Gacaca and Justice

22 Apr 2011

This week marks the publication of Phil Clark’s landmark book, The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice Without Lawyers. The gacaca process has been highly controversial since it was introduced in 2001, and though the final courts only wound down last year, the legacy will reverberate in Rwanda for decades to come.

I have still to read the book, but refer you to a great authority on Rwanda and the genocide, Gerald Caplan, and a comprehensive and excellent review that he published today in Pambazuka News, Gacaca courts, justice and reconciliation: Challenges for Rwanda.

I would like to highlight here just two extracts of the review, of particular relevance to the views and situation of the survivors:

But readers must not conclude that Clark views everything with rose-colored glasses. He has hopes, but not illusions. He sadly concludes, for example, that ‘reconciliation is at best a distant result in most of the country, although gacaca constitutes an important starting point in this process.’ He bases this judgment in part on the behaviour of the perpetrators. As Jean Hatzfeld also found and powerfully recorded in ‘Machete Season’, only a small minority of confessed killers expressed genuine remorse for their crimes. Most claimed to be either bystanders when crimes were committed or were coerced to kill by their betters. These excuses made many Tutsi more cynical than ever, undermining any possibility of reconciliation.


If we take the context into account, as any sensible observer surely must, almost any successes can be considered a small triumph in a situation where thousands of small triumphs are ultimately needed.

Nor is Clark unaware of the flaws of gacaca, some of them inherent. He believes, as others have argued and has been true of other TRCs, that many accused gamed the system; they confessed to lesser crimes than they actually committed in order to get a lighter sentence. Others baldly lied, denying everything. Accused genocidaires, it seems, organised themselves into ‘syndicates of liars’ who colluded to hide evidence. Survivors have been threatened if they testify, and some witnesses have been killed. All of this is, of course, deeply painful for survivors. But no legal system in the world, not even the most sophisticated, is free of these challenges.

As Caplan and Clark both highlight, the challenges of gacaca were many, and the complexities too. Though without debate is that the campaign for restorative justice for survivors, like the legacy of gacaca, will continue for decades to come.