Reflections on Rwanda – 20 Years After the Genocide (Part II)

As noted in Part I of this posting, beautiful appearances can also be deceiving.  In reflection, the author probably spoke mainly to those who had formerly been known as Tutsi (since these terms are no longer supposed to be used in Rwanda).  Although it is impossible to gain much accuracy over a week, most Tutsi are likely supportive of their staunchly pro-Tutsi government, presided over by President Paul Kagame.  (There would be some notable exceptions, however, of those who have fallen out of favor with the government, and have fled, or worse; it is clear that the government has little tolerance of opposition.)  Because one is not supposed to ask about ethnicity (as citizens “are all Rwandans now”), it would be fascinating (but somewhat difficult) to ask about the views of Hutus in Rwanda; one might anticipate that a fair number of them would not necessarily share such a rosy assessment.

As an outsider to Rwanda, the author found herself not asking any of the hard questions – certainly not to government officials – out of concerns that it is difficult to know how close one can come to sensitive issues without crossing the line.  At the same time, the author felt somewhat guilty at not having asked hard questions, as that is a form of self-censorship.  Thus, having travelled all the way to Rwanda and back, the author, came home with some of the same nagging questions she had upon starting out.

Some of the most indelible impressions came from visits to key genocide memorials.  These include Murambi (a challenging memorial to visit, the site of a former school, with classrooms full of bodies preserved in lime); the churches of Nyamata and Ntarama (sites of horrific mass slaughter for Tutsis who mistakenly thought they would receive sanctuary), as well as the main genocide memorial in Kigali.  At each of these, tens of thousands are buried.  (There are an estimated 50,000 bodies at Murambi – a number so large it is scarcely possible to imagine).  These memorials help ensure that no one will forget the genocide.  Nor should they.

Yet, the author noticed that despite the fact that, during the genocide, crimes were perpetrated against both the Tutsi as well as moderate Hutu, in Rwanda, the official description at the memorials is “the genocide against the Tutsi.”  One cannot help but wonder whether this simplified narrative results in stereotyping of Tutsi as heroic survivors and Hutu as perpetrators.  One has to ask whether, 20 years later, the country should not use a more accurate and inclusive narrative, one that also acknowledges some of the suffering that occurred on the other side – it is not nearly of the same magnitude, but nonetheless not insignificant.

Admittedly, recognizing the suffering of “the other” is perhaps easier said than done.  Recently, the author read of a monument in the U.K. erected to R.A.F. pilots lost in WWII and their victims.  While many countries erect monuments to the losses on their side (for example, virtually all of the memorials in the former Yugoslavia do this), it takes a mature sense of memorialization, and history, to recognize suffering on the other side.  (One also does not see this in the former Yugoslavia, with the notable exception of the Potocari Memorial outside Srebrenica, which the international community mandated, despite it being in the solidly Serb territory of Republica Srpska).  Of course, we are more than a half century after WWII, and perhaps mature forms of memorialization, as well as historical narratives, take time to recognize that, in any conflict, one group is not wholly good, and the other is not wholly evil.

Rwanda has also switched its narrative that citizens should not be known by ethnic identity as Hutu or Tutsi, but “as Rwandans.”  This is a fascinating attempt at social engineering.  But will it work?  That is a huge question.  Perhaps the younger generations can be schooled to think that way, but surely the adult population knows which group they belong or belonged to, and, to some extent, undoubtedly still associate with that identity.  It is curious that the government itself seems not to follow its own prescription when, at national genocide memorials, it consistently memorializes “the genocide against the Tutsi.”

While the Hutu are also beneficiaries of Rwanda’s rebuilding, it appears that much of the governing class are Tutsi.  Will there be enough successful economic growth for all citizens that the country simply successfully moves on from the genocide?  Or will there remain lingering resentment, with the two groups still cognizant of differences, and, the Hutu, potentially feeling marginalized by the pro-Tutsi leadership, and potentially even demonized?  The chilling problem is that the 1994 genocide was not the first genocide in Rwanda; there have been repeated waves of genocide.  Clearly, the stakes are high if the Kagame regime calculates this wrongly.

Another potential source of resentment could stem from the one-sided justice after the genocide – essentially, victor’s justice.  Génocidaires were tried through three different justice mechanisms:  the ICTR, set up by the international community in Arusha, Tanzania; domestic courts in Rwanda; and, after it proved impossible to handle the cases of all the imprisoned génocidaires through the domestic courts, use of indigenous “Gacaca” trials, that very roughly adjudicated nearly 2 million cases.

Justice for the genocide was imperative.  Genocide is a crime that must be prosecuted, so choosing to have a truth commission (as was used in South Africa) would not have sufficed.  And, 20 years later, the cases (except for a handful of transfer cases and génocidaires recently sent back from Europe), are largely concluded.  However, crimes were committed against Hutus as well, and these were basically excluded from these three levels of trial mechanisms.  Will such one-sided justice leave a legacy of resentment?  It has that potential.

