Trying Times for Rwanda: Reevaluating Gacaca Courts in Post-Genocide Reconciliation

By Longman, Timothy | Harvard International Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Trying Times for Rwanda: Reevaluating Gacaca Courts in Post-Genocide Reconciliation


Longman, Timothy, Harvard International Review


The 1994 Rwandan genocide has become the most heavily adjudicated conflict in recent world history. After the assassination of Rwanda's president on April 6, 1994, a reactionary group of elites seeking to reassert their control over Rwandan society by appealing to the ethnic loyalties of the majority Hutu population, organized genocide of the country's Tutsi minority. On orders from the central government, community leaders throughout Rwanda gathered Tutsi in churches, schools, and other public buildings with promises of protection, before local militia groups systematically slaughtered them. In the weeks after, death squads and roadblocks helped to hunt down survivors. In just 100 days, over 80 percent of Rwanda's Tutsi population was killed.

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After the July 1994 military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a largely Tutsi rebel army that had been attacking Rwanda since 1990, both the international community and the newly installed Rwandan government embraced trials as a primary tool for promoting post-conflict social reconstruction. The UN Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in late 1994, which focused on prosecuting the top organizers of the genocide, and the first trials took place in Arusha, Tanzania in 1997. The Rwandan government itself began to arrest thousands of individuals on genocide charges immediately after the RPF victory, and by 1999, Rwandan prisons held more than 120,000 genocide suspects. With the Rwandan judicial system in shambles, the government did not begin the first genocide trials until December 1996, and even working at full capacity, the courts would have taken over 100 years to complete prosecutions. Seeking to speed up the rate of prosecution and implicate the population more directly in the judicial process, the government launched a new system of non-professional grassroots justice in 2002, called gacaca courts, drawing loosely on a traditional Rwandan dispute resolution mechanism. Gacaca courts were organized in every locality in the country, using popularly-elected lay judges to treat most genocide crimes. By early 2010, over 1.5 million cases had been heard in gacaca courts, and the process was winding down to a close.

Transitional justice--the use of judicial mechanisms to help rebuild post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies--has emerged in the past two decades as a major international trend, promoted by the international community and widely studied by scholars. Along with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has sparked a wave of human rights trials around the world, and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has inspired numerous attempts to develop alternative judicial mechanisms, post-genocide justice in Rwanda has become a major focus of international interest and academic analysis. In the Rwandan case, given the shocking nature of the violence that took place in 1994, policymakers, diplomats, and human rights activists insisted that judicial accountability was essential. Trials of genocide perpetrators, they argued, would promote the rule of law, stop the cycle of violence, and allow survivors to move on with their lives. Scholars of transitional justice have been particularly intrigued by gacaca's innovative attempt to adapt Western legal traditions to Rwandan culture, and many have predicted that gacaca could become a model for using local judicial mechanisms to promote reconciliation.

In practice, however, the benefits of trials in Rwanda remain unclear, while their negative consequences are substantial. In this essay, I draw on an extensive field research from a project conducted in Rwanda between 2001 and 2006 involving a national survey, hundreds of individual and focus group interviews, and ethnographic case studies of three local communities, to assess the impact of trials on social reconstruction. …

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