Global Policy Forum

Can the Gacaca Courts Deliver Justice?


Rachel Rinaldo

Inter Press Service
April 8, 2004

As Rwanda commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide this week, attention focused on the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives in the killing spree. But, what has become of the machete-wielding individuals who carried out the plans of the genocide masterminds? The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which began work in Tanzania in 1995, has concentrated on bringing the ringleaders of the massacres to book. To date, over 60 people accused of playing a major role in the killings have been detained, including former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment. But, tens of thousands of other genocide suspects still await trial in Rwanda's crowded jails.

"In Rwanda you have a situation in which a large part of the population participated in the genocide," says Elizabeth Onyango of African Rights, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with offices in Kigali and London. "A select few might have orchestrated it, but they did it so cleverly that they got a lot of the population implicated - and how do you try cases like this, all these people?"

Given Rwanda's shortage of judges and lawyers, it would take decades for conventional courts to try the suspects - which sources put at about 80,000 and upwards. As a result, the government has turned to a traditional system of justice known as "gacaca" to relieve the burden on prisons and courts. Gacaca hearings are traditionally held outdoors (the word loosely translates as "justice on the grass"), with household heads serving as judges in the resolution of community disputes. The system is based on voluntary confessions and apologies by wrongdoers.

Over 250,000 community members have been trained to serve in panels of 19 judges in gacaca courts all over Rwanda. The tribunals will operate in several stages, first identifying victims, then suspects - and finally holding trials. Local residents will give testimony for and against the suspects, who will be tried in the communities where they are accused of committing crimes. The initiative was launched in June 2002. But, with the exception of courts involved in a pilot phase of the operation, most are not yet operational. They are expected to begin work in May or June this year. Many of those on trial will be prisoners who have already been released from jail after making confessions. Those who confess in gacaca courts will have their sentences reduced, or may in some cases be freed if they have already served enough time in prison.

"As a country we have now decided to try to find the truth behind the genocide," said Robert Bayigamba, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports. Gacaca, he said, is intended "to accelerate the process of knowing the truth so that justice may be done".

But some international observers have reservations about the gacaca system. Richard Haavisto, who researches Central Africa for Amnesty International, visited gacaca courts during the pilot phase, and was concerned by what he saw - particularly the low level of participation by community members. According to Haavisto, people often failed to attend the trails, or did not give testimony when they did appear. "The objective is a truthful accounting of what happened in the genocide and (non-participation) really undermines the whole premise," he told IPS. Fear appears to be a major issue. "Many of those who might be willing to give evidence are afraid of retribution," Haavisto said. In fact, there have been reports in the last few years of killings and attacks on witnesses who were expected to testify in gacaca courts.

Haavisto adds that many communities also perceive the tribunals as being one-sided - something that contributes to a lack of confidence in the system. He recommends that the courts should deal with crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel movement which took control of the country after the killings - as well as the so- called "genocidaires". "The government has to create a climate which convinces people that there is an equitable system of justice at work," Haavisto says.

The ranks of the RPF were dominated by members of Rwanda's minority Tutsi group, which was targeted during the genocide by militants from the Hutu majority, (Hutu moderates also found themselves in the firing line). The killings began after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart was shot down over Kigali on Apr. 6 1994. Prior to the massacres, peace talks had been underway between Kigali and the RPF, which is accused of committing human rights abuses as it advanced across Rwanda. According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, United Nations consultant Robert Gersony found that "the RPF had engaged in widespread and systematic slaughter of unarmed civilians". In addition, Haavisto warns that gacaca trials may eventually prove to be a drain on community members who participate, as most are not compensated for their involvement.

Outside the Rwandan capital views about gacaca are mixed. In the province of Ruhengeri, which has a large concentration of Hutus, many people appear favourably disposed to gacaca - at least when they speak to a foreign journalist. "It's up to the people to make it work," said Cyril Munyanya, a farmer. "If they put their minds to it there's no reason it can't work."

Dacile Nyirabazungu, a female survivor who works at the Ntarama Church genocide memorial, says the trials will help Rwanda "find out who are the killers." Nyirabazungu and other survivors at Ntarama proudly point out the new brick building across from the church that will serve as the gacaca headquarters in the community. For Musavimana, a 24-year old ex-prisoner in the western Rwandan town of Kibuye, the system has already proved beneficial. He was arrested in 1994 for a murder he says he did not commit, and spent eight years and three months in jail. Finally, he was released because the men who carried out the murder confessed in a special prison gacaca.

But, others dread the moment at which the courts will become fully operational. Mbezuanda, a woman in Kibuye, is emotionally shattered from her ordeal at the hands of Hutu militia - and has also contracted HIV. She is afraid to testify in a public court because she says it will be her word against the accused: there are no other witnesses. Without anyone to back her up, Mbezuanda feels it would be dangerous to give evidence. She is also worried that the courts are moving too slowly. "Maybe by the time it comes I will be dead," she says. But at the very least, says Elizabeth Onyango, gacaca might help Rwandans talk about what happened in 1994 rather than shutting it away, as has been done before. "Rwanda is a society where people, because of all they've been through...don't really speak up," Onyango notes. "Gacaca does give people a chance to begin to talk about genocide."

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


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