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It is Time for Rwanda to Take Stock of the Gacaca

The Post Gacaca Rwanda


The Kinyarwanda word Gacaca denotes the lawn or grass where communities assemble to resolve communal disputes. The state run Gacaca courts/jurisdictions were introduced in 2002. With the introduction of the Gacaca courts Rwanda embarked on what President Kagame, a strong critic of the ICTR, referred to as “the only way forward. The law that set up the Gacaca courts was passed in 2000 by Rwandan Transitional Government (RTG) with an amendment in 2004. The Gacaca were set up to try thousands of genocide suspects by means of decentralized community-based system of courts inspired by local traditions of the Banyarwanda (people of Rwanda). This was partly an attempt to reduce delays in the overburdened criminal justice system with more than 120,000 people accused of perpetrating the genocide and at the same time a search for post genocide justice and reconciliation. 

Achievements of the Gacaca Courts 


The Gacaca courts helped Rwanda to address the dichotomy that is so often made between international tribunals and local justice and reconciliation mechanisms. Such a dichotomy is not only false but also undesirable. Through Gacaca, Rwanda was able to bridge restorative and retributive justice causes and processes with clear outcomes. The sentences that Gacaca issued encompassed retribution, restoration, promotion of national unity, truth telling and redistribution. This process also attempted to pay more attention to issues of reconciliation, for instance through the formal involvement of victims in the procedures unlike the ICTR which was viewed by many as being remote to the demands of the survivors.

There are research findings indicating that local population preferred Gacaca to formal justice process, especially the international tribunals. Due to public confidence in the process, Gacaca made vital contribution to achieving justice in the wake of one of the most horrendous mass killings of the last century. A promise well recognized by ordinary Rwandans, who in a series of empirical investigations on their faith in the judicial system indicated that they, by far, preferred Gacaca justice above the national courts and the international tribunals. This confidence in the process and acceptance by many people in Rwanda was, by far, one of the major reasons for the achievements of the Gacaca jurisdictions. As I indicated earlier, transitional justice process and the search for reconciliation in post conflict reconstruction should not operate outside the scope of the local realities. Gacaca recorded good success since it was an initiative with which most Rwandese could easily identify with, as opposed to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) which was viewed as an imposition of a foreign mechanism. There are variant assertions over the role of Gacaca in promoting healing and post conflict reconstruction. Gacaca being an endogenous method represents a model of alternative or restorative justice, which is not only cathartic but also conciliatory in nature.

In addition, Gacaca courts have been hailed for their contribution to the clearance of a backlog of genocide cases. This has been beneficial to Rwanda in terms of quick reconstruction of the shattered social fabric by allowing the suspects to ask for forgiveness as well as show remorse for their crimes for lighter punishments. Following the horrors of the genocide, it is not practical to claim that reconciliation has been achieved through the Gacaca process but Gacaca has contributed, not only to justice but also to the process of healing and reconciliation in Rwanda. 

Generally according to the research by Human Rights Watch Gacaca courts left a mixed legacy. The most remarkable achievements according to this study included Gacaca’s swift work in processing a huge number of cases; the participation of local communities in the process; and the opportunity for some genocide survivors to learn what had actually happened to their loved ones. Gacaca courts also helped some survivors to find a way of living peacefully alongside perpetrators of the genocide. As a result, Rwanda may be the only country where the victims of such hideous crimes live side by side with the perpetrators.

Critique to the Gacaca Courts


Whereas Gacaca was undeniably a great initiative, the expectation that Gacaca courts could deliver national-level reconciliation in a matter of few years, especially so soon after the genocide, was too ambitious and unrealistic from the onset hence the conclusion of the Gacaca process left some traces of unsatisfaction. Gacaca’s potential for contributing to reconciliation was also partly hindered by difficulties in revelation of the truth, as some participants lied or remained silent due to intimidation, corruption, personal ties, or uncertainty and fear of repercussions.

Many scholars have identified two critical challenges for the Gacaca courts. These are; the numerous flaws in its legal system and political stumbling blocks. Lauding of the Gacaca courts, especially by the President, has blurred the need to examine the actual contribution of the Gacaca courts to determine whether the government’s intention of using such structures to deal with genocide cases outweighed the potential problems they may have caused. The “popularity” of the president and the nature of government that he runs make it technically difficult for the insiders to question a mechanism that he has endorsed. Little scrutiny has therefore been done by the internal actors to ascertain the contribution and tenability of the Gacaca courts in the long run. Existing criticism of Gacaca is often by outsiders who are easily accused by the state for perpetuating an external agenda.

In addition, the setting of Gacaca was less formal than criminal justice courts and promoted confessions from the perpetrators and forgiveness from the survivors. Coupled with this process were two related schemes for victims’ compensation and community service for those found guilty. The judges were lay persons yet were engaged in very complex legal adjudication. The accused therefore had neither the right to representation, nor an appeal to any courts hence a risk of wrongly convicting some suspects. More importantly, also is the fact that survivors were marginalized by the process as the practical pressures on the Rwandan government made them opt for expediency over comprehensive truth and reconciliation. Whereas the Gacaca courts, unlike the formal judicial criminal process, held out much promise of reconciling a deeply divided Rwandan society, redressing the needs of the victims was not prioritized. It is also argued that survivors were frustrated by the lack of enforcement by the Gacaca jurisdictions that awarded reparation to them since many did not actually receive such reparations


It is Time for Rwanda to Take Stock of the Gacaca It is Time for Rwanda to Take Stock of the Gacaca Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on March 09, 2016 Rating: 5

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