Skip to main content Skip to footer
< Back to Resources

Transitional Justice in Rwanda and Great Lakes

I was asked to write a (very) small side-box in the Financial Times to accompany the interview with Paul Kagame. Due to space, they had to cut the parts in my side-piece about the Congo, so I will reproduce my full submission here. It was not meant to be an Op-Ed, but a descriptive, explanatory piece.

Also, see the twitter-spat between President Kagame and his critics following the interview here.

Transitional justice in Rwanda

Rwanda has always stood out as an extreme case in the fractious debate enveloping post-conflict justice. What do you do in a country with 800,000 victims and probably around 200,000 culprits?

President Paul Kagame has approached this challenge as he does most public policy, with hard-nosed pragmatism. The new regime obviously couldn’t prosecute all the killers, nor could they let them go. The court system was in shambles; most lawyers and judges were dead, in exile or tainted by the old regime. For years, the new government run by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) arrested many but prosecuted few.   By 1999, 120,000 people were jailed under hellish conditions. It was estimated that government courts would take over a century to clear the backlog.

In 2001, the government launched a radically new approach to transitional justice. The government set up 11,000 courts on hillsides around the country, drawing on aspects of a traditional form of justice called gacaca.  This process is now coming to an end. Over 400,000 people have stood trial, over 10 percent of the country’s adult Hutu population. The vast majority of those convicted have been given reduced sentences or have been sent home, having served their time in pre-trial detention.
This solution, even according to Kagame, is far from perfect. Killers now live side-by-side with families of their victims. The trials have been severely lacking in due process, and there are many stories of villagers abusing the gacaca system to settle scores. This is the post-genocide landscape in Rwanda, a cobbled-together compromise, a fractured society held together by tight government control.

But there is a far more troubling and deep-rooted problem with this approach to justice: It has been almost entirely one-sided. Neither the gacaca courts, the United Nations tribunal or Rwandan national courts have tried crimes committed by the RPF government. The government has insisted the few crimes committed by the RPF have been tried in military courts. In any case, they argue, any crimes were an utterly different nature and order of magnitude.

This is not a matter of moral equivalence – the current government was not guilty of atrocities on the same scale as its predecessor. But more evidence is coming to light to suggest that RPF abuses, in particular in the 1994-1997 period, were not mere isolated acts of revenge. A United Nations report into RPF killings in 1994 has resurfaced, suggesting that there could have been as many as 40,000 killings by the new government in that year alone.  Only thirty-two RPF soldiers – including a mere two officers – have been prosecuted for 1994 crimes.

More worrisome is the tendency of donors – who have funded around half of Rwanda’s budget in recent years – to treat Rwanda’s past in isolation from that of its neighbors. A United Nations report last year concluded that Rwandan troops massacred tens of thousands of Hutu – both Congolese and Rwandan – there in 1996 and 1997. In subsequent years, Rwandan troops and their Congolese allies carried out repeated massacres against Congolese civilians accused of supporting Rwanda’s enemies. Until very recently, Rwanda maintained close ties with armed groups in the eastern Congo.
But will Rwanda’s experiment with justice work? Some argue that this kind of blinkered pragmatism is necessary to lift Rwanda out of poverty and violence. Others argue that one-sided justice will provoke more resentment than reconciliation. It is too early to tell who is right, although this privileging of ends over means steps dangerously close to privileging might over right.

But in neighboring Congo, it is clear that the failure to deal with this past has allowed resentments to fester. As a result, anti-Rwandan sentiment runs high in much of the Congo, fueling vicious anti-Rwandan hatred, focused mostly at the Congolese Tutsi community that has been there for generations, and undermining stability.

 The Congolese government is currently considering setting up a tribunal to investigate war crimes committed there during the 1996-2003 wars. The thorny debate around justice in Central Africa is set to continue for some time yet.

Share this