Rwanda celebrates 10 years of Gacaca Courts and bringing fast tracked justice to the genocide victims

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.

3 Responses

  1. Rwanda is truly a beautiful country with beautiful intelligent people but issues of intertribal jealousy and resentment have to be addressed.1994 was preceded by 1973 and that by 1959.The memorial museum in Kigali traces the roots of intertribal animosity to classifications and social strata routed in colonial administrative structures of identification in which a Tutsi was deemed to be anyone having more than ten cows and a Hutu anyone with less, different entitlements and ceilings socioeconomic growth such as access to education and jobs were then allocated accordingly. The historical analysis of this sociology classification is backed up by photos of passes akin to those that were in apartheid South Africa and are clearly shown in the memorial.In short the blame for the subsequent social division, conflict and eventual mass murder leading to three tragic events of genocide in the 20th Century in that truly beautiful country is laid at the feet of the Belgian colonialists.The tragedy is though, that this analysis of the roots of conflict lacks sober humble self criticism in which we as Africans must start to accept responsibility for what we do to each other, and to start to acknowledge that it is our own devaluation of ourselves that is largely to blame for the misery that we have made in otherwise beautiful lands.Our mindset is our worst enemy.external forces only take advantage of that for their own ends but until we sincerely wake up to appreciate each other thinking and reaching beyond our comfort zones of tribe etc, to realize a productive collective whole that seeks the dignity of all members of society, we may repeat history.The state must reorient itself to care for the dignity of the common man who for too long has suffered endless humiliation to cater for and serve the egotistical heartless and myopic interests of the ruling class.This disease afflicts the entire continent and deep seated resentment will from time to time come to the surface even in countries long considered to be bastions of stability in Africa, consider Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire as recent examples.The beauty of Africa is there for all to enjoy.It takes tourists from all over the world to remind us Africans that this is a truly beautiful continent.What will it take for us to start to see and appreciate that beauty in each other?As a people the solutions to most of our problems can only start once that door of enlightened self perception is opened.May God bless us all.Amen.

    1. I found this entire issue to be very complex and beyond the understanding of much of the Western world and even us who live here in East Africa and like myself in 94 saw the immediate aftermath of what has happened. But I support the building of the new Rwanda based on one country and one people and the need to reconcile and forgive so as to build a sound and better future.
      Thank you for your thoughtful insight and for reading my blog.

  2. Thank you, I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head.It’s better to focus on making a better future by making the most of the present. Rwanda at least seems to have a focused leadership and is much better managed than other countries in the region.You only need to contrast Rwandair and Air Uganda to see this, as one who earns his keep through the travel industry, my long term interest like many of us from all walks of life depends on how the powers that be make this region a stable attractive atmosphere. Meanwhile we are holding our breath to see what Stelios does with fly540.From comments attributed to Ed Winter(Stelios nominee for CEO Fastjet) the plan seems to be to replace the 540 brand with Fastjet. Has the former been used as a Trojan Horse for the latter to enter the market?and if so what will be the fate of staff currently working for fly540?