Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

After Arusha: Gacaca Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

After Arusha: Gacaca Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Article excerpt

Abstract: The epicentre of post-genocide Rwandan society and politics has been the need for reconciliation to assuage ethnic tensions and end a culture of impunity. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has yet to meet its goal of reconciliation in Rwanda: The failure of the tribunal goes beyond its institutional shortcomings and can be attributed the norms of international criminal law that render it an inappropriate response to criminalizing mass violence. The Gacaca courts were resurrected in Rwanda as an indigenous form of restorative justice. The principles and process of these courts hope to mitigate the failures of "Arusha Justice" at the tribunal and seeks to punish or reintegrate over one hundred thousands genocide suspects. Its restorative foundations require that suspects will be tried and judged by neighbours in their community. However, the revelation that Gacaca is a reconciliatory justice does not preclude its potential for inciting ethnic tension it if purports to serve as an instrument of Tutsi power. The state-imposed approach of command justice has politicised the identity of the participants in Gacaca--perpetrators remain Hutus and victims and survivors remain Tutsis. Additionally, the refusal of the Kagame government to allow for the prosecution of RPF crimes to be tried in Gacaca courts empowers the notion that Tutsi survival is preconditioned by Tutsi power and impunity. If Gacaca fails to end the perceptions of impunity in post-genocide Rwanda, it will come at a much higher cost for reconciliation than the failure of the ICTR. The relevance of justice after genocide speaks to the appropriateness of retributive and restorative models of justice in a post-genocide society such as Rwanda. Additionally, the model of justice must be reconciled to the nature of a political regime that imposes unity under an ethnocratic minority.


It is frequently said that reconciliation in post-genocide societies is not possible without justice. In Rwanda, the form that justice should take is at the heart of the debate. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda left over 800,000 dead and over 130,000 in prison upon suspicion of committing acts of genocide. The recent tenth anniversary of the genocide entailed memorials, burials, and the reawakening of violent memories. Amidst this atmosphere there was also political rhetoric filled with blame, guilt, and disappointment. Despite the obvious desire to bring justice to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable, impunity persists in Rwanda.

The international community responded to the atrocities with a call for accountability and an end to impunity. This resulted in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). This tribunal, plagued by institutional shortcomings, has been an insufficient and inappropriate response to criminalizing mass violence. Rwandans have tired of its inefficiencies and feel its principles are at odds with their views of justice and reconciliation.

With the judicial infrastructure destroyed and most prosecutors and judges killed in 1994, there was no chance that the national court system could prosecute all those responsible for such crimes. Even now, after years of rebuilding, the national courts cannot handle such a high volume of cases. In response to the ineffectiveness of the tribunal and the incapacity of its national court system, the Rwandan government has revived a traditional form of dispute resolution called Gacaca (ga-CHA-cha). 10,000 Gacaca courts will try genocide suspects in the communities where their crimes were committed. They will be tried and judged by their neighbours.

Gacaca represents a model of restorative justice because it focuses on the healing of victims and perpetrators, confessions, plea-bargains, and reintegration. (1) It is these characteristics that render it a radically different approach from the retributive and punitive nature of justice at the ICTR and national courts. …

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