THE CLOSURE OF THE GACACA COURTS ONE CHAPTER ENDS BUT WHAT NEXT
While still in country after a grand Kwita Izina week of conservation celebrations the opportunity arose to sit in on the International Conference on Gacaca Courts, the answer of the new Rwanda to the need to bring people to justice and justice to the people, following the gruesome 100 days genocide, during which according to the latest figures a million people were slaughtered by frenzied mobs, militias and the military.
Earlier during my visit I had already come close up and personal with the genocide and the surviving victims, but also some perpetrators now living side by side in a model village.
A visit to the Belgium memorial site, where a troop of their soldiers were killed and where tribute is also paid to others of their citizens, slaughtered alongside their families because they had married into a Tutsi family.
The countrys main national Genocide Memorial in Kigali was again on my visitng programme, as it is on every occasion I am in Rwandas capital, to remind myself that NEVER AGAIN has to mean just that NEVER AGAIN. The world stood by in 1994 and wrung its combined hands but did not come to the aid of those who faced mass murder, and similarities with what is going on in the border regions between Khartoum Sudan and South Sudan, including ICC wanted alleged war criminal Bashir calling the Southerners insects which must be extinguished reminds one only too much of 1994 when the masterminds of the genocide in Rwanda called their supports to finish off the cockroaches.
The conference held today in Rwandas parliament is discussing in details the achievements, and shortcomings, of the community based Gacaca Court system, which over the past 10 years, the mandate runs out tomorrow when President Paul Kagame will officially close the system down, has dealt with over 1.2 million cases.
Even the most ardent advocates of conventional court systems must admit that not one legal system in the world would be able to deal with that many cases in a conventional way and true enough, research now availed to this correspondent shows that it would have taken an already overloaded Rwandan legal system over 300 years to try all these cases. Under the Gacaca Court system some 120.000 judges were appointed and notably NO professional lawyers were involved in these cases, as perpetrator had to face their accusers and victims close up and personal, had to admit their guilt, confess their crimes, show where they dumped the bodies to give closure to the families and then ask for forgiveness. They were still jailed when found guilty, but often released back to their communities after serving some time and in lieu had to carry out community work in places where in 1994 they murdered, no slaughtered thousands.
The Rwandan leadership must have felt the age old saying Justice delayed is Justice denied as eventually over 400.000 detainees filled the prisons while on either remand or serving their sentences and it was clear, that no Phoenix would rise from the ashes unless a way would be found to deal swiftly and comprehensively with the extremely large number of genocide cases and seek to re-integrate many of the erstwhile killers into society again, if progress and economic development had to be achieved.
Speed was essential and while fairness was inscribed in the charter of the Gacaca Courts, much of the peacocky nature of normal courts was seen as a hindrance so wigs and robes and pretentious language was ditched in favour of having communities see and experience justice being administered in a way they could understand, and fast for that matter. And while from what I saw and was presented with today and over the past days, when inspite of celebrating conservation successes the past was ever present in my searching questions, the Gacaca Court system was not perfect, in fact at times flawed, it nevertheless served a purpose and achieved results, on which Rwandan society can now build and move forward from. Reconciliation and Forgiveness rank high in building the new nation and no conventional court system supporter could even distantly claim that the judiciary in Rwanda, in fact anywhere in the world, could have coped with the sheer numbers of cases.
There was no yes your honour no your honour three bags full but plain language the people in villages could understand, participate in proceedings and see justice delivered through guilty verdicts but also acquittals. Justice without lawyers, perhaps the world should try more of that at times and in any case, the judiciary in Rwanda is now dealing with the hard core of masterminds of the genocide, or at least those caught and extradited to Rwanda, often after a decade or more of legal struggles, yes, courtesy of lawyers no less.
Rwandas situation post 1994 was unique and nearly unprecedented and few examples existed of how the problem of criminal prosecution could be addressed, until this home grown solution was proposed, developed and then in 2002 implemented with the first trial then taking place in 2003.
But with Gacaca Courts coming to the end of their lifespan, the question is being asked what next? One chapter closes and one expects some follow on. Could the country sustain a dual judiciary system in the longer run, to have justice dispensed with at local level at a similar court system or will the substantially strengthened normal judiciary, now with much improved capacity since 10 or 15 years ago, have to take care of all criminal matters henceforth? A question worth asking and worth monitoring progress made in Rwanda to see if at all some level of follow on for keeps can be found in months to come.
For now though, Rwanda is at another cross road, moving through the intersection with a well mapped out strategy to rebuild the nation and turn it into an African showcase country where things work, where discipline manifests itself in particular in traffic and where tourists from around the world flock to, perhaps soon reaching the one million visitor mark per annum, showcasing the risen Phoenix and demonstrating to the world that the Rwandan way did work. Not perfectly but to a very high percentage degree which is good enough, considering the challenges the country faced in terms of prosecutions and jail capacity only 10 years ago.
The new Rwanda on the move last Saturday when conservation took the centre stage with Kwita Izina and the naming of another 19 babies and a semi adult see the respective articles filed earlier today and now with the formal conclusion of the Gacaca Courts. Perfect? For sure not, but as good as it gets here in Africa, and that is the truth. Watch this space.