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Gacaca ‘achieved its mission’

The Gacaca justice system delivered its intended objectives and was the right solution for the complex nature of the cases related to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, according to a report released this month by a London-based think tank.
A Genocide suspect appearing before a past Gacaca session. Net photo.
A Genocide suspect appearing before a past Gacaca session. Net photo.

The Gacaca justice system delivered its intended objectives and was the right solution for the complex nature of the cases related to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, according to a report released this month by a London-based think tank.

Published by the Africa Research Institute, the report, titled, How Rwanda judged its genocide, says the semi-traditional Rwandan courts delivered mainly on three fronts; justice, truth and democratic participation.

It was authored by renowned researcher Dr Phil Clark, a lecturer in comparative and international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and co-founder of Oxford Transitional Justice Research.

“Gacaca has been remarkably successful at fulfilling the Rwandan government’s promise to deliver comprehensive prosecutions of génocidaires without exacerbating the dire overcrowding of jails that necessitated gacaca in the first place.

“Far from being “mob” or “vigilante” justice, as many legal critics predicted, about a quarter of gacaca cases have resulted in acquittal. Many sentences have been commuted to community service, thereby facilitating the reintegration of detainees into society,” the report says in part.

“Gacaca has helped individuals to tell and hear narratives that help them heal emotionally and psychologically with the past”.

It says testimonies gathered provide a “rich and diverse repository historical material regarding the Genocide”, and refers to the creation of the Gacaca Documentation Centre in Kigali as “one of the largest archives concerning a mass crime anywhere in the world and an invaluable resource for Rwandans and foreigners alike.”
Release from feelings of shame

Gacaca jurisdictions opened in June 2002 as a response to the overwhelming backlog of Genocide-related cases, a move the report describes as “an enormous gamble in allowing the same population that had experienced the Genocide to guide and shape Gacaca.”

The Genocide, orchestrated and executed under the supervision of the then government, claimed the lives of more than a million people.

Gacaca courts, which will officially fold on June 18 – on the very day of its 10th anniversary – have tried more than 1.9 million suspects.

Legal rigidity

“Suspects and survivors often affirm that the opportunity to speak openly at gacaca about events and emotions concerning the Genocide has contributed to their healing. In interviews, many suspects claim a sense of release from feelings of shame and social dislocation through confessing to – and apologising for – their crimes in front of their victims and the wider community,” the report reads in part.

It draws comparison between gacaca and the conventional justice system, and points out the “openness of the community dialogue” as one of the greatest attributes of Gacaca.

That openness, it adds, “differentiates gacaca from the conventional forms of justice advocated by human rights organisations, in which judges and lawyers control the discourse and discussions are limited to the legal facts deemed necessary to determine guilt or innocence.”

“Gacaca pursues these same legal questions but in a manner – and forum – which enables participants to discuss the individual and collective effects of crimes, and to seek some form of acknowledgement or catharsis.”.”
“I spent nine years observing gacaca hearings and interviewing participants. During that time, I witnessed energetic – and highly unpredictable – forms of popular participation…Communities argued over the details of genocide crimes – who had killed whom, by what means, where bodies were buried, what property had been stolen, and who deserved compensation,” the author says in the report.

It also dismisses allegations, by especially international human rights groups, that gacaca fell short of the standards for due process, saying such observations failed to appreciate the complexity of the cases in question as well as the diverse objectives of the gacaca system.

“International criminal tribunals focus on the punishment of leading malefactors and deterrence. It is doubtful that this objective can ever be achieved by legal mechanisms alone. More importantly, much more than deterrence is necessary to produce lasting peace.”


“(The) critiques of gacaca reflect legal rigidity in the face of unprecedented challenges confronting post-Genocide Rwanda – and a limited understanding of the aims of gacaca…International legal orthodoxy emphasises the use of conventional court hearings – typically located far from the scene of the crime – for small numbers of elite suspects who have the right to defence counsel of their choosing before an impartial judiciary,” the report adds.

But the report also highlights the shortcomings of Gacaca including “numerous cases of corruption, bribery of judges and intimidation of witnesses, syndicates of liars who colluded to hide evidence, and retraumatised survivors.”

“However, these negative aspects have not been more widespread than could reasonably be expected of a decade-long process involving as many as (two million cases) in 11,000 jurisdictions,” it adds.

“There has been a tendency on the part of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to identify the worst cases of corrupt or traumatising hearings and suggest that they are representative. Such selectivity may be useful from an advocacy perspective but it is analytically flawed – and undermines legitimate criticism of gacaca”.

The report adds: “The impact of Gacaca on local leadership has been especially important for women, who were often among the most active and voluble participants during Genocide hearings…almost 40 percent of judges were female.”

It draws parallels between gacaca and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), observing that while gacaca dispensed close to two million cases with a budget of US$40 million, the ICTR, which has completed 69 trials, has used more than US$1 billion.

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