The “Gacaca” Courts in Rwanda Twenty Years After the Genocide

Twenty years after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the issue of justice and reconciliation is still critical for Rwanda and the international community.

Besides the international court of Arusha set up in Tanzania by the United Nations to try the perpetrators, Rwanda has also initiated mass trials, and traditional courts, called "Gacaca". Indeed, in Rwanda, the jails were overcrowded with tens of thousands of suspects, and the genocide destroyed the judicial system. In that context, "prisoners - guilty and innocent alike - faced years in detention awaiting trial. Amnesty was not an option given the nature of the crimes but it was clear the formal justice system could not cope either. Part of the solution has been to set up the Gacaca courts" (Walker, 2004). That is how the Gacaca system emerged in the eyes of the new Rwandan government as a possible strategy conducive to bringing justice and reconciliation in Rwanda.


"Gacaca" is a Kiyarwanda concept that represents a lawn where village elders and their community gather for problem solving. Therefore, the Gacaca courts correspond to traditional village based courts. Following the Gacaca process, the genocide suspects "are taken to the villages where they allegedly committed their crimes and confronted directly by their accusers. The trials are not overseen by legally qualified judges but local people respected for their integrity" (Q & A: Rwanda's long search for justice, 2004).

President Paul KagameHowever, the analyst could argue that the Gacaca system constitutes a controversial solution. It has proponents and opponents. The government of Rwanda believes that the Gacaca court is the right solution conducive to bringing justice and reconciliation in the country. Consequently, they encourage it and work for its promotion and implementation. The facts on the ground reflect good evidence of success stories for social reconstruction and peace in Rwanda. In that regard, other African countries should learn from Rwanda's successes in rebuilding the social capital of trust among Rwandan communities. The government can take credit for such success stories. Nevertheless, some questions and doubts emerge regarding the credibility and effectiveness of the Gacaca courts in achieving justice and reconciliation as some stakeholders simply boycott the Gacaca hearings. Observers could hypothesize that some villagers tend to tell the courts what the crowd want to hear. Despite the limitations of the Gacaca courts, the Rwandan government still believes the Gacaca system is the best alternative for reconciliation to happen.

Policy recommendation and criteria for selection

Considering the information from the different stakeholders, analysts would recommend the following policy:

The government of Rwanda could integrate trauma healing and restorative justice practices to the Gacaca courts process. The Gacaca system is already a good starting point since it falls in the cultural practices of Rwanda for problem solving under the elders' supervision. However the Gacaca courts would be more effective if they could take in to consideration restorative justice and trauma healing mechanisms. The genocide survivors need to be healed from the wounds of traumas; they need to recover hope, trust, and the meaning of life, through listening and counseling. Trauma healing is a very important part of any process of reconciliation. Given, the Rwandan situation, a trauma recovery process may help the different stakeholders deal with the pain, anger, and fear generated by the genocide. Restorative justice thinks about crime as violation of individuals, communities, and relationships; justice is to make things right by repairing the harm done, and by healing the wounds that crime causes. The focus is on individuals, their communities, and relationships. Doing justice is healing a person –a victim, by repairing the harm done to that person, and preventing such harm from happening again by helping the offender find a good way for reintegration (Johnstone 2002, Bazemore & Schiff 2001, Zehr 1995).

During the Gacaca process, in addition to listening to the perpetrators confess their crimes before the genocide survivors, the court should also listen to the survivors express their trauma and suffering before the perpetrators. In doing so, the survivors give the perpetrators the opportunity to measure the destructive impact of their crimes on innocent people. Such practice is healing for both parties. It provides the survivors with an opportunity to know the killer and to express their suffering before him/her, expecting the latter to apologize. It give the perpetrator the unique opportunity not only to measure the impacts of his/her crimes, but also to apologize before the victims' relatives. The perpetrators must explicitly express their apology with such a phrase as "I am sorry", showing their remorse and their willingness for repentance.

Such propositions follow an incremental approach based on Rwanda's reconciliation needs and goals. They are inspired by the strategy of the best practices search (Clemons and McBeth, 2001, p.143), taking in to account the stakeholders' concerns. The Gacaca Commission of Rwanda along with the government of Rwanda advocates the implementation of Gacaca for justice and reconciliation. The suggestions made above intends to build on the existing Gacaca practices by integrating the variables of restorative justice and trauma healing. By recommending the integration of restorative justice and trauma healing we rely on the best practices search option. Actually, restorative justice and trauma healing have been implemented with success in New Zealand to handle conflict constructively. Even though New Zealand was not involved in genocide like Rwanda, restorative justice and trauma healing can still be helpful and successful in Rwanda.



Bazemore, G., & Schiff, M. (2001). Restorative Community Justice: Repairing Harm and Transforming Communities. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing.

Clemons, R.S., & McBeth, M.K. (2001). Public Policy Praxis. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Johnstone, G. (2002). Restorative Justice: Ideas, Values, Debates. Portland, OR: Willan Publishing.

Q & A: Rwanda's long search for justice. (2004). Retrieved April 3, 2004 from

Walker, R. (2004). Rwanda still searching for justice. Retrieved April 3, 2004 from

Zehr, H. (1995). Changing Lenses. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.


jacques-koko-newDr. Jacques Koko is Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Salisbury University in Maryland.