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Analyzing Rwandan Genocide and the Gacaca Courts

"Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it. the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten."- Ronald Raegan

Rwandan genocide which took place in 1994 was a planned crusade of mass murder which happened in Rwanda over a period of 100 days in April-June 1994. Extremists belonging to Rwanda's majority Hutu population were responsible for the genocide. The main plan was to kill the minority Tutsi population of Rwanda and anyone who tried to oppose the genocidal intentions that existed.

It is believed that around 2 lakh Hutu who got motivated due to propaganda from numerous media outlets, took part in the genocide. An estimated 8 lakh civilians who primarily belonged to the Tutsi population and also moderate Hutu population were killed during this genocide. An estimated 20 lakh Rwandans had to flee the country during or immediately after the genocide occurred.[1]

A Brief History
There are two major ethnic groups in Rwanda namely the Hutu and the Tutsi. The former accounts to more than four-fifths of the total population whereas the latter amounts to about one-seventh of the total population. A third ethnic group named Twa also exists in Rwanda but its population is less than 1 percent of the total population.

All three ethnic groups that exist in Rwanda speak the same language (Kinyarwanda).This clearly indicates that these groups have lived together with each other since centuries. It is widely believed that Twa were the ones who initially settled in the area that is now called Rwanda. They were followed by Hutu who settled in Rwanda sometime between the 5th and 11th centuries. The Tutsi began to settle in Rwanda around early 14th century.

Tutsi migration was a long process as they started coming in from the north and it culminated in the late 16th century. This was the emergence of a small kingdom in the central region which was ruled by the Tutsi minority until the Europeans arrived in the early 19th century. Profound social differences existed between the Hutu and Tutsi.

This can be clearly seen in the system of patron-client ties that existed, it was known as the 'buhake' in easier words cattle contract. Tutsi already had a strong pastoralist tradition and through this system they gained economic, political and social ascendancy over the Hutu who were mainly agriculturalists. Even after this the identification as either Hutu or Tutsi was fluid. Physical appearance also somewhat corresponded to ethnic identification (the Hutu were dark- skinned and short in height whereas the Tutsi were light-skinned and tall in height).[2]

The difference cannot be said to be immediately apparent, mainly because of use of common language and intermarriage between the two groups. Colonial era had a big impact on the fluidity between the two groups, first Germany and later Belgium were of the opinion that ethnicity is something which can be distinguished by physical characteristics of an individual and they used ethnic differences that were found in their own homeland as models to create a system which led to more differences between Hutu and Tutsi and their identification was no longer fluid.

The German colonial government ruled Rwanda from 1898-1916 and used the policy of indirect rule which played a big role in strengthening the hegemony of the Tutsi ruling class. The same approach was also adopted by Belgium which took control of Rwanda after the culmination of World War I. This was the time when some Hutu started raising their voices for equality and they found sympathy from some Belgian administrative personnel and Roman Catholic clergy.

These circumstances led to the beginning of the Hutu revolution[3]. This revolution began with an uprising on November 1, 1959, when a rumor spread that a Hutu leader was killed by Tutsi perpetrators. Two years of violence followed, Hutu groups attacked Tutsi and many Tutsis were either killed or fled the country. On January 28th, 1961, a Hutu coup took place with the approval of the Belgian authorities and the Tutsi king was officially deposed and the Tutsi monarchy was established.

Rwanda became a republic after this and an all-Hutu government came into power. Independence was declared the following year after a United Nations referendum. Statistics clearly show that the transition of power from Tutsis to Hutus was not peaceful by any means. During the revolution (1959-61) approximately 20000 Tutsi were killed and many fled the country. It is estimated that by early 1964, over 150,000 Tutsi had already migrated to earlier neighbouring countries.[4]

Events that lead to the Genocide

Ethnic tensions kept flaring up in Rwanda periodically after the Hutu revolution. Mass killings took place in 1963, 67 and 73. In the year 1973 Major General Juvenal Habyarimana came to power, he was a moderate Hutu. He was to be the sole leader of Rwanda for the next 21 years. A new political party was founded by Habyarimana named NRMD (National Revolutionary Movement for Development). In the year 1990 Rwanda was invaded by the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front) this group primarily consisted of refugees that belonged to the Tutsi community.

Habyarimana started accusing Tutsi residents of Rwanda for helping and supporting RPF. Hundreds of Tutsi were killed and arrested from 1990-93 on the directions of government officials. Negotiations began between the government and the RPF in 1992 and finally in August 1993 an agreement was signed by Habyarimana at Arusha in Tanzania. The agreement talked about creating a transition government which would include the RPF[5].


The power sharing agreement acted as a stepping stone for the genocide, it angered Hutu extremists who soon took horrible and swift action to prevent it. April 6, 1994, will go down as the darkest day in modern Rwandan history. A plane carrying Burundi's president Cyprien Ntaryamira and Habyarimana was shot down and there were no survivors left.

The culprits of this incident have not been identified till date. Some say that the attack was carried out by Hutu extremists, others believe that the leaders of the RPF ordered the strike. Within an hour of the plane crash, which was carrying President Habyarimana, the FAR (Rwandan armed forces), Interahamwe (Hutu militia groups) and the Presidential Guard together set up roadblocks at various different places all over Rwanda and started slaughtering moderate Hutus and Tutsis mercilessly. 10 Belgian peacekeepers and moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana were among the first victims of the genocide.

This violence led to the creation of a political vacuum and extremist Hutu leaders from the military high command came into power on April 9, 1994. The killing of the Belgium peacekeepers led to the withdrawal of Belgium troops. The United Nations also directed all the peacekeepers to only defend themselves after these killings. The mass killings in Kigali were just the beginning of the genocide, violence rapidly spread to the rest of Rwanda.

Killers were being rewarded with money, alcohol and drugs. Radio stations which were sponsored by the government urged ordinary Rwandan citizens to kill their neighbours. Within three months, 8 lakh people had already been killed. The genocide raged and alongside the RPF continued with their struggle and by July 1993, they had taken control of most of the country .Because of this more than 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda.

After the victory of RPF, a coalition government was established by them. The blueprint of the government was very similar to the one that was decided in the agreement signed in Arusha. NRMD which was Habyarimana's party was outlawed as it had played a major role in organizing the genocide, and a new constitution was adopted by Rwanda in the year 2003[6].

Analyzing the reasons behind the genocide:

  • Colonial rule left behind a legacy of division:

    here were underlying tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi for decades. Under the Belgian colonial rule which began after the first World War and went on till 1962, Tutsi minority were considered as superior and a clear favoritism existed when it came to leadership positions.

    This created even more problems between Hutu and Tutsi. In the 50s and early 60s a struggle for independence was going on in Rwanda and this struggle included continuous violence between the Hutus and Tutsis because both the groups sought power. Anti-Tutsi sentiment that prevailed in that period led to the genocide that took place many years later. 4 lakh Tutsis had already fled Rwanda by the mid 60s.
  • Coup d'etat leads to more problems:

    Habyarimana took control of Rwanda in 1973, his government also played a big role in reinforcing pro- Hutu and anti-Tutsi sentiment. Extreme level of discrimination prevailed against the Tutsi in the 70s and the mass killings of 1973 can be taken as a big example of this. Habyarimana's rule further created a divide between both the ethnic groups. Many Tutsis fled Rwanda in the 70s as well because of the government's discriminatory activities.
  • Homecoming:

    In the 80s a strong sense of homecoming prevailed amongst the Tutsi who were exiled from Rwanda in the previous decades due to widespread violence and discrimination against them. Tutsi in the neighbouring countries started fighting for their right to return home and this sentiment led to the creation of the RPF. In the year 1990 RPF invaded Rwanda and it was the beginning of a bloody civil war.

    These events gave rise to an even stronger anti-Tutsi sentiment amongst the Hutu. Hutu dominated media started to paint Tutsi minority as a threat to Rwanda and this led to increased insecurity amongst the Hutus which culminated into a genocide few years later.
  • Assassination acted as a last nail in the coffin:

    Romeo Dallaire who commanded the UN peacekeeping force had already warned that Tutsi could be massacred by Hutu extremists. People could figure out that violence was imminent but they didn't know when it would explode. Habyarimana's assassination acted as a final nail in the coffin and the genocide began soon after he was killed. Jean Bosco Iyakaremye is a senior analyst in the Department of National Defense at the Universit� d'Ottawa and also a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.

He says that:
"What people need to know about the genocide is that it is one of those crimes that you can see coming ... and when President Habyarimana's plane was shot down, knocked out of the sky over Kigali, we knew what would happen. We knew that was it for the Tutsis."[7]

Gacaca Courts
Gacaca courts are basically a system for community justice that was set up in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide to bring perpetrators to justice. The term 'gacaca' translates to 'short grass' in the local language basically meaning public places where local elders meet to solve problems. In the year 2001, this name was adopted for Rwanda's new criminal justice system. The basic idea behind establishing these courts was to promote them as a method of transitional justice so that communal rebuilding and healing could take place after the genocide.[8]

Why were these courts established?
After the culmination of the genocide the Rwandan government was facing a huge problem to prosecute the culprits of the genocide because almost 850,000 alleged culprits existed at that time. Originally the culprits were to be tried in the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), but it would have been impossible to convict all of them due to their vast number. There were insufficient resources in Rwanda to organize first-world courts at that time, hence the Gacaca system was the only option left for the government to provide justice to the victims of the genocide.

Major goals of the Gacaca system were as follows:
  1. Establish the facts regarding what occurred.
  2. Hasten the judicial processes against those accused of genocide.
  3. Put an end to the impunity culture.
  4. Bring all Rwandans together and strengthen their bonds.
  5. Use Rwandan society's capacity to solve all issues through a justice-based Rwandan tradition.


Many scholars consider this community justice system a mixed success. Both Rwandans and scholars are deeply divided on the benefits of this system. The supporters of this system are mainly people who support the government, they believe that these courts played a very important role in shedding light on what happened in those 100 days in 1994. It is also widely believed that this system helped many families to find the bodies of their murdered relatives and they could finally give some dignity to these dead bodies. Some scholars also believe that this system helped in reconciliation within the communities. The size of this operation in itself is praiseworthy, approximately 1.2 million cases were tried in 12,000 Gacaca courts throughout the country. This system also gave the culprits an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, show remorse and confess their wrongdoings. According to the statistics of the Rwandan government these courts had a conviction rate of 86 percent. [9]

These courts have also a got a lot of criticism because many scholars and citizens believe that these courts had a very casual format which has led to a lot of legal criticism. It is widely believed that these trials were speedy and had a very high conviction rate because proper rights weren't available. No right to a lawyer, no right was available against self incrimination, no right against arbitrary detention and arrest, guilty until proven innocent instead of innocent until proven guilty, no right to be present at one own trial, less preparation time for a case, non-consideration of double jeopardy, witnesses couldn't be confronted.

Also, evidence of widespread corruption exists against officials. These trials were also considered to be biased because the government excluded the ruling party RPF from the crimes that they committed and the Gacaca law was specially amended for this.

Many scholars and citizens also believed that the government used these courts to further their agenda because only the Tutsis were potrayed as victims and no special interest was shown towards the crimes that were committed against the Hutus which led to distorting history and dissemination of lies. Human rights groups also worry about the fairness of these trials because they were largely based on witness testimonies and as mentioned above no proper legal rights were available.[10]

When we look at different genocides there are many similarities that exist between them, and the Rwandan genocide is no different. Firstly, there are many signs that indicate towards an impending genocide and it is important that those signals are taken seriously so that tragedies like these can be avoided in the future.

Secondly, historical legacy of hatred and division between communities plays a huge role and ultimately, they are one of the primary reasons that lead to a genocide. Statistics prove that dictatorial governments and their divisive agenda also lead to such massive tragedies. Holocaust is the biggest example of this.

Thirdly, resistance by the victimized community tends to worsen the situation even more and this has been the case in many genocides. Insecurity is one of the primary reasons for mass violence like genocides and resistance fuels it even more. Lastly, leadership vacuum, which is created due to unprecedented circumstances more often than not leads to mass violence and this has been seen many times in the course of history.

Indira Gandhi's assassination can also serve an example of this. Sikh killings of 1984 may not be termed as a genocide but they are definitely a blot on our country's history and an example of mass violence. It has also been noticed that post-genocide trials have never been proper throughout the course of history.

In most cases culprits go unpunished but Rwanda was a little different, unlike other genocides the conviction rate was very high and many people were convicted for their crimes but this high conviction rate also raises a lot of suspicion on the process of these trials and establishes are principle that post-genocide trials can never be proper and will definitely have some shortcomings one way or the other.

  1. Rwanda: Background, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, (18 August 2018).
  2. Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda - The Genocide, Human Rights Watch, (18 August 2018)
  3. Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda, New York: Cornell University Press, (2006).
  4. Rwandan History: Pre-Genocide, SURF, (18 August 2018).
  5. Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Picador, 1998).
  6. Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (London: Random House, 2004)
  7. Rwanda: How the genocide happened," BBC, (18 August 2018);
  8. Bert Ingelaere, The Gacaca Courts in Rwanda: Contradictory Hybridity, E-International Relations (May 4, 2014)
  9. Justice Compromised: The legacy of Rwanda's community based Gacaca courts, Human Rights Watch, https://, (May 31, 2011)
  10. Timothy Longman, An assessment of Rwanda's Gacaca courts. Peace Review, (August 17, 2009)

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