Five years after the genocide in Rwanda: Justice in question
Five years after the genocide in Rwanda: Justice in question
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Report 11 / Africa

Five years after the genocide in Rwanda: Justice in question

Five years after the beginning of the genocide, it is now time to review the progress made in administering justice to those implicated in its planning and implementation.

Executive Summary

Five years ago, on 6 April 1994, violence on an unprecedented scale broke out in Rwanda. While the international community looked on, the country experienced a genocide and horrendous massacres that killed between 800,000 and one million people.

A disaster on this scale brings irrevocable change. Rwanda has to come to terms with the past so that it can move on into the future. This will only happen if there is an end to the culture of impunity, and it is here that justice has a major role to play. Both the victims and the perpetrators of the violence must know that justice will be administered and the guilty named. Public opinion generally associates justice in Rwanda with the international court sitting in Arusha. Although it faced a number of problems at the beginning, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is now up and running. Its relationship with Rwanda is complex, but the ICTR is credited with carrying the fight against impunity beyond the country’s borders. The Tribunal is the confirmation that the international community accepts the universal dimension of the issues here, which might otherwise remain narrowly confined within this small landlocked country.

Less is known about the everyday functioning of Rwanda’s own justice system. Many think of it only in terms of the huge mass of 125,000 detainees held in very poor conditions. Rwandan justice has rarely had a good press. Indeed, it has occasionally been severely criticized by a number of international organizations. Although its objectives are ambitious and its methods original, Rwandan justice has nothing like the aura associated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indeed, international public opinion tends to treat it with a certain reserve, perhaps because it does not have the same association with well-known personalities. Or perhaps the image is tarnished by the focus on issues such as the use of the death penalty. Maybe the disinterest is a reflection of the outside world’s frustration at the continuing conflicts in some parts of Rwanda, and in the Central African region in general.

Several members of the international community who agreed to assist Rwanda in setting up an appropriate justice system are beginning to grow weary and express doubts about the task they have undertaken. There is still firm agreement about the importance of the fight against impunity, either from an ethical point of view or as an essential condition for a genuine political process of national reconstruction. However, almost five years after the genocide, the predominant feeling in the international community is that the process is too slow, lacks proper controls and seems unable to fulfil its expected role as a driving force for Rwanda’s social evolution.

Nonetheless, Rwandan justice relative to the genocide represents a unique attempt to reconcile truth and justice, fight impunity and resist calls for a general pardon, record history and promote social harmony. Starting from scratch, the results achieved in less than five years are impressive. Rwanda, together with the various countries and organizations that have helped to ensure the prosecution of many involved in the genocide and massacres, all have the right to feel pride in their efforts. The whole enterprise merits respect and consideration. It must continue, but with more emphasis on achieving the desired social and political effects.

From this point of view, the initiative taken by the authorities to develop a system of citizens’ assemblies to judge most of the suspects in the genocide and massacres may resolve the problem. However, if justice is to play its full role, there must be peace in the region.

In regard to the administration of ordinary justice, unrelated to the genocide and massacres, the problem is quite different. The whole judicial system has benefited from the international effort in response to the genocide. Except at the most local level, the rehabilitation of the judicial machinery has reached the end of the emergency phase. However, from an internal point of view, the system is not yet operating as efficiently as it should. The administration of justice is generally expected to be an important, although not the determining, factor in creating an environment conducive to social development. In Rwanda this social dynamic has hardly begun to see the light of day. Until it does, we will not see the wider effects expected from investments in the judicial machinery.

Rwanda’s appalling economic situation and a population too large for its meagre resources provided the conditions that made the genocide possible. These are undeniable facts; and the situation is no better today. Justice, even the best justice, cannot substitute for what is lacking: a minimum level of material well being in order to ensure social harmony and good human rights practices.

Finally, the question of justice in Rwanda also affects the countries in which génocidaires have sought refuge. Some governments prefer to keep their eyes closed. Others try, more or less successfully, to respect their international obligation to take action against these criminals. However, it is clear that the political will is not always present.

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.

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