National Customary Law Centre opens in Rumbek

Sep 7, 2012

Hon. Paulino Wanawila Onango, Deputy Minister of Justice and Mr. Toby Lanzer, DSRSG/RC/HC/UNDP Resident Representative signing the handover agreement

Rumbek: The Ministry of Justice with support from UNDP and funding through the Government of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) has established a National Customary Law Centre (CLC) in Rumbek, Lakes State. The CLC was formally handed over on Thursday 30 August.  Reading a statement from the Honourable Eng. Chol Tong Mayay, Governor Lakes State, Deputy Governor Mabor Achol Kuer acknowledged the support of the international community, saying “We appreciate the role played by UNDP and the Government of Canada in the building of this National Customary Law Centre.”

Customary courts, often referred to as “chiefs’ courts,” are responsible for adjudicating the overwhelming majority of civil and criminal cases in South Sudan. “Customary law plays a large role among the people of South Sudan, especially in matters of marriage and property” stated Professor Akolda Maan Tier, Chairperson of the Law Reform and Constitutional Review Commissions.  However, lines between the customary and statutory courts of first instance are often blurred both as a matter of law and practice.  At the same time, there is varied understanding amongst both statutory and customary actors on the distinctions between the two bodies of law.  Moreover, there is insufficient capacity to administer and oversee the functioning of customary courts in line with the Constitution and laws of South Sudan.

The CLC is the first institution of its kind in Africa and is expected to facilitate coordination between Government and other stakeholders of the customary justice system. “This Customary Law Centre is a great, historic achievement in South Sudan” said Mr. Abraham Mayen Kuc, Head of the Traditional Leaders Council in Lakes state.  The CLC will also provide advice and training for all branches of Government on matters of customary law and serve as a repository for all relevant customary law research and reference materials.  It is expected to work closely with the Local Government Board in reforming customary law while ensuring it complements the statutory legal system.  Hon. Anthony Ariki Lowly, Deputy Chairperson of the Local Government Board explained how local levels of Government intend to work with the national Ministry: “It will be our duty at the Local Government Board to collaborate with the Ministry of Justice to ensure cultural traditions are honoured and upheld; and the customary courts uphold justice for the citizens and communities.”  Mr. Malual Dut Arop, County Commissioner, Rumbek County further expanded on the impact this centre will have: “Three-quarters of our population are not aware of laws, national or customary, and this centre will help bring civic education to the citizens of South Sudan.”

The importance of customary law and chiefs’ courts to the justice system has been recognised in the foundational documents and laws of South Sudan in the post-CPA and post-independence periods.  The Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan (ICSS) identified customary law both as law and a “source of legislation.” This recognition has also been preserved in the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan (TCSS).  In addition, several substantive laws, including the Local Government Act of 2009, the Judiciary of Southern Sudan (JOSS) Act of 2008, the Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development (MOLACD) Act of 2008 and the Codes of Civil and Criminal Procedure lay out a framework for the operation of customary courts and how they complement the statutory justice system.  “Customary law can affect our lives in the way we conduct transactions, for a customary law to be fair, it must be consistent, it must be just” affirmed the Honourable Paulino Wanawila Onango, Deputy Minister of Justice.

There is demonstrable need for a comprehensive reform of the legal framework governing customary law in South Sudan.  Mr. Toby Lanzer, DSRSG/RC/HC/UNDP Resident Representative highlighted the challenges to reform, noting “the justice system must reflect the culture and values, which is difficult in a country that has such diverse people.”  This reform process aims to clarify the structural framework of the customary law system, its jurisdiction and how it complements the statutory legal framework.  However, the reform agenda is a complex one especially as only fragmented information is available.  Mr. Lanzer continued, “We must recognize the importance of customary law in South Sudan and reforming it will have to be done in a conflict sensitive manner”.

Ms. Catherine Fleming, Head of Stabilization for the Canadian Embassy, highlighted that “this work will also provide an important opportunity to capture the rich and varied cultures of the numerous South Sudanese ethnic groups - ensuring this history is available to future generations.”