Rise of Local Justice Systems in South Sudan

Known as the youngest nation, South Sudan has endured years of civil war that has subsequently stripped it of resources and capital, leaving many in the nation to implement their own judicial systems to resolve their issues. One such system is known as “bench courts” was established in 2016 within the Protection of Civilians Camp (POC3), where 40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) reside. This “bench courts” system is used to manage minor frequent issues of domestic violence and theft. According to Al Jazeera, the system comprises of volunteers from the camp who are allowed one-year terms. In the past, these same officials have served as local leaders in their respective regions. In most verdicts, punishments range from compensation to paying damages. With more severe cases, accused individuals are referred to POC3’s High Court, with support from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Since its implementation, the local system has seen a backlash by the South Sudanese government, who are calling for the closure of the camp, claiming high levels of crime and poverty. Furthermore, locals have pointed out that “bench courts” are only able to confront disputes after they occur, rather than preventing them, alluding to a shortage of UN Peacekeepers on campgrounds.

Head magistrate of the POC3 bench courts William Ruach believes that the system is essential to maintain peace on the camp. According to him, “Without this court, we’d have very many conflicts among ourselves, but because of this court we are controlling ourselves.” In response to the criticism by South Sudanese officials, UNMISS communications officer Francesca Mold believes that the system in the camp is successful because it closely incorporates locals. In an interview with Al Jazeera, she claimed, “UNMISS supports community leaders in resolving conflicts that might develop within the sites through mediation and other community-based responses.” For severe crimes, Mold has ensured, “there is an appropriate response, including possible referral to national authorities.” According to Al Jazeera, more females have been incorporated in the system. Rebecca Nyadir, a former judge who currently lives in the POC3 camp believes that it is offering a sense of empowerment that many women may have lost due to the onset of the civil war

In such a culturally rich and diverse region as Eastern Africa, there is a difficulty with incorporating formal systems, such as local courts, because customs or rules that may work in one region may not be sufficient in another region. The ultimate strength of this trend comes from the incorporation of locals and customs, which ensures that rulings will be more well-received and respected by locals. Very easily, under the UNMISS, a foreign system may have been implemented and introduced, but it would simply make the camps more dependent on UN infrastructure. This way, both camps and the people are more self-sustainable. Furthermore, the utilization of courts offers greater opportunity for female social mobility. Within IDP camps, women are susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence. Added to that, they have less access to education, healthcare, and job training. With the incorporation of women in local judicial systems, there is a higher potential to increase the living standards of women, potential that is not possible under the current conditions created by the war.


Internally displaced persons is a term given to those who must leave their homes but still remain within their country. According to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, IDPs are known as the fastest growing category of displaced individuals, with around 38 million people.

Most IDPs are found within Africa, specifically Sudan with around 2.7 million. Similar to refugees, IDPs remain in camps for long periods of time in temporary housing, resulting in harsh education and living conditions. Since IDPs do not involve crossing country borders, they do not fall under United Nations purview. Instead many social activists have advocated for IDPs. The South Sudanese Civil War is an ongoing clash that followed after former deputy leader Riek Machar’s attempted coup against President Salva Kiir in late 2013. According to Al Jazeera, two years later, the two had agreed to implement a court system composed of both South Sudanese and African judges. However, to this day, that system has not come to fruition.


The rise of local judicial systems in the midst of the ongoing Civil War in South Sudan is a testament to the resilience of the people in the region. While this is a sign of improving conditions in the region, the work does not fall on a single country. With recent public attention given to the status of refugees, more work and research must be done to bring attention to the wellbeing of internally displaced persons. For future humanitarian efforts, this also serves as evidence that culturally-relevant infrastructure is nothing less than a necessity.