It is undeniable that all kinds of armed conflicts engender terrible actions, immeasurable suffering, and devastating effects. The most painful amongst them, however, are those where the opposite combatants come from the same community, the same neighborhood, or even the same family. Non-international armed conflicts have this particularity: neighbors fighting against each other, countries destroyed by their own sons.
During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, almost 1,000,000 people were killed, and more than 200,000 women were raped . This left Rwandan society traumatized, part of its infrastructure destroyed, and its Rule of Law in ruins. Once the armed conflict ended, more than 100,000 people were accused of participating in the killings . These people, perpetrators and victims, were once part of the same community, door-to-door neighbors.
In order to face this humanitarian and social catastrophe, Rwanda established different Transitional Justice Methods (TJM). Transitional Justice is the name used to describe the mechanisms and tools through which societies address the legacy of gross human rights violations that happened in exceptional circumstances, in order to facilitate the achievement of peace and reconciliation.
In Rwanda’s case, there were two main TJM used after the genocide: Criminal Prosecution and Memorialization. Under the first mechanism, the Rwandan government established an agreement with the UN to create the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) . This ad-hoc tribunal “was established for the prosecution of persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994” . Until 2006, the ICTR received from the UN a budget in the amount of $581 million , and for 2011 the figure was close to 1 billion. By 2013, the ICTR had completed 75 cases , a minimal figure considering these expenses and, especially, the large number of people accused. To be sure, it was an impossible task for the ICTR to bring all these people into court. As a result, the Rwandan national court system decided to take a good number of cases, especially those in which the perpetrator was not a “leader”. And since this was not enough, Rwandan authorities also revived the “Gacaca” courts.
The Gacaca courts were special tribunals created to deal with crimes during the 1994 genocide. The judicial process in those courts was relatively easy: victims or their relatives narrated their case in front of the accused, the lay judges, and the whole community. The accused had the right to accept or deny the facts, as well as the opportunity to show remorse and ask for forgiveness. The community residents had the right to talk for or against the perpetrator; they also had the right to present their arguments as witnesses and to present evidence. The penalties imposed by judges, finally, were moderate (e.g. community service). This seeming leniency was the result of the fact that the Gacaca court’s objective was not to punish people, but to promote for reconciliation amongst the community inhabitants.
The Gacaca courts have tried more than 1.2 million cases throughout the country , which means that, at least in rough numbers, it was a more effective judicial method than the ICTR. Unfortunately, the Gacaca trials also have had many difficulties and questionable results, such as the lack of due process of law, and the “double victimization” effect that some survivors, families, and witnesses have suffered after giving their testimonies.
Another important TJM used in Rwanda was memorialization, which is a method designed to remember the victims and show respect for their suffering. It is also a way to create an acceptable level of social peace, and to insist that these horrible events must never happen again. This method has its own problems, such as the difficulty of defining the memorial’s specific characteristics –where should it be located? To whom should it be dedicated?– e.g. with the communities involved. It is never easy to discern whether these kind of social decisions respond to a real desire to memorialize the victims or to political pressure from specific groups seeking to stress their status of victims in order to obtain other benefits.
After 2O years of the Rwandan Genocide, some questions remain: Was the ICTR too costly for the international community? How effective have the judicial procedures been? Did the Gacaca result in a desperate and justice light? Has the TJM brought real justice and social reconciliation? Do victims feel that they were really compensated? Do the lessons learned through these years guarantee that genocide will never happen again in Rwanda?
I would be difficult to describe the Rwandan transitional justice case as a success. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Rwanda is an example of social will and strength; and also one of the most representative efforts regarding Transitional Justice implementation.