Peace Science Digest

“Uncivil” Society Organizations in Bougainville and Timor-Leste: Subverting Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Settings

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Wallis, J (2019). The role of ‘uncivil’ society in transitional justice: Evidence from Bougainville and Timor-Leste. Global Change, Peace & Security, 31(2), 159-179.

Talking Points

  • In many post-conflict countries, uncivil society groups exist and may act to subvert the peace and reconciliation process. 
  • In Bougainville and Timor-Leste, uncivil society groups were composed of ex-combatants and/or marginalized communities who felt that they were excluded from the peace and reconciliation process. 
  • Research and practice in transitional justice should take a more nuanced approach to engaging local civil society in post-conflict countries and consider greater inclusion of uncivil society in transitional justice efforts. 


The role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in transitional justice (judicial or non-judicial measures to address human rights abuses in post-conflict countries) or peacebuilding is highlighted in much of the field’s research and practice. The incorporation of local civil society, however, is predicated on the assumption that these groups are “civil,” support liberalism, and have broad membership that transcends social divisions. Yet, uncivil society organizations also exist that can undermine or spoil the peace process. What role do these groups play in transitional justice and peace processes? This article argues that transitional justice and peacebuilding research and practice should adopt “a more nuanced and contextual understanding of civil society, which pays attention to the cultural, historical, and political conditions in the conflict-affected society in question.”

Uncivil society

includes organizations or movements that “undo the good works of civil society [including] mafia-like groups, paramilitaries, terrorists, criminals, drug dealers, and human traffickers [or groups that] advocate hate and bigotry [and] reflect narrow interests” while “challenging[ing] liberal democracy and the rule of law.” 

The author supports this argument through two case studies: the civil wars in Bougainville and Timor-Leste. She conducted fieldwork in both locations, conducting interviews, immersing herself in the community, and consulting media reports and other sources to analyze how uncivil society groups in Bougainville and Timor-Leste subverted transitional justice and reconciliation processes.

In Bougainville, the civil war from 1989 to 1997 formally ended with a comprehensive political settlement in 2001 that granted the region political autonomy. The transitional justice process went no further than providing for pardons and amnesty in the peace agreement. By 2005, the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) was established but lacked the capacity to provide many public goods. As a result of the ABG’s limited capacity and a limited transitional justice and peacebuilding process, several “uncivil society” groups did not initially acknowledge the authority of the ABG. The largest group, Me’ekamui, was founded by Francis Ona and occupied large tracks of territory on the island, particularly around contentious copper and gold mines. Ona declared independence during the peace process and set up an armed “no-go zone” that included between 5-10% of the Bougainville population. This “no-go zone” operated as a rival to the newly established ABG with its “own institutions and dispute resolution, and security force.” It was only after Ona’s death in 2005 that the Me’ekamui leadership split, with one fraction establishing a joint authority with ABG. As the ABG became more established and legitimate, these groups converged with agreements on landowners’ associations, mining access, and disarmament and demobilization.

In Timor-Leste, military invasion and occupation by Indonesia resulted in decades of violence between armed rebel groups and the Indonesian military. After independence in 2002, several transitional justice and reconciliation processes took place with varying degrees of success. However, several uncivil society organizations remained opposed to the newly formed government and, thus, outside of the formal peace, transitional justice, and reconciliation processes. They proceeded to subvert the peace and reconciliation process by creating rival governance. Two in particular, the Conselho Popular de Defesa da Republica Democratica de Timor Leste (CPD-RDTL) and the Sagrada Familia, are affiliate organizations that gained support among veterans of the resistance movement.

Members of the CPD-RDTL felt that their contributions to the resistance movement went unacknowledged. Other members included poor Timorese who “felt marginalized during the state-building process.” The CPD-RDTL would rival the new government by collecting its own taxes and issuing identification cards. Eventually, the Timor-Leste government criminalized the CPD-RDTL and authorized police to target members of the group. Sagrada Familia continued the work of CPD-RDTL afterwards and employed religious imagery and beliefs in addition to its anti-state ideology to gain support. Overtime, Sagrada Familia moderated its stance and began to engage with the government.

