International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Debating Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts

Gacaca has been a controversial experiment in post-conflict justice and reconciliation. It is unique in a number of respects. First, it represents a mix of retributive and restorative justice principles, and it doesn’t fit neatly into categories of trials or truth commissions.  Second, it represents an “invented tradition” (Ingelaere). Recognizing that it has lost most of its indigenous characteristics, Gacaca is very a modern practice that is hierarchically controlled and operates in a complex political space. Evaluating Gacaca’s contribution to justice and reconciliation is therefore tough, and there is much debate about its value to individual survivors and perpetrators and its value to societal reconciliation.

1. Is Gacaca better than traditional trials? Or is it just better than nothing?

2. Truth, as knowledge and acknowledgment, is an important trade-off for punishment in Gacaca’s plea-bargain process. What have been the benefits and drawbacks of this process?

3. After watching scenes from the Butera trial in “In the Tall Grass”  – did this trial provide enough justice for Joanita? What were your impressions of Gacaca after seeing how it works?

4. What should we expect of reconciliation in Rwanda? Watch this short BBC segment.

5. Does the international community have an obligation or right to be critical of Rwanda’s justice and reconciliation policies?


7 responses to “Debating Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts

  1. cbilgrie March 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    After watching videos about the Gacaca’s this week, I have started thinking more about how other countries handle disputes and how this system of making peace can be viewed as something better than just getting revenge. In terms of the outcomes, I don’t think that the Gacaca’s are any better than traditional trials. I appreciate the fact that they can extract information from the citizens who normally wouldn’t testify or be present at a trial but there needs to be some form of punishment for the people that commit atrocities rather than just getting the truth. The truth is helpful and can help the victim (and will hopefully be a byproduct of these trials), but just granting amnesty for telling the truth seems to defeat the whole purpose of even prosecuting criminals. That purpose being that they will be punished and that in the future people will not commit the same crimes since they have seen what will happen to the criminals. While I like the openness of the Gacaca, it doesn’t provide enough punishment, which I think is needed to maintain a civilized society.

  2. ayingling March 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    In my opinion, the Gacaca Courts can be more effective than traditional trials. Every victims situation is different and the fact that these courts aim to bring healing and justice to its own local community allows the courts to have some flexibility in assuring reconciliation. Basing restorative justice on truth-telling encourages the accused to confess to the crimes committed. Truth telling is most important for the victims because it allows them to find out how and where their loved ones died, which is essential to moving on. It seems like most of the perpetrators we have seen seem to lie and continue to deny their involvement in the crimes, which can lead to further punishment. In the Butera trial, Joanita was provided justice, but I feel it would have been more complete if Butera would have confessed to his crimes and apologized. Joanita wanted to know the exact location of her family which she found out during her neighbors testimony. I am not sure how I feel about the international community having an obligation or right to be critical of Rwanda’s policies. Although there are many flaws in the Gacaca courts, I feel that there is no other alternative for ordinary people to come to terms with the past.

  3. chrisumass March 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I find Gacacas to be an illegitimate process that the government of Rwanda is forcing on the inhabitants of the land. The Gacacas I’ve seens are just based entirely on testimony and no evidence is provided. Alot of the defendants are just called out of the blue and can’t really have a strong defence since you can’t clearly put a time and place on events that occured many years ago. The defendant might have been around during the genocide but might have not participated, but since he was unfortunate to be there at the moment a once Tutsie can pick his face out and accuse him of a heinous crime. The individuals aren’t given lawyers either to figure out their testimony or fight on their behalf. It is worse than a traditional trial since it leaves the accused at a huge dissadvantage, since prejudices exist against any Hutu on trial. This new made up process seems to allow the targeting of Hutus or at least makes it easier for Hutus to be targeted. Not to say some Gacacas have not worked out, but their needs to be a more legitimate way of going about it.

  4. marinagans March 12, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    The Gacaca trials seem very controversial to me. Some may say that it is a scheme by the government but other then that the members being tried by Gacaca have ties to the community, although they can no longer be characterized as Hutu or Tutsi there may be many members in the community that stand with the perpetrator being accused. Joanita found out where her children were buried so she did receive more justice then she could have hoped for because she was able to properly bury her children. She may not know the entire story of how they were killed but one man is being held responsible.

  5. jennaumass March 13, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    The Gacaca courts make you access your opinion of what justice really means. The fact that the Gacaca courts are not a “proper” institution does not necessarily damage the legitimacy or usefulness of its mandate. In my opinion, it seems like Gacaca facilitates truth in a form that the people need to have faith in the restoration of their people and society as a whole. Both Tutsi and Hutu were targeted, and although these labels are no longer a definitive, the Gacaca courts allow perpetrators and victims (from both sides) to examine the duplicities involving the nature of the conflict. The mere acknowledgment of destruction or infliction of suffering is a right that victims of the genocide deserve, while also serving as a consequence for the principle actors.

  6. ejpleasant March 14, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Gacaca has its own positive and negative attributes. It provides the truth telling component like the truth commissions and allows both victims and the accused to tell their side of a story to their peers. It can provide a sense of closure to many victims as they may finally discover what really happened to their family. However I believe Gacaca is open to bias and the facts can be distorted. The genocide occurred nearly two decades ago. Much of the truth was mixed with lies and has been stewing for 18 years. Victims and perpetrator accounts are not 100% reliable. It is hard to measure what is more important, truth for the victims or punishment for the perpetrators. After watching “In the Tall Grass” I believe Joanita received what she was looking for which was some kind of closure. Butera is being referred to a higher tribunal. There is not much more Joanita can receive at this point. She now knows the resting places of her children. Gacaca seemed efficient for the judicial options provides, though as I said before there are flaws. I believe reconciliation will take more time, probably more than another two decades. While the government of Rwanda continues it’s oppressive and freedom limiting behavior, I don’t see large-scale reconciliation happening anytime soon. On a global front, the international community played almost no part in preventing the genocide, so I believe they have no place to criticize Rwanda’s own traditional judicial proceedings in order to create peace.


  7. Hunter March 19, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    While the Gacaca system has many important and visible benefits to the Rwandan reconciliation process, it certainly has its drawbacks that have become increasingly apparent in recent years. In a country where a majority of the population lives in rural, undeveloped communities, Gacaca courts are more easily accessible and perhaps more appropriate than traditional trials. I believe much of the value in Gacaca and the main reason it is preferable to traditional trials is the fact that it places a greater emphasis on truth telling. This way, victims gain the knowledge they need to move towards closure and reconciliation while perpetrators are rewarded for their honesty with a lighter sentencing. “Truth”-telling however has proved to be a double edged sword in the Gacaca courts. Many perpetrators in pursuit of lighter sentences have lied or implicated others in order to deflect blame from themselves, ultimately forestalling and prolonging the process which can bring greater anguish to those victims who simply want the truth, like we saw in the Butera trial. In the end I think Joanita received the justice she deserved from Butera as he received the highest sentencing and will probably be indicted by the national courts. However from what I saw from that trial, it seems that the Gacaca system is also flawed by the ease of which someone could potentially falsely testify against another for personal motivations, despite this being a punishable offense. Although Gacaca was initially praised by countries around the world, its transformation into a political tool to quell dissent by the Kagame regime has been increasingly criticized by the international community in recent years. Nevertheless, the argument can be made that the international community has no right to criticize the Rwandan government’s policies on justice and reconciliation. Since the international community made no attempt to stop the genocide, why should they have any say in how justice is implemented today?

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