So, while Rwanda appears stable, and prosperous, and is a beautiful country, only time will tell whether it in fact is in fact a success story.  Will the 80% Hutu population see itself as sufficiently benefiting from the country’s remarkable economic recovery?  Clearly, Rwanda’s approach to rebuilding has not been cost free, while donor countries (who perceive mainly a success story in Rwanda), remain largely uncritical of the government.  Ultimately, one has to wonder, 20 years after the genocide, whether in the face of such remarkable success, the government still needs to rule with such an intolerant “top down” approach.  Can it not afford, at this point, to allow a more honest dialogue about the past to develop?  Can suppression of dissent and ethnic identity lead to a healthy outcome?  Only time will tell, but it is possible that ruling with a less stringent hand might permit the development of a more healthy and, ultimately, more stable society.

ABA Adopts Official Policy on Atrocity Crimes

Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in court in February 2013

Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in court in February 2013 (photo credit)


Last month the American Bar Association‘s House of Delegates unanimously approved a policy developed by the ABA’s International Human Rights Committee (IHRC) on no statutes of limitations for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. The IHRC mentioned what occurred in Haiti, where in 2012 a Haitian judge ruled that Jean Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”), having recently returned to Haiti after fleeing allegations of financial corruption and serious human rights abuses, could not face prosecution for crimes against humanity due to the expiration of  Haiti’s relevant statute of limitations. An ABA policy on this issue, said the IHRC, could have assisted the Haitian judiciary in the proper application of international law in this instance.

The policy systematically makes the case that customary international law now proscribes statutes of limitation for genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. It further states that encouraging all countries to adhere to this norm of customary international law will:

  • Minimize the likelihood that the relevant authorities will misapply or disregard this norm;
  • Promote the appropriate understanding of this principle of international law, thereby strengthening its deterrent aspect; and
  • Improve the human rights situation worldwide.

The policy can be found here.

Gender plays key role in Guatemala trial

I’ve been sitting in a courtroom in Guatemala City for the last two days watching the trial of former head of state and retired General Efrain Rios Montt and his head of military intelligence, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez.  The two are on trial for genocide and war crimes, the first time a former head of state has been tried in a national court for these crimes.   In addition to its importance for Guatemala’s debate over its history, and for advancing international criminal justice in national courts, the trial has been notable for its attention to gender-related crimes and for the participation of women.


The chief judge, Jasmin Barrios, has kept a tight rein on the courtroom.  She heads a three-judge panel, where one of the other judges is also a woman.  Although all the lawyers except one are male, the legal strategy of the prosecution – and the decision to bring the case to trial – was that of Chief Prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz, who we have blogged about here.   On Friday, the expert witnesses for the prosecution included Nieves Gomez, a psychologist and expert in trauma who discussed the psycho-social effects of the army’s genocidal campaign in the northern Ixil area, and Paloma Soria, a lawyer with Women’s Link Worldwide who presented her report about the evolution of international law on gender-based crimes.  On Monday, one of the last witnesses for the prosecution, Professor Liz Oglesby, testified movingly about the forced displacement and persecution of survivors, and the effects on the communities of the campaign of massacres, persecution and control in “reception centers” and “model villages” run by the military.   Professor Beatriz Manz of UC Berkeley had earlier talked about her research in the area, focusing on forced displacement.  Her photos of her visit to the Ixil area in 1983 are available here.


Crimes of sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery, have been front and center in this trial, which started on March 19 and will end this week.  On April 3rd, the courtroom was riveted as 12 women and 1 man from the area recounted details of multiple rapes, torture, sexual slavery and being forced to watch their children being raped and killed (summaries of the testimony are available at   The judge instructed the press not to transmit the testimony via internet (it is being live streamed here) or to publish the names or photos of the witnesses.  Most of the women testified with their faces covered by colorful shawls; many of the indigenous women in the audience, in solidarity, covered their own faces during the testimony.   This is the first time these events, and the prevalence of sexual violence as part of a strategy of destroying and controlling the population, have been openly discussed in the country.  In many cases, women had not even told their own family for fear of stigma; in others, the women had been ostracized by their communities.


The trial has moved at a fast clip, in part due to security concerns.  It has created a lively debate in the country’s press, including a special insert into Sunday’s newspaper claiming that the trial is a conspiracy of the Catholic church with the governments of Nordic countries and the left.  This is a country where such allegations have to be taken seriously as threats:  former military officers still wield a lot of power.  One holds the presidency.

The trial should be over this week, with a final (oral) verdict later in the week, and a written sentence to follow.  I’ll write a follow-up on the legal strategies and arguments later in the week.  Stay tuned.