Combining Modern and Traditional Justice Techniques: The Jirga in Pakistan

Ali Gohar of Just Peace International explains to Zahid Shahab Ahmed how they have combined elements of restorative justice with the traditional 'jirga' in Pakistan.

Different life experiences guided Ali Gohar into the field of peacebuilding, as he shared in an exclusive interview for the Insight on Conflict. “My family was involved in enmities, which affected my childhood so much that I promised to do something against the traditions of revenge, honour killing, shame factors, and cruelties by the name of honour. I also worked for 13 years as an Additional Commissioner social welfare for Afghan Refugees where I saw more violence, destruction, kidnapping, murder, displacement and refuge. Miseries of the people motivated me to further work for non-violence and conflict transformation. In 2001, I was selected as a Fulbright fellow for conflict transformation degree at the Eastern Mennonite University VA, USA. After the 9/11 incident I decided to work for peace. Coming back to Pakistan in 2003 I started with Just Peace International (JPI)”. Just Peace International is a non-political, non-religious, non-profit, civil society initiative which aims to work for peace and justice through conflict transformation activities. In order to protect and promote constructive, they assist and empower grassroots communities and organizations, to enable them to allow judicious, sustainable and productive interaction to realize human potential in an environment of peace, justice and dignity. The JPI has established, in seven districts of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, Musalihati committees (reconciliation committees). In such committees, community elders resolve disputes - from petty issues even to murder cases - through arbitration and reconciliation. Similarly in five districts of Baluchistan, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and community policing have been introduced to resolve community issues, identify different social problems and assist the law enforcement authorities.

A jirga is a tribal assembly of elders which takes decisions by consensus, and is very popular with the Pukhtoon population of Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Ali Gohar, the jirga is the only institution in Pakistan and Afghanistan working on grassroots level for speedy justice:

“The jirga system has a high status in the Pukhtoon community, although there are many objections to it - that it gives harsh punishments, lacks female representation, is about honour killing, and so on. But in Pakistan, many systems were introduced in the past but most of them have vanished, while jirga has now existed for 5000 years. I plan to make it according to the challenges of the modern world. I also was the student of Howard Zehr in the US, who introduced a restorative justice system in 1970 in North America that was very similar to our jirga. I started the inclusion of restorative justice elements to the jirga, such as including police officials. That helped in many ways, making the Thana (police station) culture more friendly. A system of checks and balances by police and on the police was created with the offices for elders in each police station of seven district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. People started approaching elders to resolve their disputes without police and court interference”.
The basic rationale of JPI's jirga work is that courts can punish but can’t reconcile the parties in a dispute, even after prolonged litigation. With cases involving murder, bloodshed and financial losses, the people therefore approach the community elders for reconciliation. JPI believes that they can save time, money and resources by resolving conflicts before they reach the police or courts. The presence of elders in the police stations strengthen the JPI mission. The present Inspector General of Police of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Malik Naveed showed special interest and support for the work of JPI.

The plans to include restorative justice techniques to jirgas was based on extensive research by JPI, an area that they are very strong in.They have also conducted research on access to the informal justice system, due for publication by UNICEF Pakistan. The book'Who Learns from Whom? Pukhtoon Traditions in modern Perspective' has also been published, with the purpose of helping the donor community to better understand the Pukhtoon code of life. In his concluding remarks, Ali Gohar said that,

“JPI, with the assistance of the Asia Foundation and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police, has successfully implemented the project in seven districts, and are now extending to twelve. We hope eventually to cover all 24 districts of the province. We also have started work in tribal areas where elders and community activists are our target groups for conflict transformation, peacebuilding and restorative justice. Peacefully resolving conflicts in families will bring further strength to resolve community and village-level conflicts, and at the end even country-level conflicts, Inshallah”.
Zahid Shahab Ahmed, Insight on Conflict. 18 August 2010
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