Ten years after trying close to two million cases, Gacaca Traditional Courts were formally closed on June 18, during a high level ceremony in which the community courts were described as the 'greatest judicial success ever' for Rwanda.
Gacaca courts started its work on June 18 2002, with an aim of trying hundreds of thousands of pending genocide cases at a time when jails were overflowing with over 120, 000 genocide prisoners.
The traditional courts closed after trying some 1,951,388 cases at a budget of $40 million. Speaking at the event at the Parliament in Kigali, which was attended by international scholars and legal experts, President Kagame said that the Gacaca local courts had achieved what the UN tribunal set up to try top genocide architects in Arusha failed to do despite spending a hefty $1.7 billion.
"Gacaca, granted, had its imperfections. It received criticism both from within and outside Rwanda, yet those criticizing offered no viable alternatives that could deliver the results we needed," said the president. "Despite all this, Gacaca has served us very well, and even exceeded our expectations." To emphasise his point, the Rwandan leader said that the success of Gacaca courts should be measured against those of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which has so far tried slightly over 60 cases.
"Yet, at significantly less cost, the Gacaca process has had the highest impact in terms of cases handled, and has delivered justice and reconciliation at a much higher scale," said President Kagame. "For us, the lessons of Gacaca go beyond justice and embrace facets of national life. Gacaca has empowered Rwandans in ways few could have envisaged. It has illustrated the liberating value of truth."
President Kagame hailed the courts for restoring unity and reconciliation among Rwandans at a time when pain and revenge were fresh in people's hearts. He said that the Gacaca process affirmed the country's ability to find answers to its seemingly insurmountable challenges.
"Gacaca has been at the heart of our unity and reconciliation process," he said, adding that nations at some point need to come up with 'unconventional innovations' to address deal with the unique challenges they face.
Rwanda's Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said that Rwanda was faced with major challenges of providing redress to the victims, bringing justice to perpetrators, while at the same time maintaining harmony in society after the genocide.
"The starting of Gacaca as an option was not easy. After brainstorming and a policy was approved that Gacaca would try the cases, there was total rejection by the Rwandans and the international community, scholars and lawyers. But most importantly, genocide survivors were by and large against the idea," Karugarama said.
However, the minister said that when the court started their work, people slowly started accepting it and it eventually went on to become a case study for international researchers and scholars on justice. According to Minister Karugarama, Gacaca remains one of the biggest achievements of the post-genocide government.
Only 37, 000 individuals who committed serious crimes remain in prisons across the country, while a big majority that sought forgiveness have been handed lenient or alternative sentences.
While the achievements of Gacaca have been applauded, some scholars maintain that the community courts were not without flaws. Corruption and lack of thorough investigation of cases were among the challenges identified.
The Executive Secretary of the National Gacaca Jurisdiction Domitille Mukantaganzwa pointed out that one of the major challenges for the courts was that some of the judges selected and trained later turned out to be genocide perpetrators themselves.
"At the start, we had many judges who were later to be found to have participated in the genocide themselves. There were also complaints of corruption registered during the process but they were later to be ironed out and the culprits dealt with," Mukantaganzwa said.
The former Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation Prof. Jan Pronk, who was in office at the time the courts were set up, praised the traditional courts, saying that while the Rwandan situation was unique, possibilities of whether such an idea could be applicable in Kenya, northern Uganda, Sudan or elsewhere should be explored.
The veteran Dutch politician pointed out that he is aware that several politicians outside Rwanda as well as human rights groups have been sceptical about Gacaca's achievements, but on his side the courts have been highly successful.
"I am convinced that Gacaca has been the best possible option and honest way available to achieve justice and to go for the next stage which is reconciliation. Justice and reconciliation are twin brothers," he said. "Gacaca might have had imperfections, there would still be some questions, but there is no doubt the Gacaca proceedings have made a major and essential contribution to nation building and that is justice and reconciliation."
The Netherlands, US, UK as well as several UN agencies have contributed to the establishment of Gacaca.