Rwanda: Gacaca justice - a shared responsibility

News and Press Release
Originally published
A new 51 page report from African Rights
Rwanda's gacaca justice project has been launched nation-wide and, seven months after pilot gacaca trials started, a careful review of the system is possible. In African Rights' 51-page report: Gacaca Justice: A Shared Responsibility the recently-appointed gacaca judges known as the Inyangamugayo, and the legal experts who trained them for their role, offer recommendations on the way forward. They comment on their expectations of gacaca and experiences of the training and of the trials already underway. They identify weaknesses in the structure and delivery of gacaca and gaps in the law, but also convey their enthusiasm and commitment. The report warns that the Inyangamugayo will require answers to their questions, criticisms and needs if they are to maintain their interest.

The views of the judges, who are the representatives of their communities, can also be seen as a reflection of the wider feeling about gacaca, and the same principle applies. People must be regularly informed, consulted and encouraged. The alternative is that the gacaca system could crumble. All the adult citizens of Rwanda share responsibility for this process. Anyone who is not a judge or a genocide suspect is automatically a member of the "general assembly" and must attend and contribute to their local cellule hearings at which the lists of victims and perpetrators are drawn up. The success of gacaca depends overwhelmingly upon popular participation: this is both its greatest strength and its most challenging aspect. Without the genuine involvement of members of all sectors of Rwandese society - particularly the accused and their relatives, survivors and witnesses - gacaca hearings may be ineffectual or they may simply be postponed.

Gacaca allows for the input of all Rwandese who lived through the genocide. It offers a means by which they can collectively acknowledge and condemn the genocide. Gacaca was established to convict active supporters of the slaughter, except for its leaders, the "category 1 suspects." But it also opens a path towards atonement, through truth-telling, for witnesses who were either unable or unwilling to try to prevent killings. For genocide perpetrators too, there is the opportunity to confess and ask forgiveness for their crimes. More than simply a legal instrument, gacaca creates new possibilities for social interaction and engagement. It sets out to improve relations among the people of Rwanda, and between them and the State.

The Inyangamugayo are the key partners in the relationships constructed by gacaca. People must feel total confidence in the judges, and the Ministry of Justice must be able to trust them to carry out their task fairly. The judges were democratically elected on the basis of their "honesty and integrity" - this was crucial to ensuring popular support for gacaca. In a country where in the past justice has blatantly been employed by successive regimes to meet political ends, the concept has lost moral currency. By handing genocide justice over to the people, gacaca crucially removes it from the political arena.

This element of independence must be preserved throughout the process if it is to succeed. Yet African Rights' report suggests that the judges are a very mixed group?they include natural community leaders, educated, articulate and committed; cynical individuals seeking to exploit the system; and people who have been pressured into taking part for want of other candidates. They also include a relatively high number of illiterate or semi-literate people who, even if they are keen, will struggle to remember the information about the gacaca law and the responsibilities that they were given at the training. Moreover, as the elected representatives of their communities, the judges often stand for the attitudes of local residents. In those areas worst affected by the genocide, where the rate of participation in the killings was exceptionally high and there are few survivors, it is not impossible that the guilty may be judged by their accomplices. Reports from some of the gacaca instructors that the tribunals of certain cellules are almost exclusively peopled by those who took some part in the killings are deeply troubling. Although there is provision to accuse and try judges suspected of involvement - and indeed there are already examples of suspects dropping out of the courts - close monitoring is required to prevent abuse.

Some judges clearly lack the character or the education to properly implement gacaca and all, at this point, lack sufficient training. Moreover, unlike many forms of customary justice, where the judges derive their authority from an existing belief system, the Inyangamugayo are a new addition to Rwandese society and their credibility remains to be established. The judges themselves are aware of this and call for concrete efforts to increase their standing within the community and to bolster their capacity to carry out this voluntary role through the payment of incentives. While judges generally accept that theirs should be voluntary position, they call for some benefits, arguing that the poverty of some is certain to prevent them from taking on duties or from discharging them properly.

Intensive efforts to promote the knowledge, skills and status of the Inyangamugayo will require further financial investment and might cause delays. This presents the government with a dilemma. The pressure to forge ahead with gacaca trials across the country and to bring to an end the years of crisis within Rwanda's prisons is intense. Detainees, probably including innocent people, have been awaiting judgements for long periods in difficult conditions while their families endure their absence. Both they and their families anticipated that gacaca would accelerate the pace of justice; unless it does so they will become demoralised and their initial support of gacaca is likely to wane. This must be balanced against the reality that the scale and the novelty of the project make it a huge logistical challenge. There are more than 10,000 courts across the country and 260,000 men and women have been appointed tosit as judges in their local court.

African Rights concludes that it would be unrealistic to expect the trials in and of themselves to deliver prompt and complete answers to the administration of genocide justice. Several hurdles lie ahead. The report discusses some of the issues the government will have to confront, including further training, public education, security, poverty and the demand that "revenge killings" committed in the aftermath of the genocide, be prosecuted in gacaca courts. But the process itself matters enormously. Gacaca brings together the people of Rwanda in a spirit of equality and openness, empowering them to influence their society for the better. Properly implemented it may well prove an antidote to the social poison of the genocide.

The full report is available on request. 

For further information contact:

African Rights, Bureau Rwanda
B.P 3836
Tél: (250) 501007
Fax: (250) 501008