Post-Genocide Rwanda: Seeking Both Justice and Reconciliation

About the Project

Editor's note: Undergrad Radha Webley will be filing regular dispatches from Rwanda this summer. We'll publish her dispatches online here. This is Radha's first report.

In 1994, a genocide took place in Rwanda that left approximately 800,000 people dead in the course of three months. In this small Central African country, that number was approximately equal to one-tenth of the population. The story behind this scourge of violence is long and complex, but the genocide has its origins in historical and contemporary patterns, from 19th and 20th century colonialism to 1990s political opportunism, and from structural adjustment to ethnic polarization.

Ever since my first semester at Berkeley, the Rwandan genocide has been of particular interest to me. How a society could murder a tenth of its population within the space of three months has simply boggled my mind. What has been of even more acute interest to me, however, has been how a society can recover from such an intensely violent experience.

It was in this context that I developed an interest in the gacaca courts that have been set up across Rwanda over the past year. A combination of a traditional participatory model of justice and of modern legal precepts, the system of gacaca courts is a key legal mechanism for bringing the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide to justice. No small undertaking, these participatory trials, once fully underway, will be held weekly in 11,000 local jurisdictions nationwide, and will involve 250,000 popularly elected judges as well as the collective participation of all local community members as witnesses and jurors.

The gacaca courts, however, are not just a way to deliver justice to the huge number of accused persons still awaiting trials. These courts also are envisioned as a key restorative mechanism, a means to contribute to the process of national reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. Whether or not this new system will actually be able to accomplish either or both of these dual goals, however, is currently the topic of open debate.

This summer, I will specifically be looking at this conjunction between the gacaca trials and the process of reconciliation in Rwanda. Is this system actually accomplishing the reconciliatory purpose that is one of its principle intentions? If so, how? If not, why not?

As a means to gain insight into these questions, I will be working with Internews Rwanda, a small branch of an international NGO (nongovernment organization) that provides Rwanda's citizens and civil society organizations with information on the post-genocide justice process. Their mission is to support national reconciliation through the discussion of justice issues. One of Internews' most innovative projects in Rwanda has been the production of documentaries on the different post-genocide justice efforts, which they screen in local communities throughout the country with the aim to open a continuing national dialogue on justice and to thus support this process of reconciliation.

As part of my work with Internews, I will be observing the gacaca trials and conducting a series of interviews with the participants in the trials, asking for their perceptions and experiences of the national process of reconciliation, of the gacaca system, and of the relationship between the two.

— Radha Webley

Radha will arrive in Rwanda on June 13. She'll post her first dispatch from Rwanda shortly after that.