Jessica Vapnek on Dispute Resolution in Post-Conflict Settings

Published on: Author: Sheila Purcell

Global Programs Advisor and UC Hastings Lecturer Jessica Vapnek has spent almost 30 years working in international development, starting with two years in the Peace Corps in a village in the former Zaire. More recently, she has done extensive work in post-conflict West Africa, including Ivory Coast and Liberia. Drawing on her experience, she and two coauthors explore a question facing so many countries after war: how does society move forward in the face of persistent disputes hindering reconstruction and peace? Liberia’s conflicts, many of which existed before the war and may have contributed to it, originated in unequal distribution of political and economic power, longstanding clashes over land ownership and use, and exclusion of groups on social, cultural, tribal, and religious bases. Liberia emerged from 14 years of civil war urgently needing to address these concerns and the looming threat they posed to peace, security, and national reconstruction.

Professor Vapnek’s article, titled “Resolving Disputes and Improving Security in Post-Conflict Settings: An Example from Liberia” and published in the peer-reviewed journal Arbitration, provides a rare window onto the practical considerations facing governments after the conclusion of a war or civil conflict. The signing of a peace agreement may be only the beginning of a fraught and fragile period. Liberia’s civil war forced many residents to seek refuge in other countries, and after the end of the conflict, there was a high demand—and consequent rush—for land. In many cases, vacant lands had been taken over by squatters unwilling to relinquish their claims. These illegal occupants usually demanded that the returning claimants provide valid documentation to support their claims of ownership—documentation that no longer existed (if it ever had) due to the war. Disputes over ownership were exacerbated by the breakdown of the formal legal system, which was weak even before the war. As a result, struggles for land and other resources after the war’s end generated tensions and conflicts throughout the country, often with an ethnic dimension.

For these and other reasons, finding a lasting solution to persistent conflicts was a high priority of the Government of Liberia after the war. In 2012, the United States launched a project to develop innovative solutions to reduce conflict, address security concerns, and improve crime prevention in two rural areas of northern Liberia. Professor Vapnek was the senior manager for the project, one of her coauthors was the on-site head of the project for 3 years, and the other is a UC Hastings graduate who spent two summers with the project. Drawing on those experiences, the authors explore the features of the project’s design and implementation that led to its widely recognized success.

The article first examines the role of land underpinning disputes in post-conflict settings and then outlines the origins of the US-funded project. Next, Professor Vapnek and her coauthors provide a snapshot of the dispute-resolution system. They note that the system saw success not only with land disputes but also, after interest in the system grew, with other types of disputes, such as a years-long strike by school teachers that led to bored youth prone to mischief and crime. A fascinating section of the article highlights some larger disputes resolved during the life of the project, including community concerns regarding the actions of a large foreign mining operation and the threat of mob violence arising from a simple family dispute.

The article provides a rare window onto life and community disputes in a rural African setting, and the descriptions of the problems and their resolution are gripping. Reading them, I thought I might feel hopeless about the prospects for lasting peace in a country so decimated by war and so bereft of funding and other resources, but the narrative is uplifting and the identification of its success factors persuasive.

The authors identify the features of the project’s dispute-resolution system that could be replicated in other post-conflict regions. Local ownership is one of the most crucial because programs not shaped by the local culture and driven by local actors are unlikely to be implemented properly or sustained. Thus, the article stresses that the dispute-resolution system should emphasize traditional community-based concepts of justice rather than more punitive and retributive measures. In a tight-knit rural community based on family, clan, and tribe and anchored in social relationships, to simply punish someone who commits a crime and then expect him or her to easily reintegrate back into the society is not realistic and usually contributes to more social instability.

I was gratified to see the impact of a modest U.S. investment in practical solutions in a foreign land. And because the project was designed hand-in-hand with the Liberian counterparts and with the local culture in view, its sustainability is promising. Professor Vapnek has explained to me that the focus now is on improving the ability of local organizations to identify potential flashpoints and conflicts before they erupt into violence or crime. In this small way, the project has been helping Liberia’s peace-building efforts, an endeavor that could transform the continent were it implemented more widely.