Restorative Justice and the Gacaca Tribunals in Rwanda: An Investigation of Restorative Justice and Crimes Against Humanity

Nick Jones, University of Calgary

This research involves a field study to observe and document the gacaca courts in Rwanda in action. A documented history of recurring cycles of armed conflict between the Hutu and Tuts factions in Rwanda and the events and aftermath of the genocide of 1994 has left the Rwandan community in a state of ruin. The apparent need for reconciliation and restoration of the Rwandan community combined with other factors including a government mandate requiring individual accountability of those involved in the genocide crimes, the ICTR's (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) and the national genocide courts' inability to meet the legal demands for those currently incarcerated, have together prompted the current Rwandan government to explore alternative judicial practices. The gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha) a traditional Rwandan dispute resolution mechanism has been modified from its historical form and incorporated by the state to serve the dual purpose of expediting the legal requirements of those still awaiting trial and providing the community with a forum for reconciliation and restoration.

This research involves a field study of the gacaca tribunal's capacity for completing this dual function. The gacaca, in its traditional form, had restoration of the community as its primary objective. As such, it displays congruence with philosophies and practices that have been become collectively known as restorative justice. Many proponents of the restorative justice model view it as a viable option to the retributive model most often associated with the criminal justice systems in place in most western societies. Critics, on the other hand, have raised numerous philosophical and practical issues regarding the implementation of practices reflecting a restorative model of justice. To date, the use and study of restorative justice practices encompassing perpetrators of severe acts of violence remains quite limited. The implementation of the gacaca tribunals provides an opportunity to investigate the implementation of a restorative justice strategy in handling violent offenders on a scale that until now was not possible. This research will seek to address both the criticisms launched against such practices and the claims made by its supporters.

The research will involve spending one month in Kigali in two successive years wherein, government officials, those elected to sit on the tribunal as well as, participants from the communities that have been involved in the tribunals will be interviewed. We will also arrange to observe an ongoing tribunals as they occur during our allotted time. The desire for reconciliation, the avoidance of the Arusha courts, the limited use of the national genocide courts, and the election of nearly 250,000 citizens to serve on the tribunals does provide some encouraging signs suggesting the success of the gacaca in delivering on its intended purpose. Nevertheless, it is thought that the success of the gacaca will, in practice, be difficult to attain for a number of reasons. The potential for executions of offenders on a scale never before witnessed, the practices of plea bargaining presently determining individual outcomes a priori, the absence of accountability of the R.P.F. for their alleged offenses, the possible omission of women in the process associated with traditional gacaca, and the presence of power brokers within the communities may severely undermine the attempts for reconciliation and restoration. It is with these concerns, as well as others that mat arise, that this research will investigate the restorative potential of the gacaca courts for restoration in the aftermath of genocide.

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Updated 05/20/2006