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Rwanda: Has reconciliation by legal means worked?

- April 8, 2014


Rwandan President Paul Kagame, seen on a large television screen, addresses the public and dignitaries at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday, April 7, 2014. (Ben Curtis/AP)

This week marks 20 years since the start of the Rwandan genocide. Little that happened during that 100-day period in 1994 or in the years since is agreed upon by Rwandan policy makers, global diplomats and political scientists who study the region. Every issue — from estimates of how many people were killed in 1994 (ranging from 500,000 to over 1 million individuals) to whether Rwanda in 2014 is a stable, post-conflict society or a repressive, authoritarian state — is hotly contested.
Of the issues surrounding Rwanda’s post-genocide situation, few are more important or more disagreed upon than the issue of reconciliation. Scholars who work on the region have widely varying opinions as to the effectiveness of Rwanda’s transitional justice programs. These efforts take two forms: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a special international court set up to prosecute accused leaders of the genocide, and the gacaca courts, a community-based system of trial courts loosely based on Rwanda’s customary legal institutions.  The ICTR’s success at prosecuting the leadership is mixed; many accused criminals are still at large and its work has taken far longer than anticipated, with all work supposed to end by the end of 2014.
Gacaca is unique in that it is an attempt to address war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by ordinary individuals. As Rwanda’s domestic court system was nowhere near extensive enough to prosecute all accused participants in the genocide, the gacaca model presented a practical solution to the dilemma of trying hundreds of thousands of accused in a timely fashion. Estimates are that the gacaca courts tried nearly 2 million individuals before ending their work in 2012. But did these courts work to provide justice, build accountability between government and citizens, and heal some of the sharp social divides created by the genocide?
The gacaca model is touted by the government of Rwanda, its allies and some scholars as a largely successful model of providing justice and building reconciliation. Chief among gacaca’s scholarly supporters is Phil Clark, who argues that, while imperfect, gacaca provided an avenue for many instances of successful reconciliation and builds a foundation for an evolving, post-conflict legal system in Rwanda.
Others, however, argue that the gacaca courts’ results are mixed. Boston University scholar Tim Longman found that rather than bringing Rwandans together, gacaca courts have reinforced ethnic divisions as they are only used to prosecute crimes committed during the genocide period, to the exclusion of crimes (particularly revenge killings) committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front and by other Tutsis in the years immediately following. Longman summarizes several problems with the gacaca system:

Yet the effectiveness of the gacaca courts was undermined by government interference. The decision to focus gacaca proceedings exclusively on genocide crimes undermined their ability to provide accountability and promote rule of law. Subtle government intimidation compromised the integrity of the courts, leading to the convictions of thousands of individuals on erroneous charges and limited evidence. In the end, gacaca served not so much to bridge the gap between perpetrators and victims as to reinforce the very ethnic divisions that were at the heart of the genocide.

Other scholars corroborate Longman’s findings in this area. Lars Waldorf notes that the gacaca process leaves almost no one happy:

There is little prospect of Tutsi genocide survivors receiving reparations through gacaca. At the same time, the government has prohibited gacaca from providing accountability for war crimes committed by its forces against Hutu civilians. Finally, gacaca is likely to impose collective guilt on most Hutu.

Max Rettig argues that, “gacaca exposes—and perhaps deepens—conflict, resentment, and ethnic disunity.”  Shinichi Takeushi finds that gacaca did little to promote international goals for democratic governance in Rwanda.
A myriad of other problems plagued the gacaca model. Brounéus finds that participation in gacaca proceedings  retraumatized some genocide survivors, and that witnesses who testified in the courts were subject to being harassed and intimidated by other community members. Bert Ingeleare contends that the gacaca system exists more to support established state and local power systems than it does to provide meaningful justice to survivors. Susan Thomson and Rosemary Nagy show that the gacaca process tends to create a climate of fear of the government (publicly challenging the Rwandan government’s official narrative of the genocide is generally illegal under the country’s genocide ideology law) in ordinary Rwandans’ lives rather than empowering their individual efforts to reconcile.
Did gacaca help to reconcile Rwandans, promote democratic governance, or build the country’s legal system and rule of law? Scholars disagree, but the bulk of evidence suggests that the model did not work, at least not yet. Rwanda today is not democratic, citizens have few legal avenues to express dissent or vote in free and fair elections, and the country is governed according to the dictates of the ruling party, not the rule of law.
As for reconciliation, effects of gacaca and other reconciliation efforts are mixed. Some Rwandans have genuinely reconciled while others live in a climate of fear. This should not be surprising. Genuine reconciliation is difficult, and it takes much longer than 20 years to achieve. Slow, at times painful, grass-roots peace building efforts like that of Rwanda’s AMI civil society organization may be the only way to achieve true reconciliation between individuals and within communities for now. However, the question of justice for survivors of all of Rwanda’s forms of violence — and whether that justice was achieved for most via the gacaca process — remains open.
An earlier version of this blog post misidentified Lars Waldorf.