Legal pluralism refers to the co-existence of different legal systems within a society or geographic area. Most developing countries – including most of the countries included in the ICT4COP research project – have multiple overlapping and sometimes competing legal and normative systems. These may result from a colonial legacy, or in the case of post-conflict areas, emerge (or be reinforced) at local levels where the state for extended periods may have had limited access to areas because of conflict. Typical examples of alternative legal systems that exist alongside codified statutory – formal – law include indigenous, customary and religious law. These systems may apply to all citizens, or groups of citizens, in a country. Various societal groups draw upon these coexisting local systems in unique ways to access security and justice. According to a UNDP report from 2015, 80% of disputes in developing countries were referred to non-formal legal systems.
One example can be found in the Mayan indigenous governance system known as 48 cantones in Guatemala
Recently, the international community has seen the development of an increasingly unified system of social and political (i.e. human) rights. Although knowing one’s rights is not a guarantee for rights’ fulfillment, women and men in local communities around the world have greater awareness of these rights than ever before.
The formalization – or sanctioning – of human rights into judicial systems at local levels may however pose dilemmas, as certain vulnerable groups may end up losing access to security and justice obtained through former informal (customary) systems.
For anyone involved in promoting COP at local level, it is critical to understand and recognize the existence of these overlapping legal systems, and the role they play in shaping local communities’ relations to formal law and law enforcement institutions.