Are the Gacaca courts in Rwanda delivering reconciliation? This article, based on extensive field research, argues that the modern incarnation of this traditional form of justice is short-circuiting reconciliation by enforcing values and processes that run counter to established societal practices. In reality, the Gacaca courts are becoming more the tools of entrenched elites to manipulate society than a viable means of establishing truth and administering justice. As currently operating, this legal mechanism is delivering neither justice nor reconciliation and deserves closer scrutiny and greater scepticism from donors.
In the years following the 1994 genocide, retributive justice and reconciliation were seen as mutually exclusive objectives by the Rwanda government. Yet within five years, the importance of reconciliation for moving Rwanda beyond the tragedy led many to accept it as a vital national goal. The Gacaca meeting, a traditional conflict resolution mechanism that existed in Rwanda before colonial rule, became the chosen mechanism. To facilitate the process of justice the system was reformed, with an onus placed on the ‘surfacing of truth’ primarily through confession and/or denunciation. The ‘truth’ is used as the source of information available to identify (the nature of) guilt or innocence, to conduct trials of the accused, to disclose locations to exhume victims, to identify reparation modalities, to generate knowledge on the past in general, and to reconfigure and re-establish social relations.
Evidence from 20 months of fieldwork in Rwandan villages suggests that this emphasis on uncovering ‘truth’ has undermined progress toward reconciliation in Rwanda for a variety of reasons. These include the following:
- By forcing people to engage in formal court proceedings, it short-circuited an emerging natural reconciliation process arising from co-habitation
- It has spread widespread mutual distrust as neighbours are encouraged to denounce neighbours in the name of ‘truth’
- Its reliance on foreign concepts of truth and justice has discouraged popular participation and spread confusion as to the nature of the information and ‘truth’ that is being sought
- It has allowed elites, particularly the government, to manipulate history by distorting facts.
Surveys conducted in rural villages demonstrate a perception of an absence of the ‘truth’ from victims, perpetrators and bystanders, revealing that factual knowledge on the past is largely missing and that resocialisation and reconciliation – the healing dimension of ‘truth’-telling – is not easily forthcoming. In light of this evidence, donors should:
- Reassess their support for the Gacaca system in its current form, given its limitations in delivering fact-based accounts of genocide events
- Question the way in which these courts are being used to propagate misinformation and perpetuate old animosities
- Think of different ways to stimulate reconciliation through means that do not run counter to established social norms and cultural practices.