Academic journal article African Studies Review

Gacaca: Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Postconflict Rwanda?

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Gacaca: Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Postconflict Rwanda?

Article excerpt

Abstract:

In institutionalizing gacaca, the Rwandan government has launched one of the most ambitious transitional justice projects the world has ever seen. But gacaca is controversial, and its contribution to postconflict reconciliation is unclear. Through public opinion surveys, trial observations, and interviews, this study provides a window into how gacaca has shaped interethnic relations in one Rwandan community. Although gacaca has brought more people to trial than the ICTR, transnational trials, and the ordinary Rwandan courts combined, gacaca exposes-and perhaps deepens-conflict, resentment, and ethnic disunity. Lies, half-truths, and silence have limited gacaca's contribution to truth, justice, and reconciliation.

Introduction

In institutionalizing gacaca, the Rwandan government has launched one of the most ambitious transitional justice projects the world has ever seen. Based on a traditional form of dispute resolution, gacaca is a local, participatory legal mechanism that seeks to blend punitive and restorative justice. In more than nine thousand communities throughout Rwanda, panels of elected lay judges known as Inyangamugayo ("those who detest dishonesty" in Kinyarwanda) preside over genocide trials in the same cities, towns, and villages where the crimes were committed. Inaugurated countrywide in 2005 and designed to ease the massive backlog of genocide suspects crowding Rwanda's prisons, the trials take place one day each week in local stadiums, emptied markets, forest clearings, schoolyards, and other areas that can accommodate what is intended to be a community event. The aim of these tribunals is at once daunting and inspiring: punish génocidaires, release the innocent, provide reparations, establish the truth, promote reconciliation between the Hutu and the Tutsi, and heal a nation torn apart by genocide and civil war in 1994. Gacaca, in one scholar's words, sets out to achieve "mass justice for mass atrocity," but even that may be an understatement (Waldorf 2006a:l).

Gacaca's ambition is matched only by the challenges it faces. Scholars, including Erin Daly and Lars Waldorf, and international NGOs, including Penal Reform International (PRI) and Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), have documented a range of problems that frustrate gacaca (Daly 2000). Lack of defense counsel and other protections for the accused raise doubts about gacaca's compliance with international norms (PRI 2006) . Judges are inadequately trained to handle serious legal questions and control often unwieldy proceedings (African Rights 2003). Fear of reprisals blocks the free flow of testimony (ASF 2007). Massacres of ethnic Hutu civilians committed by members of the rebel (mostly Tutsi) Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) , which stopped the genocide against their co-ethnics and which now dominates the Rwandan government, are off-limits for gacaca; as a result, members of the ethnic Hutu majority may perceive gacaca as an exercise in victor's justice (Amnesty International 2002). The inclusion of property crimes means that gacaca courts will hear as many as one million cases, raising the concern that gacaca will impose collective guilt on the Hutu majority (Waldorf 2006b) . Finally, and perhaps most worrisome for a system of participatory justice, the population often is unmotivated to attend trials and give testimony (PRI 2005). These critiques, based on extensive observations and interviews, paint a grim picture of gacaca and its contribution to truth, justice, and reconciliation in postconflict Rwanda.1

Yet the international press and some scholars, among them Helena Cobban (2002) and Mark Drumbl (2000), see gacaca as a healthy alternative to punitive, procedural, Western-style justice. Cobban lauds the Rwandan government for realizing that its "previous stress on prosecutions was no longer desirable" and for its "willingness to try to incorporate elements of a very different, 'restorative' approach to issues of justice and wrongdoing into its policy" (2002:8). …

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