Gacaca courts closing: A lesson to the UN


Today Rwanda officially closed its village tribunals overseeing the prosecution of suspects in a 1994 genocide that left 800,000 dead, marking the end of more than a decade of local court prosecutions.

The United Nations has commended Gacaca courts for delivering on their mandate and providing a solution for the complex nature of the cases related to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The praise came as Rwanda prepares to officially close the work of the semi-traditional courts later today.

A statement sent to The New Times from the UN office in Rwanda stated that the Gacaca process played a key role in advancing peace, stability and reconciliation.

“Not only did it address the enormous backlog of genocide-related cases and contributed to reducing prison overcrowding, and certainly it also has contributed to peace and reconciliation,”

Gacaca proceedings opened in June 2002 as a response to the overwhelming backlog of Genocide-related cases and the severe overcrowding of the prison system.

During the 10 years, Gacaca jurisdictions tried more than 1.9 million cases and according to the UN, these were “far from being “mob” or “vigilante” justice, as many legal critics predicted, about 25% of Gacaca cases have resulted in acquittal.

“The Gacaca experience serves as a lesson for us all…the UN recognised that national or “home-grown” initiatives should be supported, as they have a more direct and sustainable impact on populations” the statement reads.

UNDP has been a strong supporter of Gacaca throughout the process, having provided $1.6 million to the Gacaca Courts for manuals, trainings, advocacy, and document important lessons learned during Gacaca process.

Gacaca prisoners

“It is important to record and disseminate the lessons learned of this unique process globally. It is equally important, however, to preserve the enormous volumes of rich and diverse repository historical material gathered through the Gacaca process,” the UN added.

It noted that the Gacaca Documentation Centre in Kigali will be one of the largest archives documenting a mass crime anywhere in the world and will be an invaluable resource for Rwandans and foreigners alike.

“Even more importantly, it will also be a reminder to future generations to never let it happen again,”

Meanwhile, Survivors Fund (SURF) and Ending Torture Seeking Justice for Survivors (REDRESS) have also commended Gacaca’s achievement but recommended that a taskforce on reparations be established to further consider how to address the gaps with compensations that were recommended during to rulings.

Their recommendation follows research findings published this month by Legal Aid Forum- Rwanda, based on interviews with over 2,700 claimants which shows that Gacaca court judgments are the ‘hardest to enforce’, with 92% of all Genocide-related judgments yet to be enforced.

According to REDRESS’ Juergen Schurr; “as Rwanda celebrates the achievement of Gacaca over the past 10 years, it is important to also address its shortcomings, including the lack of compensation for moral and bodily damage for survivors of the Genocide.”

Gacaca process

SURF’s Legal Advocacy Project Coordinator, Albert Gasake said, “While it is impossible to fully compensate for crimes such as genocide, awarding reparation payments can help to restore the dignity of survivors by acknowledging the suffering that they have been subjected to.”

A joint statement released by the two organisations recommends that the taskforce on reparations could address issues such as identifying the number of compensation and restitution awards that have yet to be implemented.

If established, it could consult closely with survivors and survivor organisations in Rwanda to identify their needs and determine adequate measures of reparation.

It could also take into account experiences of reparation programmes in other countries, such as South Africa, Morocco and Sierra Leone.

Key Fact:

The gacaca process.

Gacaca originated its name from a kind of Rwandan grass named Umacaca. Rumor has it that naming the tribunals “gacaca” was due to how it operates in open spaces. Customarily, elders would assemble to arbitrate disputes between community members. They would sit on the grass and listen to both plaintiffs and defendants plead out their cases.Gacaca was then defined as “judgment on the grass”. When it came to the genocide, suspects stood before their community’s members and avow their offenses while a nominated jury listens on. Witnesses too come forth to apprise the community and the panel of judges of whatever information they have. Many have criticized this method. What people have failed to see is that after the genocide most lawyers, judges and prosecutors had been assassinated. And as reported, there were as many perpetrators as there were victims. And how many victims were there? Over a million. Now how do you rightfully trial all these perpetrators with such shortcomings in the judicial infrastructure? Exactly. There are four categories of criminals:

The first comprises of those alleged to have organized, initiated, led or administered the genocide.

The second consists of those alleged to have physically partaken in acts resulting in the death of others.

The third is that of those who contributed to acts that did cause the death of any.

The fourth is that of those who took advantage of the genocide to loot and destroy properties.

Most perpetrators were of the second and fourth categories, which are the categories most dealt with by the gacaca tribunals.  Once the jury has served its verdict, eligible perpetrators are sent to TIG which one way or another allows them to reintegrate into the community. And that too has been under criticism. But when a country is rebuilding itself after the genocide, how can it sustain over a million prisoners, when it can’t even help its victims. Remember these prisoners would have no source of income, thus feeding, clothing them and so forth lies on the back of the victims who already can’t even feed themselves.

TIG, “Travail d’Intérêt Général” is a Rwandan program that permits genocide prisoners to serve part of their sentences by serving their community through hard physical labor. TIG is an innovative system of punishment that facilitates Rwandans in destroying the culture of impunity, cementing union and reconciliation and encouraging socioeconomic growth of the country. The types of community service range from “ground clearing, road building, construction of houses for genocide survivors, clay mining, and brick […] tile manufacturing, […] breaking and hauling rocks, digging with picks and shovels, and manually moving earth by hand, sack, or wheel barrel” (Bacher, Community Service For Prisoners). TIG has been hailed as one of the best avenues to take in blending justice and reconciliation, and assist repentant killers in easing themselves back into Rwandan society. Through TIG, the accused’s sentences are reduced while also acquiring skill training, and re-education that will benefit them at the end of their sentences. Some victims’ groups criticize the program on the leniency of the consequences for the crimes the killers committed.

Related articles: Official closing ceremony for gacaca courtsCNN: “Rwanda closes tribunals overseeing genocide prosecutions”

Sources: Edwin Musoni (The New Times 18.06.12: “Gacaca is a lesson to the World-UN), thisidealisticfool.wordpress

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