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The Legacy of Rwanda's Gacaca Courts

Phil Clark assesses the impact of the post-genocide gacaca courts in Rwanda.
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A gacaca court in session. Photo courtesy of Elisa Finocchiaro.

Rwanda's gacaca courts were closed (later than scheduled) on June 18, 2012. The following article was originally published March 23, 2012. 

In May 2012, Rwanda will complete the most comprehensive post-conflict justice programme attempted anywhere in the world. Since 2001, 11,000 gacaca community-based courts, which have been overseen by locally-elected judges and have barred any participation by lawyers, have prosecuted around 400,000 suspected perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

Nearly every Rwandan adult has participated in gacaca in some way, either as a witness, defendant or by attending weekly hearings. Under gacaca’s plea-bargaining scheme, the vast majority of those convicted of genocide crimes have had their sentences commuted to community service and have been reintegrated into the same communities where they committed crimes. Today most convicted génocidaires live side-by-side with genocide survivors and their families. The atmosphere of tense but peaceful coexistence that currently characterises most Rwandan communities was unimaginable 18 years ago.

Confronting the Impossible

In the months following the genocide – which claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsi and their perceived Hutu and Twa sympathisers – around 120,000 suspects, mostly Hutu, were rounded up and transported to domestic jails with a capacity of only 45,000. Most detainees were never formally charged with any crime and were forced to live in hellish conditions: underfed, drinking dirty water and crammed into tiny rooms where they were often made to sleep in latticework formations for lack of space.

During the genocide, the Rwandan judicial system – which showed signs of debilitation before 1994 – was nearly destroyed, as the infrastructure of the national courts was decimated and many judges and lawyers were killed or fled the country. With the existing judicial system incapable of dealing with massive numbers of suspects, the government sought new mechanisms to hear genocide cases – a process that ultimately led to gacaca.

I have researched gacaca since its inception, including twenty visits to Rwanda since 2003 and more than 500 interviews with all levels of participants in the trials. The book that I recently published on gacaca concluded that, while the process has faced inevitable challenges, it should be considered a major success according to objectives such as justice and truth, as defined by the Rwandan population.

Human rights commentators have criticised gacaca from the outset, arguing that it contravenes norms of legal due process and encourages corruption and government interference at the community level. Such criticisms by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have been grossly exaggerated and are based on a highly selective sample of the worst gacaca cases. Human rights critics also fail to propose any viable alternative for dealing with Rwanda’s immense post-genocide challenges, displaying legal rigidity in the face of extreme circumstances. In the process, they distract from several legitimate criticisms of gacaca.

Mixed Legacies

At the outset, it’s important to qualify the sheer variance of the societal impact of gacaca on post-genocide Rwanda. The enormous number of communities involved, the different experiences of the genocide and the nature of inter-ethnic relations today all mean that there is no single uniform experience to respond to. With that volatility in mind, it is important to highlight two principal successes of gacaca and two long-term challenges that it has produced.

First, gacaca has proven remarkably successful at expediting the post-genocide justice process, delivering accountability for hundreds of thousands of génocidaires and acquitting tens of thousands of falsely accused suspects in just over a decade. It has also commuted many convicted perpetrators’ sentences to overcome the problem of overcrowded prisons and facilitated the reintegration of most detainees into everyday society. Thus, the Rwandan government will soon have delivered on its promise of comprehensive prosecutions of those responsible for committing genocide crimes, without recreating the problem of overcrowded jails that necessitated gacaca in the first place.

The government will also have completed the genocide caseload at a cost of around only $40 million. Gacaca has therefore proven substantially cheaper to run than more conventional justice institutions, especially when compared to the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which to date has cost more than US$1 billion. By clearing the backlog of genocide cases, gacaca has also improved living conditions in Rwandan prisons and saved government investing in resources necessary to sustain such a large prison population.  

Second, gacaca’s emphasis on popular participation during hearings has yielded significant dividends in terms of truth. In particular, much of the Rwandan population argues that gacaca has been important for recovering truth in the form of legal facts regarding the genocide and therapeutic truth in terms of allowing individuals to tell and hear personal narratives of the genocide that may allow them to deal emotionally and psychologically with the past. Gacaca’s compilation of testimony from 11,000 communities now provides a rich, diverse reservoir of historical material regarding genocide crimes.

