By Caroline Caywood
With the arrival of spring comes a season of change and renewal for the world and its populations. But with this transitional period also comes the anniversary of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century. April 7 has been set aside as a day of memorial for the Rwandan Genocide, an ethnic cleansing that claimed the lives of almost one million individuals, mostly members of the persecuted Tutsi minority and moderate members of the Hutu majority. In recent years, however, Rwanda has made great strides in both social and economic development, especially when compared with other post-genocide states. But what has led to the so-called ‘Rwandan Economic Miracle’? A look into Rwanda’s policy of reconciliation and forgiveness sheds light on the benefits and downsides of the country’s unique confrontation with its past.
With casualties totaling nearly one million lives, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda left behind such deep wounds that it seemed impossible to ever move forward. To reconcile the unimaginable horrors inflicted on the Tutsi population, the nation sought justice through multiple avenues including the UN-instated International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which tried and sentenced those suspected of breaking international humanitarian law, and the Rwandan national court system. Surprisingly, the most effective installment has been Rwanda’s community-level gacaca court system, which found great successes in addressing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and facilitating a policy of openness and forgiveness rather than punishment and revenge.
The gacaca system can be traced back to the 15th century, where it was used in the Kingdom of Rwanda to solve familial or inter-community disputes by bringing the accused before a jury of elders and local leaders with the goal of reconciliation rather than punishment or public humiliation. During the Colonial period, a Western court system was implemented and gacaca fell to the wayside. However, following the outbreak of violence in 1994, the local courts made a strong comeback and have tried over 1.2 million cases related to the genocide. Under this system, local communities elected judges to hear trials of any individual accused of perpetrating the genocide. In this way, the victims’ families were at last offered some closure as the crimes against their loved ones were brought to light. A unique aspect of the grassroots initiative was the opportunity it gave perpetrators to confess their crimes and ask forgiveness while seldom receiving punishment outside of community service.
Although it may seem less effective than a UN-led solution, the grassroots-level justice system in Rwanda has been largely attributed with repairing national unity and facilitating the post-war success of Rwanda, which now has one of the fastest-growing economies in the region. Despite initial skepticism by groups like Amnesty International, the 2002 introduction of gacaca allowed for inter-ethnic discourse and the reintegration of genocide participants back into society. This reintegration helped avoid further ethnic strife and alienation of the Hutu majority, greatly reducing the risk of future violent clashes. When compared with fellow post-genocide nations, Rwanda is an anomaly in growth, equality, and peaceful coexistence of ethnic groups. For example, just one year after the genocide in Rwanda, a campaign of ethnic cleansing took place in Bosnia following similar conditions of ethnic discord and low economic opportunity. More than 20 years later, however, the two countries have gone in completely different directions; Bosnia has high rates of unemployment, ethnic division, and corruption.
The benefits of a locally-based justice system are numerous. However, would this method be a sustainable solution if implemented in other post-conflict nations? The answer is unclear. For starters, the gacaca courts have been a part, however small, of Rwandan society for many centuries, so they were well-received and respected as an answer to the nation’s desperate need for healing. In a country without a well-established national policy of reconciliation rather than revenge, the success of a community court is far from certain. Further, the concept of a community-led trial works only if the society maintains principles of objectivity and unbiased justice. In the case of a highly traditional or patriarchal society, there lies a possibility for unjust ruling against marginalized community members. While the implementation of gacaca proved beneficial in Rwanda’s case, it remains uncertain whether this response to ethnic violence could offer universal post-conflict healing.
In analyzing the arduous aftermath of a national tragedy like that of Rwanda, it is helpful to single out the more unusual aspects of the recovery process to discern if and how these positively affect a nation’s reconstruction. In the case of the gacaca court system, the implementation of reconciliatory policies has lessened ethnic divides and cultures of revenge. It is crucial, however, to address the potential setbacks of such a program and understand that relying on grassroots-level solutions alone is not the most effective way to address a violently polarized society. Coupled with extensive top-down recovery programs and economic growth initiatives, gacaca led Rwandan citizens down a path of remembrance, clarity, and national solidarity.