Transitional Justice in Rwanda
How did the use of combined strategies of the ICTR and the Gacaca work in the Rwandan case, could it be seen as modern day model for transitional justice?
In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the international community and the Rwandan government embraced criminal prosecution as the primary approach to the restoration of law and order in the country. Leaders and policy makers inside and outside Rwanda cited breaking “the culture of impunity” and “the cycle of hatred” as the reasoning behind the retributive approach. Another key reason behind the quest for retributive justice is that the main organizers of the genocide were easily identifiable political, military and media leaders of Rwandan communities, not obscure actors. In general terms, the genocide was a collective act in which hundreds of thousands of Rwandans participated, many of whom found themselves in prison in the immediate years after the mass killings (Oomen, 2005: 885. Mamdani, 2002 and Prunier, 1995).
Rwanda’s post-genocide experience with transitional justice is varied and complex. The Rwandan case study presents us with two distinct transitional justice strategies to evaluate: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the grassroots Gacaca courts. On the one hand the ICTR is an ad-hoc United Nation’s institution with an international jurisdiction, located outside the territory of the population affected by the violence, and uses formal trial and punishment procedures. Both the tribunal’s successes and failures have been instructive for the design and execution of future transitional justice strategies, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). On the other hand, Rwanda’s Gacaca courts have sought to provide a kind of justice that is both institutionally and culturally different from the ICTR. For better or for worse, Gacaca’s restorative justice principles of community participation, truth-telling, and reintegration have an immense impact on local communities.
As said, the international community, represented by the United Nations Security Council, set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to prosecute key players in the genocide. The ICTR’s main purpose is “to contribute to the process of national reconciliation in Rwanda.” The ICTR has been widely criticized by international and Rwandan sources since its establishment in 1995. In particular, its inefficiency, the excessive length of the proceedings, bureaucratic troubles, corruption, and immense costs have been cited as main concerns. A key problem of the ICTR is its disconnect from Rwandan communities; its audience seems to be international rather than Rwandan. There is a common perception that Rwandans are “unaffected” by the ICTR or find the institution “irrelevant” (Tiemessen, 2004: 60), with the ICTR’s geographical location in Arusha, Tanzania, in itself suggesting a degree of distance from Rwandan every-day life. Although it has set up an outreach office in Kigali, the impact of this office is minor, since most ordinary Rwandans know very little about the tribunal and the information they receive is usually perceived as the propaganda of the Rwandan government.
Since the government has an interest in ensuring its authority and legitimacy by favoring its own gacaca initiative, it transmits minimal information to the ICTR and often highlights the tribunal’s negative aspects. Additionally, individuals prosecuted at the ICTR are far removed from Rwandan communities because of their former elite status in pre-genocide times. This is in stark contrast to the persons prosecuted at the gacaca, who are reintegrated into local communities once their sentences are over. Despite numerous
criticisms leveled at the ICTR, it should be recognized that the institution managed to prosecute several key leaders of the genocide, including the prime minister, several officials in key...
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