International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Tag Archives: Gacaca

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.

Where does the state belong in traditional, local justice?

“Traditional”, local justice seeks to add a new layer to the transitional justice framework by drawing upon traditional rituals and processes in order to enact justice.  Most of these rituals focus on restorative justice, with reparations to the victims’ families and reintegration of the perpetrators at their core.  Such efforts are intended to be community-based, for these perpetrations, especially in locations such as Rwanda and Uganda, involved perpetrators attacking members of their own community.  However, despite the goals of being community-based and rooted in tradition, some of these justice mechanisms fall under the control of the state.  Most notably, gacaca has been criticized by such scholars as Susan Thomson and Rosemary Nagy for becoming an instrument of state control (see their article: “Law, Power and Justice: What Legalism Fails to Address in the Functioning of Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts”).  Gacaca was enacted by national law, is often monitored by state security officials, and is tightly regulated and controlled by the government.  In short, through gacaca, “the Rwandan government seeks to ensure that the populace performs its vision of justice and reconciliation without opposition” (Thomson and Nagy, 14).  From such observations, then, it would seem preferable that traditional justice operate independent of state control in order to maintain its integrity.

However, such independence may also be dangerous.  In “Ritual (Ab)use? Problems with Traditional Justice in Northern Uganda,” Tim Allen argues that regulation, most likely by the state, are an important part of preventing the abuse of traditional methods.  As Allen warns, “Without regulation, rituals and customs are as likely to be adapted to interpret and punish witchcraft and sorcery as they are to deal with more ‘conventional’ instrumental killings and mutilations” (Allen, 51).  Furthermore, Allen argues that the absence of state involvement may actually create divisions within the country or at least make transitional justice less likely to promote national integration and unity (52-53).  This is because it would make it appear that the government and other regions in a state do not care about the violence in a particular region and desire to leave the locals to their own devices.

So, where should the state fit in traditional justice?  As is often the case, a middle path seems the most suitable.  The state does need to offer its support and legitimacy to methods of traditional, local justice.  However, the state must also not take full control of such methods to where they become another arm of the state.  When this occurs, it can actually create a great deal of resentment in the local populations and de-legitimize the process, as was often the case with gacaca in Rwanda.  Therefore, the state should not be wholly absent, but it must not use traditional justice as a type of panopticon.  So, in the case of state involvement, moderation is best, but if a decision is to be made, it is better to err on the side of too little than too much.

Defining ‘Traditional’

Last class when we discussed the role of traditional justice in the cases of Rwanda and Northern Uganda, it seemed that one of the main differences was how closely Northern Uganda’s implementation resembled the ‘traditional’ model compared to gacaca courts.  Particularly that ‘traditional’ gacaca courts did not address killings and were used primarily for land and property disputes.  I found it interesting reading the Huyse report when he/she states:

“The old Gacaca was mostly used for minor offences, although apparently it could also be used for cases of manslaughter. The arrival of colonialism may have had a modifying influence on the functioning of the Gacaca in that regard, by prohibiting its use for serious crimes (44).”

Evaluating how “true” the official gacaca resembled traditional gacaca is difficult because the traditional gacaca courts evolved over time.  As with any institution, it continually transformed and adapted according to political and social pressures.  She also states that after Rwanda received its independence in 1962, the “gacaca gradually evolved into an institution associated with state power as local authorities were supervising (or taking the role of) local judges (34).”

Thus, killings and state actors had been present to some degree, at some point in time, in pre-genocide gacaca courts.  Undoubtedly, there were many flaws in the implementation and execution of the official gacaca courts, but it seems that the legitimacy of traditional justice should not be determined by how closely it resembles previous institutions, but rather, how effective it can be at achieving its goals at the local level, given the current institutions and social climate.

Measuring Reconciliation in Rwanda (in 2010)

In October of 2010, Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) put forth the Rwandan Reconciliation Barometer (RRB), inspired by the South African Reconciliation Barometer, which has measured public opinion on national reconciliation in South Africa since 2003. The RRB is a “national public opinion survey that intends to track progress on the road to reconciliation in Rwanda by means of a structured quantitative research instrument” (9), with data collected by universal sampling from 3,000 Rwandans from all thirty districts in the country.

It seems as if the study was carried out by a team of consultants from the UNDP – DFID, or members of Britain’s Department for International Development under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program. This adds legitimacy to the survey’s findings, distancing it from the politicized government-run NURC.

If we trust the results of the barometer, it is simply a fascinating study, rich with information for our class – especially the findings on “Understanding the Past” (59-62), “Transitional Justice” (63-72), and “Social Cohesion” (73-88). I highly recommend looking through the tables in these sections, but some highlights in terms of the Gacaca courts include:
– 93.7% of respondents agree that most of what happened during the genocide has become known through the processes of the Gacaca, and 83.4% indicated that they believed in the impartiality of Gacaca judges.
– 89% felt that the punishments received by perpetrators were fair, while 70.8% of respondents felt that genocide survivors were fairly compensated.

