Rwanda’s Troubled Gacaca Courts

by Christopher Le Mon

I’d like to thank Chris, Peggy, Julian, Roger, Kevin, Duncan, and Peter for asking me to join Opinio Juris for the next two weeks as a guest blogger.

Currently, I’m in Arusha, Tanzania, spending a month seconded to the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). (Standard disclaimers apply: the views expressed here are my own, and in no way represent the Office of the Prosecutor, the ICTR, the United Nations, or anyone else.) The Tribunal was established by the UN Security Council in 1994 to try those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and associated serious violations of international law.

Although the ICTR is the most prominent aspect of transitional justice in Rwanda, it is by no means the only institution addressing the consequences and legacy of the genocide. The Rwandan government originally took a purely retributive attitude toward transitional justice, focusing entirely on criminal prosecutions of alleged participants in the genocide. But the country’s criminal justice system was so badly damaged from the genocide, and the number of accused participants so great, that criminal trials of the more than 130,000 persons imprisoned would have taken roughly 113 years by one estimate.

Starting in 2002, then, the Rwandan government began operating a system of more than 10,000 gacaca courts (gacaca means roughly “justice on the grass” in Kinyarwanda). The aim of the gacaca courts is to increase the speed with which some form of justice is reached for thousands of participants in the genocide, while seeking to reconcile perpetrators with their communities, including with victims and survivors. (Kevin’s July 2006 post on the start of the gacaca courts has good background information; more is available online from Amnesty International and Penal Reform International.) The gacaca courts, which according to Human Rights Watch expect to try approximately 761,000 persons accused of committing crimes during the genocide, were traditionally used in Rwanda to resolve minor civil disputes over property, and were aimed not at establishing criminal guilt, but at community reconciliation.

Three months into the widespread operation of the gacaca courts, troubles are emerging that may threaten their effectiveness at promoting reconciliation and establishing some form of community justice in post-genocide Rwanda.

2 Responses

  1. I am most grateful for this post, as I’ve been skeptical, for instance, of Helena Cobban’s rather enthusiastic endorsement of the Gacaca court system as a mechanism of criminal and transitional justice, an enthusiasm I believe is derived in no small part from her Quaker beliefs, beliefs that appear to influence the search for contrary evidence. On why and how this might be so, I would recommend Lawrence Sherman’s essay, ‘Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Restoration,’ Quaker ethics being one of the two ethics examined by Sherman.*

    I think one presumptive reason we might have entertained against the Gacaca system is the fact that the Rwandan government itself was the source of the plan. Secondly, the fact that a system that was heretofore simply and solely a traditional institution for civil justice was now being extended, through State implementation, to retributive or criminal justice, should have given us sufficient reason to pause. I think some have been rather enthralled about the alleged ‘community-based’ nature of the Gacaca system, without considering, as two analysts observed, that it ‘remains one-sided and closely controlled by the government.’** I mention this in light of the fact that the Rwandan genocide was ‘both highly planned and remarkably modern in its organization, making extensive use of the administrative structure of the state.’** (This is no small point, given the argument of Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, 2005) The use of this court system to initimidate the regime’s critics and opponents is well documented.

    There’s of course much room for difference of judgement here. Personally, I think a larger role for the ICTR together with something along the lines of Truth Commissions, would have better served the myriad ends of justice (transitional, reconciliatory, retributive, etc.) in Rwanda, all things being equal….

    * Please see his contribution to Heather Strang and John Braithwaite, eds., Restorative Justice and Civil Society (2001): pp. 35-55.

    **Alison Des Forges and Timothy Longman, “Legal Responses to Genocide in Rwanda,’ in Eric Stover and Harvey M. Weinstein, eds., My Neighbor, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermatn of Mass Atrocity (2004): pp. 49-68

    I’ve also read some excellent analytical and empirical reports published (esp. in 2004) by Penal Reform International (PRI) that might have led us to reach some of the tentative assessments or conclusions stated above:

  2. I missed the PRI link in your post the first time around, sorry about that. Still, the reports found there are invaluable.

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