Global Policy Forum

Gacaca Courts: Giving Rwandans More Than Justice?


By David Gusongoirye

Radio Netherlands Worldwide
December 12, 2008

The 1994 Rwandan genocide still haunts the east-African country. Some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu's were massacred by thousands of Hutus in only a hundred days. After the genocide, Rwanda struggled to bring the génocidaires to justice.

By 2000, approximately 120,000 alleged génocidaires were crammed into Rwanda's prisons and communal jails. From 1996 to 2006, the courts tried some 10,000 suspects. But at that rate it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners. To speed things up, the Gacaca courts were resurrected. They are part of a system of community justice inspired by tradition. The courts are scheduled to close in December this year, and most are holding marathon meetings to beat this deadline. But do they provide Rwandans more justice?

David Gusongoirye reports from Rwanda:

"Jean Pierre Ndungutse, according to the evidence brought to this court, and by your own admission to having participated in the killings of Chantal Kayitetsi and her three children Bosco Ngarambe, Marita Kabarondo and Marie Rosa Mukakalisa in Kicukiro in April 1994, this court finds you guilty."

"Ordinarily this crime would attract the harshest sentence that this or any other court would impose. But because you have shown cooperation with this court and have not wasted its time by useless denials; because you came forward voluntarily to help this court and the family of the deceased to assist recover the bodies by showing us the ditch where they were dumped so that they could get a more decent burial; because in everything that you have done you have espoused a spirit of remorse and a great need to promote peace and healing which these Gacaca courts are all about, you are hereby sentenced to three years' imprisonment."

This sentence was pronounced by the Remera Gacaca Court president Speciosa Mukamugema at the sector's headquarters where many people are gathered to attend a local court session.

Men and women of integrity

Seated on her right and left with bundles of paper are eight other members of the court, wearing a bright orange and blue sash draped across one shoulder. These are the members that constitute the jury, the men and women known as Inyangamugayo.

This literally means men and women of integrity, chosen because of the respect and goodwill they command in the community to conduct genocide court cases brought by and against fellow community dwellers. The government gave about 250,000 of them a crash course in dispensing their duties prior to launching the gacaca courts in 2002.

Welcome to Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, painful recollection of the 1994 Genocide. After about a million people had lost their lives by the hands of the clutches of a murderous horde of cut-throat militias and government forces in 1994, Rwanda inherited a country that was devastated in every way. The lack of human resource to move things and try to make a fresh start was the biggest hurdle. Many people had been killed, and the few professionals that had escaped the clubs, spears and machetes had fled the country. So the justice sector, as was every sector, was hard-hit. Yet there had to be the rule of law, part of whose mandate was to find the genocide perpetrators and bring them to justice.

The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) based in Arusha, Tanzania, by the United Nations was partly to address this need. The ICTR started with agonizing slowness, yet the issues to be addressed and redress made were daunting in their numbers.

No space

By 2000 there were over 120000 genocide suspects who had been arrested and were awaiting trial. Yet the regular courts in Rwanda could not handle the situation, as they were greatly understaffed. Prisons were bursting; there was no space; there were more suspects being arrested everyday. And for these inmates, justice was taking slow to materialise. Yet they had committed heinous offences against humanity; they had to stand trial.

But it was also understood that the majority of the suspected genocidaires had just followed their leaders blindly; there were some who were genuinely shocked at the extent of their gruesome handiwork when it was revealed to them. They were seemingly repentant. And thus from the depths of tradition was resurrected an idea that had fizzled out but could be adapted to fit the circumstances then: gacaca courts. These were village courts used in the olden times which could sit and try cases in the community. They were mostly reconciliatory, not punitive. They were based on the principle that when a village member committed an offence against another, they would beg forgiveness if they really felt remorseful; upon which the village elders would oversee the reconciliation.

However, in cases where the offender was recalcitrant, and if the village indeed found them culpable, then they would be punished. This is the model against which even the current gacaca court was built. Give chances to genocide suspects to open up and seek the community's, and bereaved family's indulgence, by telling their personal roles in the genocide.

This would earn them leniency. But above all, given the complex social and political nature of the genocide, this would improve relations and bridge the huge divide between the groups of people who had been most affected by the genocide. A measure of unity and reconciliation would prevail; gacaca courts would become the foundation stones that the new Rwanda would rest on.


As they have. It is now no longer surprising to find communities where genocide survivors are living in some kind of harmony with their previous persecutors. These are people who have passed through a kind of crucible to reach this level of understanding. On the one hand, some of the survivors have stood up and accused the others; yes, you killed so and so. Yes, you set up a roadblock at such a place and these people disappeared without trace. Can you help us recover their remains? And the accused breaks down, begs forgiveness, takes them to the site of murder, or even the site where they were dumped, and those people are no longer thought to have just disappeared by their relatives, but they face the certainty that they died, and move on with life as best they can.

Gacaca courts have also dealt with a huge number of cases. They were launched in June 2002. Right now they have cleared about 200,000 cases since their inception, according to a Gacaca National council member. With so many cases of genocide to be tried, the ICTR has only been able to handle only about 33 cases in the past 14 years of its existence.

Gacaca courts have also been criticised. Mindful of administering equitable justice to all - survivors and perpetrators alike - international bodies have pointed out that the gacaca judges lack the necessary training in human rights and law, in order to deliver that justice. Be that as it may, gacaca courts are scheduled to close in December this year, and most are holding marathon meetings to beat this deadline.

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