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.