Saturday, March 12, 2005

In Rwanda, perfect is not an option

On Wednesday, I praised the work of the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. The next day, similiar justice began in Rwanda, with the opening of the Gacaca courts.

Gacaca are community based courts, based on traditional practices that promote reconciliation between the perpetrator and the community. Though significantly different from western-style punitive justice, the gacaca are necessary to deal with the over 100,000 people accused of genocide or related acts that still languish in Rwanda's jails... nearly 11 years after the horror.

Focusing on confession and apology, the Gacaca courts are also intended to facilitate national reconciliation as those who confess and plead guilty could have their sentences reduced, notes the UN's IRIN service. Gacaca, meaning grass in the local Kinyarwanda language, was traditionally used by village communities who would gather on a patch of grass to resolve conflicts among families, employing the heads of each household as judges.

Gacacas will focus mainly on the underlings, as national courts and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (located in Arusha, Tanzania) deal with the higher ups. "They have started with suspects who fall under category two, who include mainly people that took orders to kill from their superior," Anastase Balinda, head of documentation in the national service of the Gacaca jurisdictions, told IRIN. Trials started in 751 village courts where for the past two years thousands of suspects have been questioned by locally elected judges, sitting as investigative panels.

Some human rights groups question the due process safeguards of the gacaca. Many fear the mob mentality may taint some gacaca or that the accused will face undue pressure to confess. Others worry of a whitewash, as the gacaca are apparently not allowed to consider crimes committed by the then-rebel RPA (now the RPF ruling party).

The gacaca system is not perfect. Yet perfect is not an option in the present circumstances. There are 100,000 people still in Rwandan jails. Close to a million people perished during the 1994 genocide and countless others fled into exile, including a disproportionate of the educated elite of which the official legal system is comprised. Trying the 100,000 accused through the 'normal' legal system would take forever and they would remain in jail indefinitely. Is that fair?

Given the lack of serious alternatives, the gacaca, however imperfect, is clearly the best way to expedite justice in Rwanda and help the country move forward.


At 1:56 PM, Blogger Niobium said...

Without knowing much about the system, I make this comment cautiously. It sounds like a good way to get perpatrators of crimes against humynanity to face up to their actions.

The US penal system relagates a criminal to jail. Does this "rehabiliate" the prisoner? No. And such crime and punishment are unequally metered out in the US, it seems to me that would be a great way to get CEOs to answer for their crimes.

Imagine if the CEO from Enron had to sit before a panel consisting of the people and families that he stole money from? Or is Hilter sat before a group of Jews? How do they answer the victims?


At 2:58 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Ni, good question. The United States is a very macho society. The criminal justice system is really more based on the punitive aspect than on the rehabilative or restorative aspects.

The phrase "paying for one's crime" really has more to do with making the criminal suffer than doing anything to make amends or face up in some small way for what he's done. Perhaps this is why recidivism is so high amongst ex-convicts.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Niobium said...

I agree about making the criminal suffer for his/her crimes rather than actually punishing the criminal. But punishing isn't the answer.

The US penal system doesn't rehabiliate law breakers, all they do is confine them which makes the persyn all the more angry. And since most criminals, who are repeat offenders, don't have an adequate education or job skills that allpw the individual to make a sustainable income, it becomes a vicious cycle pertetuated daily.

And that's the real crime.


At 5:24 AM, Blogger TheMalau said...

I also agree that the Gacaca courts are a much needed supplement to the western-based ICTR. It will be faster, and it might even bring some level of closure and reconciliation.

That said, nothing is going to overcome the insiduous effecs of Kagame's de-facto assimilation of everything even remotely Hutu-empowering, as a return to ethnic hatred. As a result you have a frustrated majority in th country, that feels suppressed and under attack by their own government. When they dare to call the government on thei ethnic favoritism, the government calls them sectarians. It's a dangerous vicious cycle that is unlikely to breed reconciliation...

In that context, and with the RPF/A exactions not investigated or tried, I am hopeful yet skeptical of the success of these proveedings. Cross your fingers.


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