Narratives, Human Rights Norms and the Local: Understanding the Construction of Legal Meaning around the Rwandan Gacaca Courts

The Rwandan Gacaca courts (2002-2012) have been widely criticised, particularly by legal and Human Rights activists such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others for bad legal conduct, lacking fairness in the due process and lack of witness protection to name just a few. This critique leaves a legacy of reports and studies on the legal aspects of the Rwandan Gacaca courts behind. For the first time, this paper considers the ways in which this legal meaning of the Gacaca courts has been constructed by international actors. It suggests using Paul Ricoeur’s concepts of ‘Memory’ and ‘Narrative’ to assess the construction of meaning depicting this ‘failed’ localised legal approach to transitional justice in Rwanda. In doing so, the paper points towards reports by Human Rights groups advocate Rule of Law and Human Rights norms and thereby construct a rigid and fixed memory of the failure of the Rwandan Gacaca courts. Here, International and therefore Western ideas around criminal procedures as well as Human Rights norms operate as a universal marker in which to measure the success or failure of post-conflict legal mechanisms, more broadly. By analysing reports by international Human Rights organisations and applying a narrative-memory lens, the paper challenges the dominant meaning produced upon the assumed capability of Rule of Law and Human Right norms to make sense of past atrocities. It will also show how central the role of international actors and organisations are in the construction of a ‘failed’ TJ mechanism in Rwanda. This is crucial considering that such claims to knowledge commonly inform our understanding on the efficacy of justice, accountability processes and reconciliation in post-conflict societies.