Report / Africa 3 minutes

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.

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