Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

Background Information on the Justice and Reconciliation Process in Rwanda

Printable version PDF

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, up to one million people perished and as many as 250,000 women were raped, leaving the country’s population traumatized and its infrastructure decimated. Since then, Rwanda has embarked on an ambitious justice and reconciliation process with the ultimate aim of all Rwandans once again living side by side in peace.

Justice after the genocide

In the years following the genocide, more than 120,000 people were detained and accused of bearing criminal responsibility for their participation in the killings. To deal with such an overwhelming number of perpetrators, a judicial response was pursued on three levels:

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the United Nations Security Council on 8 November 1994, and formally closed on 31 December 2015. The Tribunal had a mandate to prosecute persons bearing great responsibility for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda between 1 January and 31 December 1994.

The first trial started in January 1997, and by December 2012, the Tribunal had completed the trial phase of its mandate. During its two decades of work in Arusha, Tanzania, the ICTR sentenced 61 people to terms of up to life imprisonment for their roles in the massacres. Fourteen accused were acquitted and 10 others referred to national courts. The ICTR held 5,800 days of proceedings, indicted 93 people, issued 55 first-instance and 45 appeal judgements, and heard the “powerful accounts of more than 3,000 witnesses who bravely recounted some of the most traumatic events imaginable during ICTR trials,” ICTR President Judge Vagn Joensen told the UN Security Council in December 2015.

The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), set up by the Security Council in December 2010, took over the remaining tasks of the ICTR – and of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The Mechanism plays an essential role in ensuring that the ICTR’s closure does not leave the door open to impunity for the remaining fugitives. The ICTR branch of the Mechanism began to function on 1 July 2012.

The Tribunal has issued several landmark judgments, including:

The national court system

Rwanda’s national courts prosecute those accused of planning the genocide or of committing serious atrocities, including rape. By mid-2006, the national courts had tried approximately 10,000 genocide suspects. In 2007, the Rwandan government abolished the death penalty, which had last been carried out in 1998 when 22 people convicted of genocide-related crimes were executed. This development removed a major obstacle to the transfer of genocide cases from the ICTR to the national courts, as the ICTR draws to a close.

The Gacaca court system

To address the fact that there were thousands of accused still awaiting trial in the national court system, and to bring about justice and reconciliation at the grassroots level, the Rwandan government in 2005 re-established the traditional community court system called “Gacaca” (pronounced GA-CHA-CHA),.

In the Gacaca system, communities at the local level elected judges to hear the trials of genocide suspects accused of all crimes except planning of genocide. The courts gave lower sentences if the person was repentant and sought reconciliation with the community. Often, confessing prisoners returned home without further penalty or received community service orders. More than 12,000 community-based courts tried more than1.2 million cases throughout the country.

The Gacaca trials also served to promote reconciliation by providing a means for victims to learn the truth about the death of their family members and relatives. They also gave perpetrators the opportunity to confess their crimes, show remorse and ask for forgiveness in front of their community. The Gacaca courts officially closed on 4 May 2012.

Unity and Reconciliation in Rwanda

The reconciliation process in Rwanda focuses on reconstructing the Rwandan identity, as well as balancing justice, truth, peace and security. The Constitution now states that all Rwandans share equal rights. Laws have been passed to fight discrimination and divisive genocide ideology.

Primary responsibility for reconciliation efforts in Rwanda rests with the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1999. It makes use of the following approaches:

UN Web Services Section, Department of Public Information, © United Nations