Gacaca: A successful experiment in restorative justice?
Aug 16, 2012
....The twofold reparative function of restorative justice is, however, crucial and so the extent to which gacaca’s emphasis on ‘truth-telling’ realised its desired outcome is subject to debate. To draw on Johnstone’s conception of restorative justice once again, the fact that gacaca failed to offer something positive, in the form of compensation, to meet the needs of the victims meant part of its reparative function was undermined.
For example, whilst ‘truth-telling’ is believed to be cathartic for victims, evidence of ‘traumatization’ through their testimonies did in many cases incite ‘fear, anxiety and sadness’. Although this may be unavoidable for crimes of such extreme brutality, in order for victims’ engagement in the process of ‘truth-telling’ between victim and perpetrator to hold a healing quality, adequate compensation is needed to empower victims as well to avoid a ‘re-victimization’ of those involved.
Gacaca’s reparative qualities were therefore hindered, as its lack of compensation for victims meant that for many the process failed to ameliorate the damage caused by the crime and instead caused further harm.
Whilst restorative justice promotes the ‘responsibility’ of victims to engage in the process, the lack of compensation for victims renders the participation in gacaca more burdensome than reparative. Moreover, this ‘responsibility’ is a reciprocal tool, used to engage perpetrators, as well as victims, in order for them to accept fully accountability for their actions and comprehend the damage inflicted by their crime. However, it is clear that within gacaca mistakes were incurred on both sides of this principle of responsibility.
Gacaca did prioritise the value of responsibility by perpetrators, yet despite the government’s supposed commitment to ‘[revealing] the truth about what happened’ and ‘[eradicating] the culture of impunity’ the failure to include crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994 proves contradictory to these priorities. As documented by one relative of a victim of RPF crimes;
“the biggest problem with gacaca is the crimes we can’t discuss…even though the families need to talk… We’re told to be quiet on these matters…It’s not justice”.
....Gacaca, evidently, cannot be called a successful experiment in restorative justice. The gacaca system did not contain a strong enough reparative element, whilst the reparative qualities that it did possess were restricted by factors of capacity such as a lack of legal expertise within the system, and sufficient support and compensation for victims. Gacaca clearly prioritised the role of responsibility and accountability in order to stop the culture of impunity in Rwanda, yet because gacaca operated within a society still ravaged by ethnic divisions, the system served to further polarise these divides by collectivising guilt.
Whereas restorative justice aims to individualise responsibility, the external political and societal factors surrounding gacaca served to contradict this aim, potentially fostering further resentment and entrenching cyclical violence. These factors fundamentally undermined the potential of gacaca to harmonise Rwandan society, evinced by the ‘negative peace’ of contemporary Rwanda.
However, there was no precedent for how to invoke a system of restorative justice which could effectively deal with the effects of genocide. Gacaca was never likely to gauge accurately the necessary responses to such an extreme event. Even though experiments such as gacaca were drawn from traditional practises of restorative justice within Rwandan communities, in a global political realm gacaca was still very much a new phenomenon, and therefore it is still taking root as an effective method of delivering justice.
Experiments such as gacaca are needed by the international political community, and its failings are constructive to a realisation of what can constitute a successful model of restorative justice. Whilst gacaca cannot be considered a successful experiment, it has successfully outlined a path for the realisation of an improved practice of restorative justice.