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Crime, Intention, and Accountability: Informal and State Justice in Haiti

Applicant Motta Marco
Number 191023
Funding scheme Return CH Postdoc.Mobility
Research institution Institut für Sozialanthropologie Philosophisch-historische Fakultät Universität Bern
Institution of higher education University of Berne - BE
Main discipline Ethnology
Start/End 01.04.2020 - 31.03.2021
Approved amount 125'386.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Legal sciences

Keywords (10)

Postcolonial State; Haiti; State justice; Alternative justice; Legal Pluralism; Governance; Criminal Law; Civil law; Conflict resolution; Legal anthropology

Lay Summary (French)

Les tensions que génère le pluralisme légal en Haïti rendent visibles différentes éthiques à l’œuvre dans les pratiques judiciaires et extrajudiciaires. Cette recherche vise à rendre compte de la manière dont ces tensions offrent un espace de redéfinition de ces éthiques.
Lay summary

À partir d’une étude de la réforme du Code pénal haïtien et de ses conséquences sur les pratiques alternatives de justice, ce projet vise à éclairer les modes de conflictualisation à l’œuvre dans les relations entre les autorités de l’État et la société civile. Les procès officiels ou les formes d’arbitrages populaires ouvrent un espace où les notions éthiques de « justice », de « loi » et d’ « ordre » sont négociées. En m’intéressant à la manière dont le contexte actuel pousse les acteurs à redéfinir la notion d’« infraction », ce travail propose une analyse de l’interaction entre différentes cultures légales.

Premièrement, il s’agit de comprendre les conflits sociaux au croisement entre justice informelle et justice d’État. Deuxièmement, ce projet a pour vocation de visibiliser le travail de conceptualisation éthique à partir des pratiques localisées. Troisièmement, l’étude des procédures formelles et informelles visant à réguler les conflits doit ouvrir une voie pour l’étude des différentes formes de violence légitime et illégitime inhérente au pluralisme légal.

Dans un contexte postcolonial où le problème des réformes du droit pénal se pose avec acuité, mon projet de recherche interroge un moment de profond changement historique et social en faisant la lumière sur les dynamiques de gouvernance et les pratiques de résistances.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 06.03.2020

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
180707 Conflicting ethics at the core of legal pluralism 01.10.2018 Postdoc.Mobility


This project generally revolves around the complex relation between legal and extrajudicial means to solve criminal cases in Haiti. Specifically, it aims at investigating the ways in which informal law challenges state law and contributes to the reform of the Haitian penal code itself. In order to bring to fruition the outcomes of my postdoctoral research on legal pluralism and ordinary ethics, funded by the SNSF, the return project consists of writing three main articles based on three sets of problems.(1) The first issue concerns the tensions that arise at the crossroads between unofficial law and the judicial system when the state is incapable to enforce its laws, as well as when local people resist the state’s intervention by pursuing justice themselves. I will analyze the situational logics embedded in ways of handling conflicts that lead to collective violence. This first article will provide an occasion to assess the justice of the peace system in Haiti and open up perspectives to rethink the concept of a justice of proximity in the French legal tradition more generally.(2) The second article will address the ongoing reform of the Code pénal, especially the conceptual problem of legally defining “occult” crimes, in which people harm or murder others through different sorts of spells. At the core of my inquiry lies the problem of the commensurability between the judicial rationale and the sort of rationality at stake in the ways of handling conflicts through occult means. Through a comprehensive case analysis, I will show how the chasm between local dynamics and judicial ways of reasoning prevents the legitimization of the intervention of the courts with respect to these matters.(3) The third problem pertains to the emergence of the concepts of intention and accountability in both the state and the informal justice system. I will tackle more theoretical issues by asking how the discrepancy between the two spheres of justice produces a space where these concepts are made, discussed, contested, and reshaped in relation to related notions such as trust, credibility, causation, evidence, knowledge, and doubt. I will then broaden the questioning and put into perspective common notions of intention and accountability as they are defined in law and legal studies, as well as in social and cultural anthropology.More generally, these three articles will analyze the ways in which local communities enforce and interpret state law, as well as the ways in which informal law influences and shapes state law. Moreover, I will use this cross-examination to fill the gaps in the anthropological literature, which has long been concerned with law, rules, and order, but less with the way justice is actually practiced. Even though the past decades have seen a growing number of works on this topic emerge, there are only a few studies on the everyday practices and conceptualizations of justice, especially on the role that unofficial law and informal claims to justice play in reshaping dominant concepts of law and state justice. Thus, I will address this understudied subject in this project. I will mainly rely on data collected during previous field trips in Haiti I undertook during my postdoctoral research, and I intend to do one more follow-up trip to supplement the material. In terms of methodology, my approach is qualitative-specifically, interpretive and comprehensive. I proceed inductively through ethnographic inquiry by focusing on ordinary practices and speeches, taking into account the details of experiences as lived by my interlocutors. The interest of my work lies precisely in its close ethnography, its view from within rural communities, and its study of extended cases, approaches which have not yet been used in the Haitian context. In this way, these articles will provide unprecedented insights into the current situation in Haiti. By shedding light on the relation between state and non-state justice in this particular location, this project endeavors to address more general questions of sovereignty and governance.