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Rebuilding Rwanda: Gacaca Trials

September 27, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about local Rwandan traditions of Ubudehe—collective participation in agriculture, which had transformed into a collective exercise in determining needs—and Imihigo—a method of empowering the citizenry in local politics by holding political leaders accountable. Both have been central to Rwanda’s reconstruction, but they aren’t alone. In addition to Ubudehe, Umuganda constitutes a community process of coming together to work on community projects; this has been adapted to stimulate labor-intensive public works, which brings people together and also creates jobs. Umusanzu is another traditional practice n Rwanda, which stresses supporting the needy; since the genocide and subsequent civil unrest, Umusanzu has shifted to support education in poorer regions and in promoting health initiatives. I suspect one could spill a lot of ink examining the modernization of these traditional practices, but I think it is interesting and important to note that a big part of Rwanda’s reconstruction has stemmed from its own practices and returning to them.

My focus for this post, though, is another Rwandan tradition, tweaked to address the aftermath of the genocide. The Gacaca (Ga-cha-cha) Trials represent a distinctly Rwandan method of conflict resolution. The process encourages suspects to confess their crimes and seems to be widely accepted as legitimate. An October 2008 study published by the Joint Governance Assessment asserted:

The Gacaca system is widely perceived as a step towards national reconciliation and appears to command popular legitimacy despite recognition of its shortcomings. In view of the overwhelming caseload, there as probably no viable alternative, and Rwanda deserves much credit for addressing a daunting challenge in an impressive, ordered and consensual manner.

By the middle of 2009, more than a million cases had been completed. In comparison, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had completed 45 cases at the cost of several billion dollars.

Gacaca is the Kinyarwanda word for grass, since the trials are symbolically held outdoors. This is important; it implies an openness to the proceedings and it suggests participation from the public that might exist in theory—though less in practice—in more formal judicial proceedings in courtrooms. Courtrooms are in cities; these trials take place throughout the countryside.

The Gacaca process is not without its critics within the human rights community. Amnesty International has objected to the absence of proper legal representation for defendants and that many of the judges lack the kind of training that such serious undertakings require (see, for example, here). Rwandan officials have responded that in the absence of trained legal experts, these trials do an effective job of marrying pragmatism and tradition.

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