Justice for Rwanda

By Darlene Seto

Picture walking into a barren classroom where the schoolchildren have been massacred. The image of their skulls left on a table and their clothes left hanging on a clothesline are their only remains.

In 1994, some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind occurred in Rwanda. In only three months, over 800,000 people were killed during a calculated campaign of murder and manslaughter.

University of Calgary criminology professor Dr. Gus Brannigan, and graduate student Nick Jones were witness to the above scene at a memorial site while traveling through Rwanda. Both men have been studying the Rwandan genocide and are hoping to look at its effects.

The History

Constant tension and struggles between the two ethnic groups in the country – Hutus and Tutsis – perpetuated the fierce 1994 genocide.

Historically, Rwanda has been Tutsi-dominated, despite the Hutus constituting the majority of the population.

The catalyst for genocide was the 1994 plane crash killing Juvenal Habyarimana, then Hutu Rwandan president. Angry Hutus blamed the crash on Tutsi rebels, and almost immediately sought blood. Tutsis, along with moderate Hutus were slaughtered as violence broke out across the country.

“It was deliberate,” said Brannigan. “There were people in militias who planned this and trained for murder. Machetes were imported in for a mass killing. People bragged they could kill 1000 [humans] an hour.”

Understanding the events

More than 10 years after the bloodshed, Brannigan and Jones are now attempting to find answers. The two spoke to people across Rwanda, including those on trial for murder, army members, judges, and people in all levels of government.

Jones’ work involves researching the judicial response that has arisen from the Rwandan crisis, while Brannigan is studying the genocide from a criminological point of view. Brannigan is particularly delving into how criminology can apply in both individual and collective acts of violence.

“Today, you are more likely to be butchered by a state action than the garden-variety, everyday kind of murderer here,” said Brannigan. “Criminology is usually based on an individual’s behaviour, where often [violence] stems from control, or rather a loss of self-control. However, when murder is conducted on a national scale – as in Rwanda – can this control theory be true? No.”

Bringing the guilty to justice?

In the aftermath of genocide, Rwanda faces a difficult judicial process. Tens of thousands of people are facing criminal charges. The process is proving to be long and painstaking.

“The judicial system is creating trauma for the people of Rwanda over again,” said Jones. “There are so many problems.”

Traditionally, Rwanda has a culture of impunity, explained Brannigan, meaning that in prior conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis, amnesty was given those involved. People were not tried for any crimes they had committed in ‘tribal clashes.’

“The prior amnesty made people think that they would get away scot-free with murder,” said Brannigan. “There are still people, in jail now, or with charges, that don’t believe they did anything wrong.”

A United Nations tribunal is attempting to convict high-level officers for actions during the genocide. Instituted in 1996, and held in Arusha, Tanzania, the tribunal has had difficulty with prosecution.

“Originally, the International Council of Tribunal for Rwanda was focused on getting 300 convictions of top officials involved in the [genocide],” said Jones. “Last year, that number was down to 100. This past summer it was at 50.”

Other courts have been launched at the local level within Rwanda. These courts administer law and justice by talking to members of the communities – both survivors and witnesses. From these accounts, charges are decided on and laid. However, problems are rife.

For each case in the ICTR, prosecutors are unable to assume genocide. They must prove that genocide occurred before accusing people of their crimes.

“The pace of prosecution for the ICTR has been described as glacial,” declared Jones. “One particular case has been going on for five years.”

“I think a lot of people know that the courts will not be able to finish prosecuting the crimes by their due date,” added Brannigan. “They have to finish by 2008, and since plea bargaining is not allowed, there’s no way to speed it up.”

As well, the members of the local or ‘gacaca’ courts are non-professionals given only rudimentary training in law. Those standing trials have no recourse for appeal in normal courts.

“In the gacaca courts, it can be difficult for judges and other members of the courts to keep track of all the cases,” said Jones. “There’s just too many.”

Slow to heal

The enormity of what happened in Rwanda staggers, even now.

When asked about how many memorial sites are in the country, Jones and Brannigan almost chuckle, for the question seems too unbelievable.

“Hundreds, thousands?,” questioned Jones. “How many churches or stadiums, or toilets, where you can stuff people down the holes, are there in Rwanda? That’s how many.”

It is with time that wounds can heal, and it seems that Rwandans are healing, albeit slowly.

“They want the world to know what happened,” said Jones. “They want you to visit the memorials, to see – to remember.”


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