Closure of Gacaca

18 Jun 2012

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On 18th  June 2012, Rwanda will formally close the Gacaca jurisdictions on the very day of its 10th anniversary. Gacaca proceedings opened in June 2002 as a response to the overwhelming backlog of Genocide-related cases and the severe overcrowding of the prison system.

After a decade, it is fair to say that the Gacaca justice system delivered its intended objectives and provided a solution for the complex nature of the cases related to the 1994 genocide. During these 10 years, Gacaca jurisdictions have tried more than 1.9 million suspects. Far from being “mob” or “vigilante” justice, as many legal critics predicted, about 25% of Gacaca cases have resulted in acquittal. Many prison sentences have been converted into community service, thereby facilitating the reintegration of detainees into society.

The Gacaca experience serves as a lesson for us all.

For the last two decades, the international community has asserted the importance of fighting impunity for serious international crimes. While international efforts to end impunity first led to the establishment of international tribunals, the UN also recognized that national or “homegrown” initiatives should be supported, as they have a  more  direct  and  sustainable  impact  on  affected  populations.  Moreover,  these  initiatives,  often referred to as Transitional Justice, are more cost effective and can more effectively contribute to unity, reconciliation, peace building as well as have a positive effect on broader justice reforms.

For the UN, transitional justice involves “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s  attempt  to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice, and achieve reconciliation”. As such, transitional justice is regarded as a critical component of the UN framework for strengthening the rule of law.

The term “transitional justice” was first coined in the late 1980s, which saw the establishment of justice- related measures and processes designed to expose the truth about gross human rights abuses committed by former dictatorships in Latin America, such as in Argentina and Chile. The truth-seeking model was then adopted with some adjustments in South Africa, whose Truth and Reconciliation Commission  (TRC)  received  high-level  visibility  and  recognition.  Today,  truth  and  reconciliation processes have been conducted  in over 30 countries around the world.

The United Nations has identified five core components of transitional justice, namely, prosecution initiatives, truth and reconciliation processes, reparations, institutional reform, and national consultations. Each of these components should be seen as complementary to one another.

There is still an ongoing debate about  the relative value and integration of each of these mechanisms, which, to some extent also reflects the two main normative strands underpinning transitional justice, that is; individual accountability in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law standards, on the one hand, and reconciliation and the capacity of a society to overcome a legacy of conflict and abuse, on the other. Efforts to address the legacy of past crimes should be viewed as one of the core components of conflict recovery, peace building, and democratic governance strategies. More fundamentally, both transitional justice and development processes often seek to address the root causes of conflict and violence, which often lie in economic, social, cultural exclusion, discrimination and injustice. In other words, from UNDP’s perspective, transitional justice can help build peace, stability, and respect for human rights, all of which are key to human and sustainable development.

The Gacaca process in Rwanda played a key role in advancing peace, stability and reconciliation. Not only did it address the enormous backlog of genocide-related cases and contribute to reducing prison overcrowding, but also  certainly contributed to peace and reconciliation. UNDP has been a strong supporter of Gacaca throughout the process.  UNDP provided US$ 1.6 million to the Service National des Jurisdictions Gacaca for manuals, trainings, advocacy, and documentation of important lessons learned during Gacaca process.

It is important to record and disseminate the lessons learned from  this unique process globally.  It is equally important, however, to preserve the enormous volumes of rich and diverse repository historical material gathered through the Gacaca process. The creation of the Gacaca Documentation Centre in Kigali will be one of the largest archives concerning a mass crime anywhere in the world and will be an invaluable  resource  for  Rwandans  and  foreigners  alike. Even  more importantly, it will also be a reminder to future generations to never let it happen again.