In the world, Rwanda’s Gacaca courts represent a unique legacy in conflict resolution

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A unique alternative form of justice was introduced in Rwanda to address crimes relating to the 1994 genocide. The Gacaca process is based on traditional mechanisms such as public confession, trying to establish the truth by confronting oral statements made at hearings. The Gacaca courts were however a leap in the dark. As the court proceedings draw to a close the assessment is mostly positive.

After the genocide Rwanda’s judicial system faced up to its responsibilities and conventional courts began to try the accused. It soon became clear that the quest for justice was blocked by seemingly unsolvable problems. Trials proceeded at such a slow pace that after five years only 6’000 had reached a verdict. There were over 120’000 suspects awaiting their turn in prison. Meanwhile a growing number of survivors were dying from the sequels to the crimes and the traumata, without seeing justice done. The need for an alternative solution to the unending litigations was ever more pressing.

Alternative conflict transformation

In order to meet this challenge the Gacaca courts were created in Rwanda in 2001. A purpose-designed legal framework ensured that the fact-finding, court procedures and the general workings of this alternative justice mechanism could function in the same way throughout the country. The existence of such courts all over the country made it easier for victims and accused alike to have access to justice within a reasonable timeframe. Over 10 years about a million cases have been heard.

The Gacaca courts also helped to solve two other major problems arising from the genocide. The first concerns the many family relationships which have been destroyed. What future relationship could exist for example between a father convicted of the murder of his wife and their children who were the main witnesses against him?

The demand for justice could thus not be dissociated from the need to restore relationships within and between families. The second problem is that crimes were committed in almost every corner of Rwanda: incitement to genocide, denunciations, rapes, murders and looting were ubiquitous. At stake was the individual responsibility of hundreds of thousands of suspects, not just the symbolic condemnation of a few high-ranking leaders. In view of the extent of the genocide no conventional fact-finding method could possibly deal with the countless cases in a credible way and within a reasonable period of time.

Solution criticized on all sides

The idea of an alternative justice mechanism met with strong opposition. Many actors in the international community, human rights activists in particular, could not understand how genocide-related cases could be left to Inyangamugayo judges, who in many cases had no grasp of classical legal principles. Even among the victims and accused doubts were raised as to the appropriateness, independence and effectiveness of the Gacaca courts.

Yet, the first positive experiences laid these fears to rest. Even though incomplete the information obtained made it possible to locate the bodies of many victims and give them a decent burial. By piecing together the fragmented facts it became possible in the course of the hearings to slowly shed light on the truth.

In the end even many defendants endorsed the credibility of the Gacaca process. Those who were ready to speak out and ask the victims for forgiveness often had part of their sentence turned into community service. On the other hand for the same crime those who preferred to remain caught up in their own lies were sentenced to longer terms of imprisonment.

Uniqueness of Gacaca courts

This original alternative approach to justice has achieved a number of successes. First of all it has ensured that crimes of genocide are prosecuted, regardless of the number of perpetrators, the extent of the crimes or the destruction. Thus, in a relatively short period of time hundreds of thousands of accused have been brought to justice in a systematic and orderly manner before Gacaca courts, without prejudice to existing laws.

The effectiveness of the system derives from its decentralised nature and a fact finding procedure that relies on active participation by the local population. This participation did not always contribute in the same way to the prosecution. It did however have a cathartic effect on citizens, because the Gacaca process has forced each individual to confront the reality and the own behavior during the genocide. The Gacaca procedures have also made it possible for victims and perpetrators to look each other in the eye and speak about the horrors of the genocide. Public apologies and forgiveness have helped to rebuild social relationships.

In this way the Gacaca courts have facilitated both the condemnation of culprits and their reintegration in society, while laying the foundations for collective future memory.

The process has demonstrated the ability of the people of Rwanda to overcome deep divisions and work together to find solutions to fundamental problems. Its success cannot of course hide the fact that some crimes committed during the genocide remain unknown and go unpunished. The assessment of this justice system has shown however that it managed to satisfy two essential needs of the post-genocide society of Rwanda: justice and reconciliation. The Gacaca courts thus represent a unique legacy in the field of conflict resolution, not just for Rwanda but for the international community.

Source: KOFF Newsletter November 2011 / Nr. 102 p. 6-7

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