Rwanda and the Ambiguities of Justice

Observations and thoughts about Rwanda from a person with no direct knowledge of the country or its people (first post in a two-part series)…

Rwanda is a place that caught my attention about 6 years ago when I read several books about the massive and brutal genocide that took place there in 1994. In short, an estimated 800,000 people were killed in the short span of several months.  The majority of the deaths resulted from the systematic extermination of the minority ethnic group (Tutsis) by the majority ethnic group (Hutus).  A militia known as the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), consisting primarily of Tutsi refugees in neighboring Uganda and led by Paul Kagame, overthrew the Hutu Power regime in July 1994 and effectively ended the genocide.  Kagame became President of Rwanda in 2003 and was recently re-elected in controversial elections (more on that in part 2).

A tiny country in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, Rwanda is known for its temperate climate, hilly terrain, and natural beauty.  Rwanda was colonized by the Germans and Belgians from the late 19th century until its independence in 1961.  Tragically, colonial masters, driven by European racism, are credited with sowing the seeds of ethnic division in the previously harmonious region.  The Rwandan people derive primarily from two ethnic lineages (Tutsi and Hutu).  The colonizers conducted censuses to classify the Rwandan people based on ethnicity, often utilizing questionable criteria for assigning individuals to groups.  Tutsis, the ethnic minority in Rwanda, were favored by the colonizing forces due to their supposedly “more European” physical characteristics.  Tutsis were granted positions of power.  Later, the Belgians further stoked this self-created ethnic divide in an attempt to maintain power and influence.

Hence, the Rwanda genocide, which was extraordinary in its size, speed, and ferocity, had many origins and contributing factors (many of which I haven’t touched on here).  In addition to the complexity and sheer horror of the Rwanda genocide, what most drew my interest and prompted me to learn more were the dates.  April 1994 to July 1994.  This wasn’t a distant memory…some horrible tragedy that occurred 50 or 100 years ago.  I was 12 years old when the genocide began…just completing my first year of middle school (7thgrade).  I don’t remember too many specifics about that time, but I was probably most concerned with finding a suitable place to sit in the lunchroom cafeteria and trying to avoid any embarrassing encounters with 8th grade bullies at P.E.  All the while, men, women, and children were being exterminated a half a world away in an event that would hardly register with me until almost 10 years later.  Definitely made me think about life and my place in the greater scheme of things.     

Now, as my disclaimer at the beginning of this post clearly indicates, I have absolutely no personal knowledge about the Rwanda genocide, the country of Rwanda, or its people.  All that I know, I learned from reading books and articles.  Thus, all I can do is share my non-expert ideas and thoughts about the genocide and the happenings in post-genocide Rwanda and give my opinion on what we can learn about our humanity and our collective social conscience.

My first substantive experience with Rwanda came in the form of a haunting and beautifully written book by Philip Gourevitch aptly entitled, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. I know you’re probably thinking, here he goes with his books again, but please bear with me.  I strongly believe that books are the best way for people without the means (or guts) to explore things for themselves to learn about important events, people, and places in our world. Gourevitch’s book is an outstanding read that explores both the historical aspects of the genocide and the lead up to it and the emotional toll that such horrific events took on the victims.  It is certainly a must read if you want to learn more about the Rwandan genocide.  However, it probably won’t answer the one most fundamental question…even acknowledging the contributing factors, how did the Hutu Power movement convince so many people to abandon the very essence of their humanity to turn against their countrymen in such a brutal fashion?  I don’t think anyone can answer that.After reading Gourevitch’s book, I was motivated to do some more research.  I ended up writing a paper (for an International Human Rights class) on the justice system in post-genocide Rwanda and the hope for reconciliation.  I stumbled across my paper on my hard drive recently and it was interesting to look at how things have progressed in the past 5 years.  

The initial focus in Rwanda after the genocide was the pursuit of justice.  Obviously, considering the scope of the event, this was a monumental task that continues to this day.  Justice is a very nebulous term in the most routine circumstances, but when you consider that a significant percentage of the population was directly involved as victims or perpetrators in the Rwanda genocide, achieving some semblance of justice seems nearly impossible…if only because of the logistical difficulties.  What should the priorities be in seeking “justice” for the deaths of 800,000?  Punishment?  Retribution?  Reconciliation? 

At least publicly, the RPF-led Rwandan government chose reconciliation as the primary goal.  The government established a system of community courts, based on the traditional Rwandan justice system of gacaca, to try suspected genocide perpetrators and participants (except for the ring leaders and highest level organizers who were to be tried in national courts).   This system has run in parallel with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) established by the UN, which is located in Tanzania.  Both the domestic system and ICTR have received substantial criticism for violating the basic right to a sound legal defense due to inadequate counsel and improper government interference. 

But perhaps the most damaging criticism of both the gacaca system and the ICTR, and the one that threatens the very legitimacy of the current RPF government is the failure of both courts to recognize and explore the alleged atrocities committed by RPF forces against Hutus in Rwanda, and more recently, in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  This criticism is particularly damning for the gacaca system, billed as the more efficient and organic alternative to the ponderous and distant ICTR, as its primary goal was to promote community healing and reconciliation through the exploration of truth.  Without an honest accounting of the crimes committed by people on both sides, it is likely that old tensions will begin to resurface.

Unfortunately, it seems as if the opportunity for truth and reconciliation might be slipping away, as an upcoming report from the UN (leaked last week) will chronicle a list of atrocities allegedly committed by Rwanda (RPF) soldiers against Hutus in the neighboring DRC.  It will be interesting to see how the Rwandan government and international experts react when the full report is released.  The RPF has already expressed their outrage and alleged that the information is unreliable and inaccurate (this could be the case…it will take independent voices with knowledge of the region to evaluate the reliability of the report findings). If the report is found to be credible and alleges atrocities that amount to war crimes…or worse genocide…the effect on President Kagame and Rwandan state could be devastating.  The international community has invested heavily in Kagame and his government and post-genocide Rwanda has long been held up as an example of an African success story (more about this in Part II).

So, what can we learn from Rwanda?  Once again…I believe the circumstances of post-genocide Rwanda should remind us of the inherent complexities and ambiguities of human existence and human tragedy.  When it comes to events that shake the very foundation of our society and our humanity, there are rarely simple explanations or simple solutions.  Leaders and governments are rarely if ever all good or all bad.  True justice is neither easy to identify nor easy to obtain.  While such understanding does not by itself yield implementable solutions, it does allow us to frame the problems in a way that accounts for this complexity and ambiguity and could in turn aid the problem-solving process.

What we can learn from Rwanda is that there are no easy answers to unanswerable questions.  For, as Philip Gourevitch said, “…true genocide and true justice are incompatible.”  All we can do as humans is our best…and try to learn from our past mistakes.  My heart goes out to the people of Rwanda for all they have suffered and I salute them for all they have overcome.