Global Policy Forum

Grassroots Justice


By Jeevan Vasagar

March 17, 2005

More than a decade after the genocide, a grand experiment in popular justice is taking place on the lush green hillsides of Rwanda. Village courts, called "gacaca" after the grass on which they are held, are to try hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects. These community courts are seen as the only way of relieving a legal system groaning under the weight of dealing with a monumental crime; around 63,000 genocide suspects are detained in Rwanda's prisons and according to the latest official reckoning, at least 761,000 people participated in the mass murder of 1994.

The courts are based on a traditional way of resolving disputes, in which villagers elect "people of integrity" to hear the evidence and reach a verdict. There are nine judges for each gacaca court, and they have the power to impose penalties of up to life in prison. They will deal with major crimes including murder and assault, though rape will still be dealt with by conventional courts.

The trials are meant to promote reconciliation as well as justice. They will be held in public, giving survivors the chance to confront alleged perpetrators in full view of their families and neighbours. But human rights groups are worried about the fairness of the gacaca system. Because the trials are to be held without lawyers - suspects will have to represent themselves - there is less protection for defendants than in conventional courts. Conventional trials, which have sought to bring justice to Rwanda until now, have already seen a number of false accusations as well as intimidation of witnesses on both sides. The acquittal rate has been 20%, suggesting a sizeable number of cases have not been well-founded, and after this length of time, there is a heightened risk that witnesses' memories will be unreliable.

Senior Human Rights Watch adviser Alison des Forges said the lack of legal representation was a serious concern. "The authorities' view is that this is a quasi-customary kind of procedure, and there never used to be lawyers, so there's no need for lawyers now. The problem with that is that little is the same except for the name. In this system, there is considerable weight given to the official side. The office of the prosecutor provides considerable assistance to the bench [of judges] in terms of making its determination, so you no longer have a level playing field." There may, however, be no alternative to the gacaca trials, she added. "Obviously the problem of delivering justice after the genocide is an overwhelming problem. Gacaca may not be ideal but there is at this point no alternative."

The sheer numbers involved are staggering. The latest figure of at least 761,000 genocide participants, which comes after lists of suspects were compiled in preparation for gacaca, means that almost as many took part in the genocide as were killed - an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered. The figure has increased dramatically since the immediate aftermath of the genocide, when it was put in the tens of thousands. For most of the past decade, the Rwandan authorities have suggested around 100,000 were involved, but last year that figure rose to half a million.

"It's very difficult to comment on a figure that changes so radically," Ms des Forges said. "Except to say that perhaps definitions have changed; what is considered to be the definition of participation some time ago has broadened. The official explanation I think is that people did not speak openly until the gacaca process, and now many more accusations are surfacing. Also, the concession programme, which requires the naming of all those who participated along with the accused [in return for a lighter sentence], has led to a multiplication of names. How many of these are well-founded, what is the credibility of the evidence, these are very serious concerns."

War crimes are excluded from the gacaca courts. That means that reprisals carried out by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-led rebel force that ended the genocide, will not be considered. Only a few dozen RPF soldiers have been tried for such crimes since 1994, and the majority of those were from lower ranks. The most important genocide suspects - those accused of orchestrating the genocide, which was planned and executed by the extremist "Hutu power" government - will continue to go before the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. This court, which sits in Arusha, Tanzania, has so far convicted 20 people and acquitted three.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
More Information on Rwanda


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.