The almost overwhelmingly positive numbers throughout the survey definitely spark some incredulity, which might point to methodological shortcomings. However, one figure stands in stark contrast to the rest of the results: a significant percentage of respondents (39.9%) believe that there are people in Rwandan society that would still perpetrate acts of genocide if given the opportunity (58). Does this finding negate the rest of the study? Does this sense of personal insecurity and distrust demonstrate a failure of reconciliation processes in Rwanda?

Return to Rwanda

The documentary “Return to Rwanda” was aired by Al Jazeera in 2010, however I found it interesting because it reflects the devastating legacy of the Rwandan genocide. Sixteen years after the Rwanda Genocide, a reconciliation and reparation program sponsored by the UN and Rwandan government began to encourage Hutus to return to their country. As we all know in 1994 the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsi, and right after the Tutsi RPF returned to their country and gained political control, as a result many Hutus fled to the Republic of Congo afraid of reprisals. The 24 minutes long documentary shows the other side of the spectrum, the Hutus 16 years violent survival experience in Congo, their inhumane lives as exiles, their journey back to Rwanda, but most importantly their reconciliation process with the Tutsi.   The reconciliation and reparation program is sponsored by the UN and Rwandan government and it appears to be essential for the peace process of the country. Throughout the testimonies of genocide survivals, the documentary is able to demonstrate the importance of this program in order to attain justice and unity for the Rwandan communities. We had talked about the Restorative Justice process in class, but I did thin the reconciliation would happen that fast.  Through intervies the genocide victims appear to forgive their aggressors. The Traditional community based tribunals, also known as “Gacaca courts” are apparently also a pathway to reach peace and justice between the perpetrator and the victim.  The testimony of a victim supports my claim “I attended the hearings and spoke out against the perpetrators. They accepted that they had killed, and after confessing they asked for forgiveness. Here, we live well together because they sought forgiveness, and God’s word says that those who ask you for your forgiveness, you should give it,” It is evident that victims forgiveness is associated to their religious beliefs faith and culture. Therefore I wonder whether this type of local tribunal and restorative justice process would be as effective in other nations?, If it so successful  in Rwanda, is it this system being employed in conflicting societies?  And is the fact that they have to live in the same community as with their aggressor forcing  them to forgive their perpetrators?

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?

Reconciliation in Rwanda – Gacaca courts & the ICTR

I watched part of a documentary called “Gacaca Justice”. If anyone is interested, here is the link to the 15 minute (kind of long…) clip:

The film pays particular attention to the Gacaca courts that have been set up across the country to serve as a form of community justice and provide healing and closure to victims. In light of our class today about the Rwandan genocide and the ICTR, I can’t help but feel that the Gacaca court system serves as a better form of transitional justice in providing healing at both local and statewide levels than the efforts of the ICTR. In a country like Rwanda where a majority of the population lives in small rural communities, the trials of the ICTR do not seem accessible to the population. The Gacaca courts provide localized justice in individual villages and towns by punishing the average, lower-level perpetrators who made up the vast majority of perpetrators during the genocide.

This is not to say the ICTR hasn’t been invaluable in convicting the elite perpetrators and masterminds of the genocide, but ultimately as we discussed in class a majority of Rwandans feel that they have no connection to these elite perpetrators or their trials that occur in another country. This idea was reinforced for me when a woman in the documentary said “Those who became our killers were our friends and neighbors”. Although it may sound cynical, I feel that although Rwanda requested the ICTR, it is a tribunal that is more important for the guilty consciences of the international community who at first largely ignored the genocide than it is for the Rwandans who suffered through it.

I would be interested in hearing other people’s opinions on this subject, whether people agree or if they think the ICTR is more important than I’ve made it out to be.

“Reconciliation in Rwanda” events at Smith and Hampshire Colleges

There are two “Reconciliation in Rwanda” events in the Five Colleges that I would like to draw your attention to and strongly encourage you to attend.  Here’s the advertisement: Reconciliation in Rwanda .  I have seen the film and its very relevant to our course content on the Gacaca courts in Rwanda and the topic of reconciliation in general.

“Genocide and its Aftermath in Rwanda.” Speaker: Alice Gatebuke (genocide survivor)

Monday, February 28th 4:30-6:30pm at Smith College (Neilson Library Browsing Room)

Co-exist” Documentary Screening. Followed by a discussion with Alice Gatebuke and Adam Mazo (“Co-exist” director). You can read more about the film and view a short clip here.

Wednesday, March 1st 7-9pm at Hampshire College (Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall)