Meeting in Kigali, capital of a nation torn asunder by Genocide, MPs from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific met to discuss trade and development issues. They were in Rwanda for the ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly. A workshop discussed Rwanda's attempts to find justice for the hundreds of thousands killed in the 1994 genocide through traditional open air "Gacaca" courts. The situation in neighbouring DR Congo, natural disasters and healthcare were also discussed.
Meaning literally "Justice on the grass" the Gacaca court system is based on traditional Rwandan ways of settling disputes. Villages elders usually act as mediators and try to find a solution that must be respected by everyone. If someone is found guilty then "punishment" usually involves an act of Contrition.
This method was first used in 2002 for victims of the Genocide. In the summer of 1994 Hutu extremists launched a wave of terror against Rwanda's minority Tutsi population and moderate Hutu's. Estimates of the number of people killed in the slaughter range from 500,000 to 1 million - all of this in a country of around 9 million people. It was only brought to an end when a Tutsi led army based in DR Congo invaded the country and overthrew the militia.
The Genocide turned neighbour against neighbour and left the social and judicial fabric of the country devastated. In the wake of the terror the prison and court system were overwhelmed by 100,000 people in jail on suspicion of involvement in the massacres.
The mission of the Gacaca courts is to search for "truth" and "reconciliation" so that similar atrocities do not happen in the future. The Judges at Gacaca courts can impose life sentences on suspects.
MEP praises Gacaca justice for helping victims find relatives
The MEP who chaired the session on the Gacaca courts praised the role they can play in reconciliation and in helping people find the bodies of their relatives. Irish MEP Gay Mitchell (EPP-ED) said that "it was a privilege to chair the session on Gacaca courts and hear directly from the Minister for Justice on how the system works. The entire judicial system was completely destroyed in the Rwanda genocide".
He went on to say that "given the enormity of the massacre, it proved impossible to try those accused of participating in the genocide through conventional courts. Five years after the massacre, only 6,000 of the 120,000 detainees were tried. At that rate, it would have taken more than a century to try all suspects".
A crucial part of the success of the Gacaca courts is their legitimacy in a country that has suffered so much sectarian division. As Mr Mitchell pointed out "85% of the population actively participates in these courts, including administrative and religious authorities and civil society".
The process also has a practical purpose as "it helps the victims of the genocide to find out where the bodies of their relatives are, so that they can bury them with dignity".
ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly explained
The ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly brings together representatives from 78 countries from across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. The European dimension is supplied by the participation of 78 MEPs from the European Parliament.
The Assembly meets twice a year for a Plenary session, alternating between locations in the EU and either an African, Caribbean or Pacific county.
Further information :
- ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly
- ACP-EU June 2006
- Profile of Gay Mitchell MEP
- Parliament's Development Committee
- Government of Rwanda