What is “Gacaca”?

In Rwanda on September 7, 2009 at 2:14 pm

In a previous post, I described why scholars of apologetic rhetoric should study Rwanda and the apologetic exchanges in the gacaca trials. It occurs to me, however, that many people are not familiar with these trials or why they’re important. So in this post, I provide a brief overview of the system and what it aims to achieve.

In 1996, the Rwandan government first established Rwandan courts to “try genocide crimes and massacres or crimes against humanity, committed from October 1, 1990” under Organic Law No. 08/96 (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004, p. 4). However, due to the overwhelming number of genocide-related cases awaiting trial, the Rwandan government later enacted Organic Law No. 40/2000 in January 2001. This new law formed the gacaca trial system and described in detail the “organization and prosecution of offences constituting the crime of genocide and massacres or other crimes against humanity, committed between October 1, 1990 and December 31, 1994” through the Gacaca Jurisdiction (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004, p. 5).

The gacaca system that was instituted was based on a traditional model for resolving disputes in Rwanda. Loosely translated as “judgment of the grass,” gacaca trials in pre-colonial times consisted of community members arguing their disputes over land, cattle, marriage, loans, and property to a panel of judges made up of community elders (Tiemessen, p. 61). In essence, these traditional courts used arbitration to achieve “a settlement that was accepted by both parties to the dispute” as well as to restore “tranquility within the community” (Le Mon, 2007, p. 16).

Although today’s gacaca system is founded on the historical ideals of the traditional courts, its mandate and legitimacy is drastically different. To begin with, the newly formed gacaca system includes community members as judges and witnesses, but it is sanctioned and legally mandated by the national government. Participation is not voluntary nor is it as informal as it was the pre-colonial system. Instead, the Gacaca Jurisdiction that oversees the system has stated that it is the duty of every Rwandan to participate in the trials of their community (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004). In fact, the organic law creating the gacaca system includes provisions to prosecute any individuals who refuse to participate or give testimony (Ngesi & Villa-Vicencio, 2003).

According to the system today, criminals involved in genocide-related violence and destruction of property can receive the alternative punishment of community service rather than an extended prison sentence if they offer a truthful confession of their criminal actions, followed by repentance and an apology (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, n.d.). In that sense, the modern gacaca system mirrors its pre-colonial predecessor’s emphasis on apologies as integral to the reconciliation process (Rwembeho, n.d.).

In short, the the Gacaca Jurisdictions—which oversee the gacaca trials—have five main goals: (1) to “reveal the truth on the genocide events,” (2) to try the overwhelming number genocide crimes more quickly, (3) to “eradicate the culture of impunity,” (4) to help reconcile Rwandans and strengthen the unity of communities, and (5) to demonstrate that Rwanda is capable of solving its own problems without outside intervention or direction (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004, p. 5).

To accomplish those goals, the process was divided into two phases. The first phase involved the collection of information about the genocide (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004, p. 5). Essentially, this phase consisted of fact-finding projects throughout the country to document all of the crimes that were believed to have taken place leading up to and during the genocide—including identifying suspects and witnesses, recording the offenses and names of victims, and determining the appropriate category of each offense (Tiemessen, 2004, p. 61). The second phase of the Gacaca Jurisdictions’ activities consisted of trying the cases against the accused perpetrators (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004, p. 6).

  1. Can you switch font colors so text is white and links are grey? Hard to read…


    • Thanks for the feedback. I’ve made the text a very light gray in this post. I’ll test this approach out before I worry about editing the CSS to make the change global.

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