This piece originally appeared in The East African on 16 June 2012.
We’d forgive most things,” wrote Graham Greene, an English novelist preoccupied with the themes of sin and redemption, “if we knew the facts.” Rwanda’s community-based Gacaca courts, which close formally this Monday (June 18) after 1.95 million trials in under eight years, have tested that proposition on a grand and unprecedented scale.
But precedent offered scant guidance in the months and years that followed the 1994 genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi population, a crime with more than one million victims and an even greater number of perpetrators and accomplices. From a legal standpoint, Rwanda faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge: Prisons and holding cells overflowed with suspects, many charged with acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence.
Survivors and victims of the genocide called for justice, some for retribution. Meanwhile, society itself had all but broken down. The legal and political system — along with the constitutional framework upon which it had been built — collapsed under the weight of its failure and complicity.
Emerging from the genocide as the poorest country on earth, Rwanda could not rebuild as a country of survivor villages walled off from perpetrator villages. We could not allow impunity or deny justice to the victims, but nor could we let the pursuit of legal redress overwhelm the many other urgent tasks that lay ahead. At that moment, Rwanda’s survival as a functioning state was far from certain; the wound it had sustained too raw and deep to know even whether healing was possible.
By 1999, five years after the genocide, fewer than 400 cases had been tried through “normal” courts — at such a rate, it would have taken many centuries to clear the genocide caseload. Accused and accuser alike found no satisfaction in such an arduous and unproductive process. As a practical matter, the Western mode of jurisprudence had been found wanting — and this had become an impediment in Rwanda’s path forward. By the time Gacaca entered our thinking, it was a moral, as well as legal, imperative to find a workable alternative.
Gacaca courts were derived from a traditional means of dispute resolution used at village level whereby elders would hear claims and counter-claims between neighbours and come to a decision that the entire community was bound to honour. It was a time-tested mechanism that had long ago earned the trust and respect of the Rwandan people. We adapted this tradition incorporating national rules and guidelines to introduce an element of formality and structure.
Across every village in Rwanda, Gacaca courts heard close to two million cases, ranging from property offences to charges of planning and overseeing massacres that took place during the 100-day genocide. Despite a conviction rate of 65 per cent, only 37,000 Rwandans remain incarcerated for genocide offences today; the remainder either served brief prison sentences before release, or were ordered to perform community service under parole. Over its eight-year life, Gacaca was implemented at a cost of around $45 million, funded mostly by Rwandan taxpayers with support from donor countries.
Soon after the first pilot courts opened hearings in 2002, it became apparent that Gacaca could offer far more than the swift and cost-effective dispensing of justice. Early fears that suspects and supporters would conspire against a truthful reckoning with history proved baseless. Instead, perpetrators seemed eager to confess and apologise for their crimes, partly in return for leniency of course, but also as a way to reconnect with things they had lost in 1994: A sense of belonging as well as personal responsibility; respect for others as well as self. Over time, survivors also discovered that the experience, however painful, of hearing confessions and confronting perpetrators face to face offered a kind of solace.
Even its strongest advocates would dare not have hoped that Gacaca would emerge as such an essential element in Rwanda’s recovery from genocide. In fact, it is impossible to imagine Rwanda’s notable progress of the past decade without the foundation of justice and reconciliation laid, case by case, village by village, by Gacaca courts and the millions of Rwandan citizens who made them possible.