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By Rutagengwa Claude Shema

Regional Coordinator

Great Lakes Peace Initiative (GLPI)



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Meaning and Background:

Between April and July 1994, Rwanda went through one of History‘s darkest periods; an estimated more than one million Rwandans were brutally killed by fellow Rwandans in a very systematic state planned genocide unheard of in recent history

Confronted with the prospect of sharing power with exiles fighting for the right of return, the regime in Kigali at the time marshaled all its resources, including masses in Rwanda ’s country side and mobilized them to kill in groups so that none would be individually held responsible for genocide at the end of the day.

Ten years after, the legacy of the genocide lays heavy on the Rwanda government.

Even after the recent presidential decree pardoning the sick, elderly and the young , there remain over 80,000 people sitting in Rwanda’ s prisons awaiting trial for genocide charges and other crimes against humanity .

The sheer number of cases would clog even the world’s most developed legal system .And, for Rwanda , whose legal system was devastated by the genocide; the caseload would take centuries to sort through.

Alternative Path

In an attempt to quicken the trial process and dispense justice to a country that badly needs it, Rwanda has resurrected its age - old community based approach in resolving disputes and allowing reconciliatory justice .This path is what is called GACACA.

Originally, gacaca derives its name from a type of short and clean grass known in Kinyarwanda ( Rwanda ’s national language ) , as UMUCACA.

Long before the colonial period, Rwandans would elect well respected elders in their community known as Inyangamugayo in Kinyarwanda, who would sit on umucaca - covered ground to resolve disputes or among certain members of the community, thus the name GACACA.

Another symbol of this word also is that people used to gather in neutral place, like "no man's land".This facilitated really both sides and helped people feel in neutral environment, and lead to openness somehow.



Modern Gacaca

Post -genocide gacaca however is different from its predecessor. Judges are elected from within the community to sit on 9- member Panels in gacaca sessions , with the mission not of settling petty disputes , but of hearing and recording testimonies from community members who saw and witnessed what happened during the genocide ; who killed who , who stole what , and so on .

The judges, known also as Inyangamugayo , will later on, after gathering enough data, sit in community gacaca courts in their respective villages and preside over trials of genocide suspects, depending on categories.

Will Gacaca handle all Genocide- Related Cases?

In 1996, the Rwanda parliament enacted and voted a genocide law dividing genocide suspects into 4 categories:

Category 1; this is comprised of suspects whose deeds during the genocide put them among the planners, organizers, instigators, leaders and supervisors of the genocide.

Category 2; is comprised of suspects who participated in physical attacks that resulted into the death of the victim

Category 3; suspects accused of terrible assaults that did not result into the death of some one.

Category 4; genocide suspects accused of looting, theft or other crimes related to property.

Gacaca courts have got only jurisdiction over genocide suspects that fall between categories 2 and 4 .Each gacaca jurisdiction is made up of a general assembly, a coordinating committee, a seat and a president.

A gacaca court general assembly is comprised of every adult (18 years and above) who must be residents within a cell in which that particular court sits.

Under the denomination of "Gacaca Courts", this system should be able to meet the following expectations :

- The reconstruction of what happened during the genocide

- The speeding up of the legal proceedings by using as many courts as possible

The reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity


Since the beginning of these courts, so many cases have been judged so far. But some difficulties as usual have been reported.

Among others: lack of experience of traditional judges, lack of motivations to both side, judges and the participants in Gacaca process, and some other related difficulties. But the key problem now is that a number of people also are claiming that Gacaca should also judge the RPF (former rebellion on power today) soldiers for crimes against humanity committed by those soldiers during the liberation war(1990-1994).

According to Gacaca law, those people are right, since Gacaca related Organic Law stipulates that "Gacaca courts judge people who committed crimes against humanity in Rwanda in the period between 1990-1994 genocide".

"I agree and regret that my husband was involved in genocide crimes, but he was killed also by RPF soldiers, and reason why me too, my case as widow, should be taken into consideration as the same with survivors of the genocide" - Testmony of a woman in Gacaca court-Eastern province of Rwanda.

Normally, in the past, Gacaca was considered a neutral court, but nowadays it has been modernised in order to meet all expectations. And of course, sometimes Gacaca must not go beyond the needs of authorities.(…),or so called expectations.

This is different really from the Gacaca court in the past. But also, we have to face realities that in the past, Gacaca was not facing big crimes like Genocide.There is also the fact that opposition would be behind this issue. Otherwise, the Rwandan leaders also should think about this because it will be the only way towards real reconciliation among Rwandese, if not a number of people will always consider Gacaca as penal court against hutu, since a number of hutu were involved in genocide on one hand, and some tutsi soldiers committed war crimes against some hutu on another hand.

What is the difference between Gacaca and ICTR?

Lets try to get a look on this table below. We will then understand more the difference between Gacaca and International Criminal Tribunal to Rwanda.



Institutional Component Restorative Justice Norms:


Retributive Justice Norms:


Goal Justice for reconciliation; ending impunity is secondary Justice to end impunity; reconciliation is secondary
Venue Local Communities Isolation from participants to avoid victor’s justice
Due Process Primacy of truth telling Primacy of rules and procedures; defendant’s rights
Establishing Guilt Confession; Community Consensus Judgement
Burden of Proof Testimony/Accusations Testimony; investigation
Compensation for Victims Depends on nature of crime None
Judiciary Respected community members Independent
Punishment Imprisonment; reintegration Imprisonment
Process Trials; negotiations Trials

Very good theory, but difficulty in the field. Hopefully in the future it will improve and reach the goal of sustainable reconciliation between former Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, since it is only the hope for both sides (killers and survivors community), and this court, will be worth if it doesn’t reach its aims. If so,no hope to hopelessness.