The author suggests five applicable lessons on uncivil society in post- conflict countries with respect to transitional justice and reconciliation processes. First, there is room for uncivil society organizations to challenge the newly formed state and peace process by creating rival institutions. Second, uncivil society organizations gain support and legitimacy through   a variety of methods including alternative interpretations of historical events, religious imagery, or a claim to better represent local socio-political or economic practices. Third, membership of many uncivil society organization included ex-combatants, meaning that parties should seriously consider the inclusion of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration as part of the formal peace process. Fourth, individuals’ “unresolved personal grievances and their competition for political power, canplay [a role] in facilitating the emergence of uncivil society groups.” Finally, internationally supported transitional justice and reconciliation efforts should aim for greater sensitivity to local socio-political  practices and historical and cultural contexts. The inclusion of uncivil society organizations, which may not align with international norms but do represent local norms, is important to minimize the potential subversion of these efforts.

Informing Practice

The author argues that uncivil society organizations have been overlooked in conventional transitional justice and reconciliation because the idea of civil society is informed by the experience in liberal (mostly Western) democracies. Further, in conflict-affected societies, “there can be no clear distinction between civil society and the state, particularly as CSOs frequently deliver public goods typically expected to be provided by the state and consequently both present themselves and act as alternatives to the state.” International interventions in post-conflict countries may be advised to check their assumptions on the role of civil, or uncivil, society organizations. Many of the transitional justice and reconciliation processes in Timor-Leste, for instance,were backed by the UN. UN-backed truth and reconciliation mechanisms are charged both to support compliance with international norms and standards and to be responsive to the local context when designing these mechanisms (1). However, with mostly liberal, Western democracies with the decision-making power in the UN Security Council (the United States, France, and the United Kingdom constitute three of the five permanent members with veto power), it is challenging to genuinely incorporate local political contexts that are divergent from liberal, Western political norms into these mechanisms.

International interventions in post-conflict countries may be biased toward including or supporting organizations or individuals that demonstrate shared liberal or Western values, potentially excluding those uncivil society groups that garner local support because they employ traditional values and customs. This is what, in part, drove support for uncivil society groups in Timor-Leste: that the new government was composed of “exiled” Timorese elites who no longer reflected the local socio-political context. The uncivil society groups, CPD-RDTL and Sagrada Familia, claimed that they were more authentic representations of the Timorese people.

It’s debatable whether those claims of representation by CPD-RDTL and Sagrada Familia were true; regardless, these groups continued to garner local support. Such cases demonstrate the greater risk to long-term peace of excluding uncivil society organizations that may not necessarily hold liberal values from a peace and reconciliation process. Inclusion is preferable to exclusion in post-conflict settings even if incorporating such groups may present its own challenges.

Continued Reading

Peacebuilding Initiative. Civil society: Civil society & peacebuilding process. Retrieved from

Boesenecker, A.P. & Vinjamuri, L. (2011). Lost in translation? Civil society, faith-based organizations and the negotiation of international norms. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 5(3): 345-365.

Mercy Corps. Local partnerships: A guide for partnering with civil society, business, and government groups. Retrieved from

Asia Justice and Rights. (2016, October 6). Still denied: Right to rehabilitation for torture victims during the mass detention of 1965 in Indonesia. Retrieved from

Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative. Research project: Civil society and peacebuilding. Retrieved from


Asia Justice and Rights:

Global Initiative for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation:

Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative:

International Center for Transitional Justice:

Keywords: uncivil society, post-conflict, Bougainville, Timor-Leste, inclusion, peace negotiations

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.

1. United Nations. (2010, March). Guidance note of the Secretary-General: United Nations approach to transitional justice. Retrieved June 27, 2019, from