Restorative Justice following Mass Atrocity
The case of Rwanda

» Shehana Gomez

'These two approaches to justice, the restorative and the punitive, reflect widely divergent views about the nature of justice and different visions of public good,' states Helena Cobban. Different commentators on Rwanda call for trials without really considering what retributive justice means or why it is justified. Cobban and others claim that gacaca, a system of justice introduced to deal with the aftermath of genocide, is part of a restorative approach to justice. While they do give explanations of restorative justice, the term does merit further examination as it is a particular kind of process used in modern criminal justice systems. This essay explores the meaning of retributive and restorative approaches to criminal justice and then applies them to gacaca. The essay aims to show that the restorative and punitive, or retributive, whilst different, are not as widely divergent as suggested above but in fact fluid and overlapping in their goals and processes.

The essay begins with a brief history to explain the circumstances leading to the decision to adopt gacaca courts as an expedient solution to Rwanda’s problems. The essay then explores the meanings of retributive and restorative justice. It goes on to assess whether gacaca is a form of restorative justice and consider that as a mechanism, it is largely not. In conclusion, however, I will argue that the meaning of restorative justice could be broadened in a situation following mass atrocity to include social and political objectives. This is restorative justice on another level, transcending the criminal justice system and including other social institutions. Gacaca could then be seen as a component of this larger notion of restorative justice.

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