The Power of Restorative Justice and Reconciliation to Maintain Peace

An article was published on September 27, 2012 in Science by anthropologist Polly Wiessner from The University of Utah that examines the effectiveness of the intervention of small-scale tribal village courts in conflict to prevent war among the Enga tribal people of Papua New Guinea. The study’s findings are dramatic. After a 20 year period of extreme violence that came with the introduction of guns, during which approximately 1% of the tribal population, nearly 5000 people, were killed, tribe elders and religious leaders stepped up to implement traditional techniques for peacemaking, and killings were reduced from a rate of about 19 people per war from 1991-95 to 5 people per war from 2006-10.

Small-scale village courts, including “worry courts”, where one or two leaders mediate a dispute on the spot, intervene in conflict early on and prevent its escalation. The Enga traditional system of justice “is built on restoring respect, accepting liability and responsibility, and paying compensation”. 98% of cases seen in intertribal village courts result in either a compensation order or an agreement to negotiate out of court. Weissner writes “Unlike formal Western-based justice systems, village courts satisfy community needs: They restore relations by mediation and material compensation, and consider local politics and future relationships.”

It seems clear from this compelling study that non-violent tactics of conflict resolution and restoring justice in personally-related groups are not only more peaceful, but can also be more effective for maintaining long-term social and economic stability.

In the increasingly anonymous society of today’s “developed” industrial world, what would it look like to apply these principles of relationally-restorative justice to our conflict management strategies?


Polly Wiessner and Nitze Pupu. Toward Peace: Foreign Arms and Indigenous Institutions in a Papua New Guinea Society. Science, 2012; 337 (6102): 1651-1654 DOI: 10.1126/science.1221685