A new approach to justice in Somalia puts community in charge, boosts human rights

February 6, 2024
EAJ Somalia
A hearing at the Xudur District Court in South West State, Somalia, in 2023. Credit: Pact

Because of its remoteness and many regime changes, access to justice in the town of Xudur, in South West State, Somalia, has been a dream for many. Those seeking justice are limited to traditional forums that are unequipped to deal with contemporary issues. A history of fear and skepticism of formal authority makes matters even more challenging.

Xudur has been governed by many different authorities in its long history. From a regional sultanate, it came under the rule of Italian Somaliland, then Somalia and its military dictatorship, followed by Al-Shabab before Somalia’s civilian government regained control in 2014. Around 10,000 people live in Xudur (Hudur in the local Maay language), where resources must be flown in when roads are too dangerous to travel. 

Starting in 2022, Pact worked closely with the federal and regional government to introduce a new concept in Xudur: inviting representatives of the community to join judges, lawyers and police on a committee to improve community access to the local court. Under the USAID-funded Expanding Access to Justice Program (EAJ), implemented by Pact with the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), community engagement was placed at the core of a new approach to improving human rights in Somalia. The committee that EAJ organized in Xudur is called a court user committee, and its goals are to provide a voice for the community in the justice system; build confidence and trust between the community and the state justice system; grow accountability of the court to the community; and create a foundation for collaboration that can improve access for the community to the justice system.

Court user committees have been formed in other countries, but are new to Somalia. Careful translation was needed to convey this concept in the local language, as there was no existing equivalent that could describe welcoming community members into a consultative body along with government and court officers. 

Before the EAJ team formed the committee, it conducted a needs assessment, a contextual analysis of the local court, and mapped community structures already in place in Xudur. These assessments found that the Xudur community relied on elders to issue decisions to end disputes. Under this traditional system of justice, elders prioritized decisions that promoted peace between clans over those that protected the rights of individuals. As a result, individual human rights were often ignored. Pact’s approach enabled both collective and individual rights protection. 

Seeing value in this new concept, the community nominated individuals to represent them on the Xudur Court User Committee. These individuals joined three judges, one lawyer and one police representative. The eight-person committee met for the first time at the Xudur District Courthouse in December 2022. In its first meeting, the committee members introduced themselves to one another and began discussing the level of trust community members have in court services. They identified several issues that needed to be addressed: the low level of awareness that the community had of the court, the difficulty navigating administrative processes of the court and the quality of court services. Already, collaboration between the community and officers of the court had begun. 

Through more meetings, the Xudur Court User Committee planned actions to address issues raised in their discussions. The EAJ team supported them by drafting job aids for court administrators, job descriptions for court staff and rights awareness posters to inform community members about their rights and court services. 

The committee was further supported by complementary programming. EAJ provided in-kind support that brought much needed furniture and equipment to the Xudur courthouse. A call center managed by lawyers from local partner Somalia Community Action Group provided legal assistance and arranged legal representation for community members. Radio shows broadcast legal education and rights awareness programs. Door-to-door rights outreach asked people about their grievances and informed them about their individual rights and where they could find judicial services.  

There are indications that the Xudur Court User Committee programming has had a positive impact in building trust between the community and the district court. The number of cases brought to the court by community members increased in 2023 and a Xudur district court judge has said that he senses community trust in the court has increased. Somalia’s judiciary has determined that the court user committee concept is a promising one and has added it to its 2023 Justice Strategy to possibly be replicated in more districts. By involving communities directly, Pact has introduced to Somalia a promising model for improving the accountability and quality of court services. 

The five-year USAID-funded Expanding Access to Justice Program was implemented in several regions of Somalia and Somaliland from 2018-2023 by Pact in partnership with ABA ROLI through the Freedom House-led Human Rights Support Mechanism. 

Learn more in the Expanding Access to Justice learning compendium