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The Gacaca: Rwanda's Bold Experiment in Reconciliation
an article by David Adams

Ten years ago, extremist officials told Rwanda's Hutus to "do their work" and kill their neighbors. Up to 500,000 did so. They used machetes and guns to slaughter nearly a million people, mainly Tutsis. At the end of the genocide, jails were crammed with more than 130,000 suspects awaiting trial. It was clear that the formal justice system could not cope. Rather than adopting the European system of punishment based on an "eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth," Rwanda has chosen to build on African traditional justice systems based on truth and reconciliation, like that of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see CPNN story).

The Rwandan tradition is called "gacaca" (pronounced "ga-cha-cha").

The gacaca was formally launched by Rwandan President Paul Kagame on June 24, although it has been under preparation for several years and will take several more years to complete, according to an Internet report by the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

Gacaca courts are set up at the village level, giving citizens, prisoners, and families of victims an opportunity to face each other before a panel of locally elected judges to discuss their roles and experiences during the 100 days of genocide. The judges then issue verdicts. This very "subjective" view of justice is very different from European systems that try to make justice "objective," removing the deliberations to huge marble buildings far from the common people and using professional lawyers whose fees are more affordable by the rich and judges who are considered to be "objective" but who are often appointed on political grounds.

Preparations for the gacaca has involved the people of this small country for several years, requiring the training of 169,000 locally elected judges in 9000 jurisdictions.

A story in the Christian Science Monitor in April illustrates with an example how the holding of the gacaca at the village level can empower the local community to break barriers of silence and change the power relations to build a base for future justice.

Another story from the website of the United Bibles Society tells how the gacaca can lead in some cases to true forgiveness and reconciliation.

We need to follow the course of the gacaca over the next few years to see if we can learn about justice from the African people and their traditions.


Question(s) related to this article:

:Reconciliation in the Great Lakes region, Can we learn from their experience?

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Latest reader comment:

This question pertains to the following articles:

The Gacaca: Bold Experiment in Reconciliation

Students learn from SEP in Rwanda

This report was posted on October 5, 2004.