In my interviews, many suspects and survivors argue that the opportunity to speak openly at gacaca about events and emotions concerning the genocide has contributed to their personal healing. Many guilty suspects claim to have gained a sense of release from feelings of shame and social dislocation by confessing to, and apologising for, their crimes in front of their victims and the wider community at gacaca.

Many survivors meanwhile claim to have overcome feelings of loneliness by publicly describing the personal impact of genocide crimes and receiving communal acknowledgement of their pain. As Paul, a survivor whose father, two brothers and one sister were killed during the genocide, said after a gacaca hearing in Musanze district in northern Rwanda:

“Gacaca is important for us survivors because it helps us live and work in the community again…All the survivors come together and talk about what has happened. We realise that we are in the same situation, that we have all had family who were killed. We understand each other and we realise that we are not alone.”

In my interviews, many survivors state that they have experienced healing through gacaca when the community acknowledges their suffering. They state that gacaca allows them to tell their stories in front of an empathetic audience and to hear similar stories from others. This story-telling contributes to their sense of reintegration into the community, overcoming their feelings of social dislocation since the genocide.

While gacaca has produced important benefits, it has also generated significant problems with lasting consequences for Rwandan society.

Lenient sentences

Regarding justice through gacaca, many survivors increasingly criticise the lenient sentences handed down to many convicted génocidaires. In particular, many survivors perceive community service as insufficient punishment, given the gravity of crimes committed during the genocide. They argue that convicted perpetrators have in the main benefited from the government’s need to rapidly empty the prisons and thus gacaca’s tendency toward moderate sentencing. As Chantal, a survivor near Nyamata in southern Rwanda, said:

“We all know the prisoners can’t go back to jail. The jails are still full, and we need the prisoners here to work on the farms. But if you kill people, if you kill six or seven people, and you spend only six or seven months doing [community service], that isn’t right. The [gacaca judges] should have been stricter with the guilty ones.”

Meanwhile, there is widespread anger among Hutu that gacaca has addressed only genocide crimes and not revenge killings against Hutu civilians committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel force that ended the genocide in July 1994 and today represents the ruling party in Rwanda. A common critique among Hutu citizens is that gacaca has delivered one-sided justice.

Trauma reignited

Second, gacaca has also generated significant truth-related problems. Gacaca’s attempt to deal with the massive backlog of genocide cases has involved weekly hearings over a decade in many communities. For many Rwandans, this has meant repeatedly hearing highly emotive testimony concerning genocide crimes, with the result that gacaca has increased levels of trauma among many of its participants. The retraumatisation of individuals who are still dealing with the emotional and psychological legacies of the genocide is one of the major costs of gacaca’s truth process. Géraldine, a 56-year-old farmer in Musanze, echoed a common concern about gacaca-induced trauma:

“It is too difficult to constantly go to gacaca. You hear many terrible things there, over and over again those things that happened in the past. I have suffered nightmares because of what I hear at gacaca and the things it puts back in my mind.”

Finally, the truth component of gacaca has suffered from many participants’ instrumental calculations based on the plea-bargaining scheme. In particular, many genocide suspects have had a major incentive to confess falsely to crimes much less severe than those they actually committed in order to benefit from gacaca’s pre-determined system of sentencing. In some of my interviews, individuals who were innocent of all genocide crimes but had been imprisoned since late 1994 stated that they confessed falsely to crimes in order to enter the gacaca process and perform, at a maximum, several months of community service, which was preferable to remaining in jail.

Given the scale of gacaca in terms of the number of jurisdictions, suspects, cases and everyday participants, it was inevitable that it would have variable consequences across the country. As many international policymakers today view gacaca as a cheaper, faster way of doing justice for mass crimes and potentially as a model for other post-conflict societies, it is crucial that we bear in mind both gacaca’s successes and shortcomings. Nevertheless, as a response to the enormous challenges that confronted Rwanda after the genocide, gacaca highlights the impressive ingenuity and innovation of the Rwandan population. 

For more on the gacaca courts read a review of Phil Clark's book "Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda" and Think Africa Press' three part interview with him on the subject (Part one, Part two, Part three).

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

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I am always inspired by the work and writings of Dr Clarke.  it does not inspire me only on a personal level, but also  in my work in high conflict families, and further in the conflict in South Africa and the world.  If peaceful roconciliations could be brought about in Rwanda why not in other places, and in other communities and settings ?