 2021, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2012/feb/28/liberia-women-reluctant-to-relive-abuse.
[ii] Priyal Singh and Lesley Connolly “The Road to Reconciliation: A Case Study of Liberia’s Reconciliation Roadmap,” June 2014, Accord, https://www.accord.org.za/publication/road-to-reconciliation/.
[iii] Elijah Pajito, Traditional Justice Mechanisms: The Liberian Case. Traditional Justice and Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences, Stockholm: International IDEA,18.
[iv] Ibid., 19.
[v] “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia,” Vol II: Consolidated Final Reports, 273.
[vi] Christo Zorgbo Gorpudolo, Community-Based Restorative Justice In Peacebuilding: A Case Study of Liberia’s Palava Hut Pilot Project, file:///C:/Users/OYIN/AppData/Local/Temp/Gorpudolo-Christo-Zorgbo_MA-2018_19_SJP.pdf, 37)
[vii] “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia,” Vol I: Findings and Determinations, 76.
[viii] Tamasin Ford, “Wronged women of Liberia reluctant to revisit human rights abuses,” February 28, 2021, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2012/feb/28/liberia-women-reluctant-to-relive-abuse.
[x] “Truth and Reconciliation Palava Hut Hearings Take Off in Rivercess County,” July 15, 2021, Daily Observer, https://www.liberianobserver.com/truth-and-reconciliation-palava-hut-hearings-take-rivercess-county.