International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

The Gacaca court system in Rwanda

As we have discussed in class, three different court systems have been used to prosecute the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide: the ICTR, the national court system, and the local-level Gacaca court system. These systems have, on the aggregate, been quite successful in terms of the sheer number of cases they have tried since the genocide; however, there are still many concerns about the legitimacy and biases of the Gacaca courts, ultimately resulting in what the BBC terms, ‘controversial justice’ (BBC).

Immediately following the genocide in 1994, Rwanda’s legal system was left largely in disarray. In order to prosecute the large volume of genocidaires, it became clear that employing various court systems would be necessary. As a result, the Gacaca courts transitioned from settling only small local disputes and adapted to “a more conventional model of punitive justice,” which sought to “reveal the truth about the genocide” (HRW). In 2005, these courts began prosecuting the “thousands of accused still awaiting trial in the national court system,” to further their goals of achieving “justice and reconciliation at the grassroots level” (UN).

By 2012, the system of 12,000 community-based courts had tried over 1.2 million perpetrators throughout Rwanda (UN & BBC). According to statistics, approximately 65% of those tried were found guilty, and were subsequently sentenced. In these local courts though, it was possible to significantly reduce your sentence if you showed signs of remorse, publically apologized, and asked for forgiveness from your community (UN). Consequently, some called into the question the legitimacy of the courts— fearing that convicted genocidaires could deliver falsely “sincere” apologies in order to “return home without further penalty” (HRW & UN).

As the Human Rights Watch asserted, the expectation that the Gacaca courts would achieve “national-level reconciliation” in these few years was pretty far-fetched (HRW). In fact, a multitude of other factors caused people to question the legitimacy of these trials, including corruption, personal ties, and intimidation (HWR). Although the BBC reported that “many people in Rwanda” have credited the system for “help[ing] to mend the wounds of the past,” the Gacaca’s ability to promote justice and reconciliation has undoubtedly been challenged by these underlying problems (BBC & HRW). For these reasons— as well as the many reasons we have discussed in class— it is and will remain to be very difficult to assess the success of these courts for many years to come.


2 responses to “The Gacaca court system in Rwanda

  1. Tiffany Cheng February 7, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    The Gacaca courts were established in 2005 to bring justice and reconciliation to the Rwandan community at large. While the successes of the Gacaca court systems are questioned, one would argue that the Gacaca court system has succeeded in accomplishing its primary task. The Gacaca court system has tackled nearly two million cases while the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has only completed 69 trials. The costs of operating these court systems are costly, but the Gacaca trials have managed to keep costs at $40 million, whereas the ICTR trials costed nearly $1 billion. The Gacaca court system achieved its original task or providing justice and reconciliation. Although these grassroot court systems are far from perfect, it is certainly a starting point for achieving full reconciliation. It is difficult to say that any court system has fully achieved success, as court systems in developed countries are still being accused of corruption and bribery. The Gacaca court system was a success, given the social, economic and political instability in the region following the genocide of 1994.

  2. daniel2533 February 9, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    The question of the efficiency of a traditional court, should, for many reasons, be discharged as irrelevant to the task of achieving justice, as justice is by its very nature efficient and sufficient for wrongs done to a society or an individual to be amended. By traditional court, however, I mean a court solely established for the pursuit of justice. Any addendums will muddle our end goals – taint the purity of our conception of justice, as it were.
    The Gacaca courts seem to have done just that. In an unfortunate error of judgment, the international community allowed the universal concept of justice to be molded so as to fit a particular people better and, in the case of Rwanda, to achieve “national reconciliation.”
    That they have tackled nearly two million cases while the ICTR has only completed 69 trials is, if we take the application of justice as our standard, meaningless. The cost of a trial is meaningless. Above all, reckless notions such as “national-level reconciliation” we ought to dismiss as meaningless in carrying out justice. If the Gacaca courts attempted to transition to “a more conventional model of punitive justice,” we can objectively say that they turned on their goals and failed miserably. The fact that this system leaves to “sincere apology” the fate of a genocidaire is horrifying and the international community should not stand by for the sake of such ridiculous ideals as “reconciliation.”

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