In Other Words

It Takes a Rwandan Village

African Affairs, Vol. 103, No. 410, January 2004, London Since the 100-day genocide that consumed 800,000 Rwandan lives in the spring of 1994, the quest for justice and accountability has taken a winding path. This path has crossed from sparkling new international courtrooms staffed with robed foreign judges to crowded national courts, and all the ...

African Affairs,
Vol. 103, No. 410, January 2004, London

Since the 100-day genocide that consumed 800,000 Rwandan lives in the spring of 1994, the quest for justice and accountability has taken a winding path. This path has crossed from sparkling new international courtrooms staffed with robed foreign judges to crowded national courts, and all the way to local village trials lacking formally trained judges or lawyers. In a recent article in the quarterly African Affairs, the journal of the Royal African Society, scholars Allison Corey and Sandra F. Joireman argue that the quest has failed.

At first, the United Nations initiated international investigations and prosecutions of ethnic Hutu leaders who planned and perpetrated the genocide against minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, established in 1993, offered a compelling model for international justice in Rwanda; fairness seemed to dictate that a far bloodier genocide receive nothing less. The U.N. Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in November 1994 and, partly for security reasons, placed it in Arusha, Tanzania.

Briefly assessing the ICTR’s work a decade later, Corey and Joireman claim that "the failures of the tribunal for Rwanda far outweigh its benefits." The authors correctly note, for instance, that the ICTR suffered from poor administration in its early years and a narrow mandate. But these impatient academics underestimate the obstacles the ICTR faces and downplay the body’s achievements. Genocide is a vast and complex crime involving thousands of victims and — in Rwanda’s case — thousands of perpetrators. Proving the criminal responsibility of high officials in a courtroom that adheres to international due process is immensely difficult. Relative to the cost of a comparable number of prominent felony cases in the United States, the approximately $500 million spent on the ICTR over a decade is hardly extraordinary. The tribunal’s trials and historic judgments against high officials make the effort worthwhile.

The ICTR is not the only mechanism for accountability. The Rwandan government, hostile to the ICTR in part because the tribunal has no death penalty, turned to the country’s domestic courts to prosecute the tens of thousands of Rwandan citizens implicated in the slaughter. The United States and other donor countries tried to help. As U.S. President Bill Clinton’s ambassador at large for war crimes issues, I spent years futilely advocating for judicial assistance programs and supporting a new genocide law in Rwanda that would dispense criminal justice while meeting high standards of due process. But the task was impossible given the huge number of suspects and the significant foreign aid required (which likely would have diverted funds from other national development priorities). The alleged crimes of the Rwandan government’s own military only complicated these efforts.

Rwandan officials often bitterly compare the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the ICTR with the paltry foreign aid allocated to national courts. But few struggling court systems anywhere in the developing world attract much financial or technical aid; this is a systemic problem not unique to Rwanda or caused by the ICTR. Although Rwanda’s courts continue to exercise jurisdiction over some criminal cases arising from the genocide, their inability to deal with all suspects has led to other approaches.

In 1999, the Rwandan government began moving in a new direction and, in 2002, formally launched a version of the old gacaca system of community courts (gacaca means "justice on the grass"). The new approach is designed to move tens of thousands of suspects through a rudimentary form of truth telling, community-based punishment, and reintegration into society over several years. In local elections, Rwandans chose more than 200,000 citizens to serve as gacaca judges, and they have since received a few months of informal training.

Corey and Joireman state the obvious when they claim that gacaca justice fails to meet international due process standards. But the authors’ assertion that village justice will stoke Hutu resentment and make future atrocities more likely is particularly serious. The gacaca process excludes crimes committed after 1994 and effectively immunizes those guilty of revenge attacks against Hutus. Although they are correct to identify this shortfall, Corey and Joireman mistakenly insist that gacaca should also cover war crimes of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front in the aftermath of the genocide. Those crimes require serious investigation by the ICTR and national courts bolstered by more generous international assistance.

Overloading gacaca with tasks it cannot handle would only repeat the mistake some of us made 10 years ago when we vainly sought legally pristine prosecutions of the many thousands implicated in the genocide. Justice in Rwanda has evolved and produced an imperfect but ultimately practical search for truth and redemption.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola