Date of Award

Spring 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Sandra T. Barnes

Second Advisor

Steven Feierman

Third Advisor

Kathleen Hall


In recent decades, national governments and international authorities have increasingly emphasized the role of legal institutions in restoring order after political violence. This study explores how, following the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan government created new decentralized grassroots legal forums that aimed to produce community out of a divided population. The legal institutions were designed to enable Rwandans to resolve disputes with the help of locally-elected mediators, based on principles that prioritized collective cohesion over individual rights, combined with state-backed punishment. Drawing on eighteen months of ethnographic research in Rwanda between 2004 and 2008 with genocide courts (inkiko gacaca), mediation committees (comite y’abunzi) and a legal aid clinic, this study shows how the discourse of mediation in courts derived from national and transnational processes, and how it shaped people’s experiences across a wide range of disputes. People used the courts’ flexible proceedings both to rebuild inclusive relationships, and to contest belonging and reinforce divisions. The study suggests that state-backed legal forums embedded in daily life can facilitate social rebuilding in the aftermath of violence, while it examines what differences are created as “community” is brought into being through politicized processes, and shows how customary law as a tool of state development can both empower and curtail rights.