The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda


by Phil Clark | 13 Sep 10

Phil Clark book cover, CUPA new book constitutes the first academic analysis of the whole gacaca process following the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The gacaca process consisted of eight years of village-level hearings into those crimes and the book follows an in-depth investigation by author, Dr Phil Clark, a Research Fellow in Courts and Public Policy in the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford.

Since 2001, the gacaca community courts have been the centrepiece of Rwanda's justice and reconciliation programme. Nearly every adult Rwandan has participated in the trials, for example by providing eyewitness testimony concerning genocide crimes. Lawyers are banned from any official involvement, an issue that has generated sustained criticism from human rights organisations and international scepticism regarding gacaca's efficacy. Drawing on more than seven years of fieldwork in Rwanda and nearly five hundred interviews with Rwandan participants in trials and policymakers, Dr Clark, a political scientist specialising in conflict and post-conflict issues in Africa, investigates a complex transitional justice institution and explores the ways in which Rwandans interpret gacaca. Its conclusions provide insights into post-genocide justice, reconciliation, democracy and governance, as well as the population's views on the future of Rwanda.

Books asked Dr Clark about his research.

What is gacaca and is there a tradition for this form of justice in Rwanda?

Gacaca is a system of community-based courts that since 2001 have been prosecuting genocide crimes in Rwanda. Gacaca judges are elected by their local communities and lawyers are barred from any official participation in the process. Traditionally, gacaca was a form of dispute resolution used mainly in rural communities in Rwanda and typically for low-level infractions such as theft and property damage. Modern-day gacaca draws partly on this traditional practice – especially its emphasis on hearings held outdoors, in full public view– but it is now codified in national law and overseen by central government institutions.

Why were lawyers banned from any involvement in these hearings?

Lawyers were banned from gacaca for two reasons. Firstly, there simply aren't enough lawyers in Rwanda to deal with the hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects, so the government's view was that it would be unjust to allow a wealthy minority of individuals to gain legal assistance while others (often participating in the same hearings) could not afford this. Secondly, gacaca relies heavily on a spirit of public participation, and the government believed that lawyers would complicate the process, dominating hearings and using overly technical language that would stifle the civic spirit of gacaca.

Who decided at government-level that these hearings were the best way of doing justice?

There were heated debates at the government level for seven years after the 1994 genocide over how justice should be delivered. Some hardliners wanted strict justice in the form of public executions or lengthy prison sentences. More moderate leaders wanted a process akin to South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission - focusing less on punishment and more on finding out the truth about who had committed crimes and seeking to rebuild broken relations in society. Gacaca was a compromise between these different government factions: the institution can hand down prison sentences but, in the vast majority of cases, has used community service as a form of punishment, all the while emphasising the need for public debate during hearings in the pursuit of reconciliation.

What do the findings suggest about whether justice was done and seen to be done?

Assesssing the empirical evidence, gacaca has produced very mixed justice results. On the one hand, it has proven remarkably successful at expediting the post-genocide justice process, delivering accountability for hundreds of thousands of génocidaires. This has been critical for individualising the guilt of those responsible for the genocide, pursuing justice for each perpetrator regardless of their political or socio-economic status. Provincial governors, military officials and peasant farmers have been treated equally – a crucial recognition of the different levels of Rwandan society that participated in the genocide.

No country in the world has embarked on a justice process as ambitious as gacaca, which by its completion next month will have prosecuted 400,000 suspects.

The Rwandan government has also completed the genocide caseload in the relatively short period of nine years at a cost of only $40 million. Gacaca has therefore proven substantially cheaper to run than more conventional justice institutions. However, there have also been major problems. Many survivors, for example, criticise the lenient sentences handed down to many convicted. In particular, many survivors perceive community service as insufficient punishment, given the gravity of crimes committed during the genocide. 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.

What do they tell us about democracy and governance in today's Rwanda?

Rwanda is a highly complex society and gacaca, in many ways, runs counter to the trends in democracy and governance that we see in other realms of Rwandan society. Rwanda is a highly centralised state, with a very powerful executive.  In the midst of this, however, gacaca displays high levels of public participation, ownership and ingenuity. In communities close to the capital city, Kigali, the government has greater control over gacaca hearings than in the countryside, where there is less state scrutiny. In the long term, gacaca may prove vital in terms of empowering the population and generating a grassroots democratic movement.

Do we now know many people were killed during the Rwanda genocide? Do the Rwandans feel those ghosts have been laid to rest?   

Approximately 800,000 people were killed in the space of 100 days in 1994, including three-quarters of the Tutsi minority. In Rwanda every person is either a genocide perpetrator, victim or survivor or the close friend or relative of someone in those categories. The events of 1994 are discussed daily in the nation's newspapers. While dealing with high levels of trauma, though, the population has shown incredible resilience in addressing the legacies of the genocide and maintaining high levels of agricultural and economic productivity.

The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers  is published by Cambridge University Press.