Rwandans do the Gacaca

In a three part interview over at ThinkAfricaPress, SOAS lecturer Phil Clark discusses the reality of Gacaca courts in Rwanda, the role of multi-tiered international justice in the Great Lakes, and the standards of evidence for making claims on which Great Lakes country boasts the best goat meet. Discussing the relationship between the Rwandan government and Gacaca courts throughout the country, Clark notes:

The Gacaca Law is quite strict in terms of the types of crimes that can be prosecuted through gacaca. There is an emphasis on genocide crimes, which are strictly defined to ensure that gacaca does not prosecute RPF crimes. The nature of the atrocities and also the timing of those crimes in the Law ensure that RPF atrocities are almost never formally brought to the courts as criminal cases. It is left to the judges to use their own discretion in terms of how they deal with RPF cases if they arise in community discussions. Most judges know fully well how opposed the government is to looking at these particular crimes. What judges tend to do is tolerate the open discussion without actively encouraging it. They tend not to record that evidence once the trial is finished because, of course, judges are concerned that if they transfer the transcripts of the trials back to central authorities and it becomes known that they have allowed open discussions of RPF crimes then they themselves could get into trouble. What goes on during gacaca trials is a reasonably well-hidden secret in a lot of communities.

You get a sense from the human rights literature on gacaca that the process is nothing more than an attempt by a draconian government to control the entire country. Gacaca is usually talked about these days as a tool of centralised power and an attempt to subjugate the Hutu majority. But, particularly in communities on the fringes of the country, gacaca has actually become much less predictable than that. The government may have had certain intentions when it created this justice process – and even those intentions were highly varied – but once it got rolled out to the entire country, communities started to take ownership of the process in ways that the government may not necessarily have agreed with. Pockets of resistance emerge as the process unfolds – it is an important development that most commentators on gacaca have completely overlooked. One of the reasons for that is that a lot of the commentary on gacaca tends to focus on communities very close to Kigali, and tends to focus only on state agency rather than popular actions within the confines of the state. But some of the more interesting developments have happened in places far flung from the capital where state influence decreases.

Clark offers interesting analysis that goes beyond the over-simplified dichotomies of scholarship on Gacaca that either naively champion its grassroots form of justice or accuse it of spectacle and a means for the government to quite dissident populations. Rather, Clark understands that the almighty monolith the Government of Rwanda is often interpreted as, is, well, not quite that monolithic. In its inability to monitor peripheral Gacaca courts throughout the country, Gacaca have taken on a life of their own, one in which participants are forming ‘pockets of resistance’ that defy the traditional narrative on Gacaca courts.

Unfortunately, Clark doesn’t answer the questions that this provocative argument begs. Do these peripheral courts serve as an arena for individuals to test the boundaries of the government and better understand its power and reach? Are the conversations that take place in these courts more representative of a form of justice notably absent from the Gacaca courts in Kigali? How do ethnic relationships in these courts vary when compared to those under the Government’s eye? Do prisoners in those courts still have to wear those ugly pink outfits?

Clark, whose deep expertise in transitional justice in the Great Lakes allows him to provide an interesting perspective on the region, definitely delivers a reading-worthy interview.

1 Comment

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One response to “Rwandans do the Gacaca

  1. You might find this audio recording of a debate with Phil Clark and others on gacaca interesting;

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