Community restorative justice and the Rwandan genocide

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meditative, Social impact, Travel, Uncategorized

As part of a several week safari through East Africa, I had the chance to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda’s capital city.

Many of us–especially in the West– are likely familiar with the Rwandan genocide from news in the 1990s, or maybe from the excellent movie Hotel Rwanda. This cursory knowledge (similar to what I had going in) cannot prepare you for the sadness and horror documented by this wonderful museum, a tribute to history as well as the victims. Some estimates put the death toll of the genocide at over 10% of Rwanda’s 1994 population. UNICEF estimated that 80% of Rwandan kids experienced a death in the family in 1994 (cited at the Memorial, and also here). Such a scale of violence is made further shocking by the fact that it occurred within the short span of a mere 100 days (BBC, and elsewhere).

One of the (many) questions that nagged me leaving the memorial was: how does a country, a community, repair itself from such trauma?  I was especially intrigued to read up on Gacaca and community restorative justice.

Gacaca is one of the processes Rwanda used post-genocide to address strained relations within affected communities. The name ‘Gacaca’ comes from the place where the process — dating back to the 15th century– historically took place: in Kinyarwanda it refers to “a bed of soft green grass” (history here).

The Gacaca courts came to play a very large role in the post-genocide justice process, processing almost 2 million cases from 2005-2012, according to a HRW 2014 report. Extensive research, by the Human Rights Watch and others, has demonstrated the problems encountered by giving this process so much weight, and incommensurate support. The locally-elected judges often had little training, community members did not feel safe speaking freely, (even the wrongly) accused were often without means of defense, and the government did not honor promises of reparations to survivors (HRW brief). *

However, the process also highlights the potentials of community-based reconciliation. As the HRW report and the Kigali Memorial highlight, the Gacaca was in many cases the only place for survivors to learn what had happened to their slain relatives. If people admitted to the murders or showed the survivors where bodies could be found, there was sometimes reduced sentencing. No doubt the prospect of honesty was a powerful first step– key if insufficient– in restoring trust.

Interestingly, while the Gacaca process attempted to act both as a court and a healing venue, the two aims are often tackled separately. In many applications of community restorative justice repairing harm is divorced from direct legal application. Indeed, the use of community restorative justice as a healing mechanism is being employed today in the United States, to address long-standing racial conflict. The Ferguson Truth-Telling Project (FTP) is one recent example, formed after the death of Michael Brown. As longtime activist Fania Davis has said of these structures:

“Healing is long, slow work. But if we start with authentic truth-telling and engage in an inclusive search for solutions, we can begin to transform relationships and move step-by-step down the path to reconciliation.” (Fania Davis in Yes Magazine)

These processes may choose legal outcomes to advocate toward in a reparation of harm, but their work is oriented first and foremost toward victims.

Looking at the country I’ve grown up in as well as one I simply passed through I continue to be animated by the question: How does a country, a community, repair itself from a deep trauma?

Twenty-two years after the Rwandan genocide many local needs remain. In addition to the Gacaca process, international and national courts worked to prosecute perpetrators of the genocide. Rwanda’s Unity and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1999, has also developed programs including peace education, human rights summits, trauma counseling, and research (more information here via the UN). Their work — and that of the individuals and communities involved– continues.

Have you seen community restorative justice in action? If so I’d love to hear about it!



*Human Rights Watch shares numerous examples and recommendations from its multi-layered primary research observing cases and interviewing participants in these 2014 and 2011 reports.




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