The Rwandan genocide was a mass slaughter of the Tutsi ethnic group during the Rwandan Civil War, by members of the Hutu ethnic group, who controlled the government in 1994. The government formed after the war needed to bring justice for the crimes committed against the Tutsi in order to heal and rebuild the country. The new Rwandan Patriotic Front struggled to prosecute over 130,000 people who were accused of genocide and other war crimes through formal courts. This was because of the difficulty and cost of jailing and trialling a large proportion of the population. Instead, they chose to refer many cases through the Gacaca system alongside the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The government today states that the success of modern Rwanda can be attributed to the success of the Gacaca courts, despite various criticisms of their methods.
WHAT ARE GACACA COURTS?
The Gacaca court is a traditional system of delivering community justice. It is loosely translated to mean, “justice amongst the grass”. Before the period of colonisation, minor disputes in Rwanda were presented locally to wise men for judgement in Gacaca meetings while major disputes were heard by kings or mwami. Colonisation meant that the Gacaca system was used less frequently in favour of Western-style courts.
Gacaca courts were used after the Rwandan Civil War to bring justice for victims of the Rwandan Genocide and punish those accused of war crimes. They aimed to:
- Establish the truth about what happened.
- Prosecute criminals quickly.
- Eliminate systematic discrimination against the Tutsi ethnic minority group.
- Reinforce and rebuild Rwandan unity.
- Respect Rwandan culture and society.
WERE GACACA COURTS SUCCESSFUL IN BRINGING JUSTICE FOR THE TUTSI PEOPLE?
Gacaca courts were successful in their scale and their effect. More than 12,000 community-based courts have tried more than 1.2 million cases since 2001. The government and a large proportion of the population have been surveyed saying that it helped them reconcile and make peace with the death of their family members. This gave war criminals an opportunity to confess and make amends through community service, as well as giving victims an opportunity to bury their loved ones and receive compensation.
Criticisms of the system include the lack of legal rights such as the right to a lawyer, to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise and to be informed of case against you. There were many instances of economic corruption as the judges (inyangamugayo) were often unpaid. Finally, the government banned the trials of soldiers of the new government for policy reasons, despite the evidence that thousands of soldiers had committed war crimes in 1994.
Overall, the Gacaca courts are generally considered to be a success given the limited resources of the government at the time and the scale of the problem. Many point to Rwanda’s outstanding success in rebuilding after the Rwandan Civil War as evidence of this claim.