In Kinyarwanda, the word ‘Gacaca’ refers to ‘a bed of soft green grass’ on which in ancient traditions, a community and its representatives, mainly elders, leaders and individuals known for their integrity and wisdom, gathered to discuss and resolve conflicts within or between families and inhabitants in a certain village. Among the solutions for resolution to conflicts, the Gacaca called upon the accused families or person to reconcile with the complainant, and vise-versa. This conflict resolution system’s origins could be traced back to the 15th century when the kingdom of Rwanda became more socially and politically organized.
During the colonial period, a Western-style justice system was introduced in Rwanda, but the Gacaca courts tradition still remained the primary solution to resolving conflict amongst the locals. However, the persistence of the colonial administration lead to the regimes in power to appointed administrative officials to the Gacaca courts proceedings. This weakened the tradition and the trust in the traditional system. Over time, at the judicial level the ‘Western’ court system prevailed over the ‘traditional’. These changes caused the king and his chiefs to gradually lose their positions of authority and legitimacy in the justice system, as the Gacaca courts diminished: the traditional system was only used in small village for domestic conflicts and petty crimes, whereas the Western System was used for more serious offences in regards to politics, commerce, grand theft and homicidal crimes.
In the post-colonial period, up to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, the Gacaca courts’ standards were reset and the system was increasingly used again all over Rwanda. This time, the Gacaca courts were used an administration tool to determine the seriousness level of a case: if a case could not be solved by the traditional conflict resolution mechanism, it was then deemed a complex case and it was transferred to be arbitrated by the adapted western-system courts. The inyangamugayo (people of integrity), were introduced to evaluate cases. These men and women were local government officials who attended Gacaca court proceeding to analyze the cases levels of importance and process transfers. The Gacaca courts then provided proximity and administration to relieve the pressure on the ordinary court system.