What is the Palava Hut?
The “Palava Hut” is a traditional alternative justice and accountability approach that is indigenous to the linguistic and ethnic strata of Liberia. As its name depicts, the Palava Hut was originally a specific structure or place where people of a community gathered to discuss matters that concerned their general welfare, whether they were matters related to justice, territorial and human security, land and misdemeanor, among others. With the unfolding of time, the Palava Hut gradually evolved from its original physical structural status to a conceptual arena that is evocable wherever and whenever desired, thus making it an integral trait of the cultural and traditional mentalities of the linguistic and ethnic communities of the country. Hence, the Palava Hut can at best be described as a system of very serious discussions and decisions in the common interest of a community or a group of persons, rather than just a physical edifice as was the case.
Notwithstanding the radical evolution experienced by the Palava Hut, it continues to be exclusively run by men, with no any ethnic group being an exception. Long-running male-sanctioned traditional and cultural belief systems are absolute justifications for the exclusion of women and young people. The women and young people are only required to abide by decisions from the Palava Hut. One of the justifications (arguably) of their marginalization is that they do not keep confidentialities.
Justice Gladys Gladys K. Johnson, Chairperson, INCHR
The Origin of the Palava Hut
The Palava Hut is believed to have existed in Liberia and other parts of West Africa for centuries as a traditional justice and accountability institution. Besides focusing on justice and accountability issues, the palava hut also deals with other matters that are of common interest to the community. According to Prof. Joseph Saye Guanue, a Liberian historian, who served as a resource person at the “National Palava Hut Technical Forum” held at the Monrovia City Hall in November 2013, the word “palava” is a derivative of “palavra”, a Portuguese word meaning “discussion” or “meeting”. The word is said to have been used in reference to meetings or talks between Portuguese explorers and traders and the native Africans they interacted with in the mid-18th Century. The Palava Hut can then literally be defined as a “meeting hut” or a “hut for discussion”.
However, the Palava Hut is practiced variously in Liberia. Its processes and applications are contextualized to the cultures and traditions of the various linguistic and ethnic communities of the country. The Palava Hut normally pursues restorative justice, but in some extreme cases resorts to retributive justice, even to the point of meting out capital punishments, according to chiefs and traditional
leaders who attended the National Palava Hut Technical Forum in 2013 and the subsequent ethnographic study forums in 2015.
Yet, the Palava Hut systems of some of the linguistic divisions have notable similarities in terms of compositions, procedures of hearings and forms of correction/penalty. In most cases verdicts of the Palava Hut are not appealable; though commutation of sanctions is negotiable, based on the gravity of a given offense. To seek the intervention of the formal justice system in a case adjudicated under the Palava Hut is considered an anathema or abomination by the community.
There are also attributes common to all of the traditional Palava Hut systems that are equivalent to human rights violations: gender-insensitivity that underpins the exclusion of women and youth from decision-making; trial by ordeal and sassy-wood and other unconventional investigative methods that include elements of torture.