After Arusha: Gacaca Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda

by Alana Erin Tiemessen


The epicentre of post-genocide Rwandan society and politics has been the need for reconciliation to assuage ethnic tensions and end a culture of impunity. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has yet to meet its goal of reconciliation in Rwanda: The failure of the tribunal goes beyond its institutional shortcomings and can be attributed the norms of international criminal law that render it an inappropriate response to criminalizing mass violence. The Gacaca courts were resurrected in Rwanda as an indigenous form of restorative justice. The principles and process of these courts hope to mitigate the failures of “Arusha Justice” at the tribunal and seeks to punish or reintegrate over one hundred thousands genocide suspects. Its restorative foundations require that suspects will be tried and judged by neighbours in their community. However, the revelation that Gacaca is a reconciliatory justice does not preclude its potential for inciting ethnic tension it if purports to serve as an instrument of Tutsi power. The state-imposed approach of command justice has politicised the identity of the participants in Gacaca — perpetrators remain Hutus and victims and survivors remain Tutsis. Additionally, the refusal of the Kagame government to allow for the prosecution of RPF crimes to be tried in Gacaca courts empowers the notion that Tutsi survival is preconditioned by Tutsi power and impunity. If Gacaca fails to end the perceptions of impunity in post-genocide Rwanda, it will come at a much higher cost for reconciliation than the failure of the ICTR. The relevance of justice after genocide speaks to the appropriateness of retributive and restorative models of justice in a post-genocide society such as Rwanda. Additionally, the model of justice must be reconciled to the nature of a political regime that imposes unity under an ethnocratic minority.

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Alana Tiemessen┬áis a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She specializes in the politics and conflicts of the Great Lakes Region ( Rwanda in particular) and justice and reconciliation issues in regions that have experienced mass violence or genocide. Her doctoral dissertation will address the effects of retributive and restorative justice models on reconciliation in post-genocide societies such as Rwanda and Cambodia. She recently presented her paper “Rwandan Gacaca: Competing and Collaborating for Justice After Genocide” at the International Studies Association Annual Convention in March 2004.