Muraho, Rwanda! (Hello, Rwanda!)

This week, I have been seriously back into writing my Rwanda material up for my book on Violence and its Legacies. I think it’s a lucky week to be doing this, because today, President Paul Kagame officially opened the “real” start of the work of the country’s gacaca court system. (That’s “ga-cha-cha”, for an English speaker.)
This story from Hirondelle News Agency gives a very good, succinct explanation of how the gacaca courts will work.
If you’re really interested in the gacaca courts, you should look at this September 2003 report, the latest in a series of very well-researched studies produced by Penal Reform International. (It’s long!)
For an exploration of some of the theoretical issues involved in the Kigali government’s attempts to deal with the sequelae of the genocide, you can look at this Boston Review article of mine, that ran a couple of years ago.
The gacaca courts are special organs of “popular justice” whose job is to deal with the more than 100,000 residents of the country who are accused of having taken a low- to mid-level part in the 1994 genocide. Their operation is certainly not without its problems–this is putting it mildly!–but establishing them has been the best way Kagame’s government could devise for dealing with that huge number of suspects. Many of the suspects have been detained in the country’s badly overcrowded prison system for eight or nine years by now without having had any chance of having the allegations against them tested in a judicial proceeding.
In the PRI study, the researchers identified the following big challenges that emerged during the lengthy “pilot” phase of the gacaca courts:

    The first problem, which is fundamental in a participative justice system such as the Gacaca, is proving to be the lack of participation of the population in the sessions. The low level of participation is felt both in terms of physical presence (delayed sessions, most of the population not showing up) and contributing towards difficulty in establishing the truth (with the exception of the Murama section). People are afraid of testifying or assuming their responsibilities; the rumours and confrontations during the sessions create a strong feeling of insecurity (real or imaginary). Only the prisoners have no hesitation in confessing. However, the latter, who are often perceived to be arrogant for many reasons, only increase the feelings of unease and mistrust
    that the population may have in relation to the Gacaca.
    What is also problematic is the delay in two programmes connected to the Gacaca — compensation and community service…

Let’s hope that some of the steps taken since that report was published last September make things work a little more smoothly from here on.
I note that the total estimated budget for completing the work of the gacaca courts is around $75 million. Which for around 100,000 accused persons comes to a per-person processing cost of $750.
I have also done quite a lot of work researching the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. (Check out this article, published late last year). There, the budget over the court’s nearlyly ten years of operation so far has been somewhere just over $1 billion, and it has completed the processing (main trial plus appeal) of some 12 cases… The ICTR is hoping to complete the processing of all 65 cases on its docket by 2008, by which time the budget will have gone to about $1.5 billion. Per-person processing cost: about $23 million.
Yes, those 65 cases include some (but not all) of the “worst” ringleaders of the genocide. But still, the work of the ICTR–as of the lumberingly inefficient regular criminal-court system inside Rwanda–has eaten up massive amounts of resources. The hoped-for case-processing “efficiency” of the gacaca courts is of non-trivial value to a society as impoverished as Rwanda’s.
…And still in the domain of international criminal tribunals, I see from this BBC story that the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has announced that his unit’s first big investigation will be into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It will be really interesting to see where those investigations lead–especially since there’s a distinct possibility they might lead to the capitals of Rwanda and Uganda, as well as of the DRC itself.
One piece of good news, however: Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo has declared that both President Kabila of DRC and President Kagame of Rwanda have agreed to a meeting, to be held shortly in the Nigerian capital Abuja, where it is hoped they will be able to de-escalate the currently deadly tensions between them.
So let’s all hope that meeting goes really well, and that the gacaca courts go well, also.

2 thoughts on “Muraho, Rwanda! (Hello, Rwanda!)”

  1. When we met, you mentioned some of the logistical problems with the gacaca courts, e.g., that there were too many of them and that poor attendance prevented some of them from functioning. It seems that some of the reforms recently announced by Kagame might exacerbate these problems, given that he plans to eliminate the courts at the higher levels rather than consolidating some of the cell-level courts. Do you think there’s any prospect of procedural reforms that might help the courts run more smoothly?

  2. On the other hand, reducing the numbers of judges needed and a couple of his other tweaks to the system might help it along substantially… Honestly, I don’t know, and I feel I’m too distant from the situation to make a definitive judgment. My fear is, though, that the continuing, long-drawn-out emphasis on establishing evry individual’s precise “accountability” for what happened during that frenzy of violence in 1994 will just end up perpetuating the internal divisions, the resentment, fear etc…
    The gacaca courts have very strong “re-educative” role… to attempt to almost coercively “re-educate” the Hutus. Kagame’s approach is a sort of melding of Maoist views on this score with the heavy Christian emphasis on the virtues of confession and the need for confession before there is “absolution”.
    Human experience suggests that this re-educative effort may well backfire… I can see that many western-educated and western-influenced people believe deeply in the concept of the total accountability of individuals for all their actions; but i do think the attempt to establish this on a full and complete basis so soon after the genocide is counter-productive to the goal of reconciliation. (Didn’t we talk about how it took the Germans some 20-30 years after ’45 before most of them were really prepared to go back and examine their own and their families’ responsibilities for the Holcaust? And that was AFTER German society more or less got back on its feet economically.)
    No easy answers in Twanda. That, I know.

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