Genocide is a crime and like any other crime it contains two parties: the perpetrators and the victims. When the story of a crime is told, it is the victim’s narrative that is remembered. Even now, 18 years after the genocide, the atrocities that were committed and the impact the have on the victims both in the past and in the present remains at the forefront of most discussions. Knowing these stories is tremendously important to the reconciliation process, to the memorialization process, and to ensuring that such atrocities are not repeated. However, these stories only reveal a portion of the picture. The stories of the perpetrators (or the génocidaires as they are called in Rwanda) also need to be told, particularly in the case of Rwanda, as they have been instrumental in the reconciliation and post-conflict reconstruction of the country.
The Rwanda génocidaires faced criminal justice on one of three levels. Those who were deemed most culpable and responsible for the genocide were brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania; those who were deemed to me mid-level perpetrators with relatively high levels of culpability faced the National Courts of Rwanda; and all other perpetrators were brought before the gacaca courts.
The gacaca courts are a community-based system of justice implemented to alleviate stress on the traditional justicesystem resulting from the high volume of prisoners. Between 2005 and 2011, more than 12,000 gacaca courts tried 1.2 million cases relating to the 1994 genocide. Despite its ability bring about swift trials, reduce the pressure on the severely overpopulated prison system, and document the genocide into case fact, the gacaca courts have been highly criticized. Human Rights Watch called them ‘Justice Compromised’ in their 2011 Report due the flaws in the trial process that lead to miscarriages of justice. However, given Rwanda’s post-conflict development, it becomes apparent that a tradeoff made in this regard. Although justice was not achieved to an international standard, the sentences brought down by the gacaca courts have greatly assisted in the post-conflict reconstruction of Rwanda.
Travail d’Intérêt Générale (TIG) is a community service organization for prisoners. Those génocidaires who confessed to their crimes were sentenced to reduced prison sentences and/or community service with TIG. In the wake of the genocide Rwanda was in ruins. Buildings, houses, and entire communities had been destroyed in the violence, leaving Rwanda in a perceived state of disrepair. Those perpetrators who have come to work for TIG are participating in development projects to reconstruct Rwanda – the very buildings, homes, and communities they helped destroyed during the genocide. One Rwandan described this very eloquently in reference to one community outside Kigali:
“The people who have made them homeless are the people who have brought them back to life.”
The perpetrators the genocide are quite literally rebuilding the communities they destroyed. They are building houses, schools, and community centers for the victims and in doing so, helping Rwanda transition to a stable post-conflict society. Moreover, this participation in community development has reduced the animosity between perpetrators and victims. Taking responsibility for the crimes that they have committed and actively helping to rebuild what was destroyed during the genocide has played a significant role in the reconciliation process in Rwanda. The victims are grateful for the rebuilding of their community and are satisfied with justice being achieved through community development.
This brings to light an important question: what is more important, justice or reconciliation? Had these individuals been sentenced to 10, 20, or 30 years imprisonment and not had the option for community service many communities in Rwanda would still be destroyed. Moreover, the continued segregation of perpetrators and victims by imprisonment does not foster reconciliation between these two groups. That is not to say that those who were higher up in the chain of command, those who orchestrated the genocide, should get off with mere community service as their punishment. But it should be noted that these were not the majority. The vast majority of genocidaires were individuals acting not out of malicious premeditation, but rather out of fear and uncertainty resulting from the context of civil war, state power, and pre-conceived notions of ethnicity as Strauss demonstrated in his book The Order of Genocide. For these individual who have sincerely repented their actions, is the unity of Rwanda not more important? In these cases, should reconciliation and post-conflict development not be the ultimate goal? It can be argued that Rwanda is where it is today because of programs such as TIG, so how can we argue with such success? Can justice and reconciliation be achieved simultaneously, or are the mutually exclusive?
Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. Currently she is travelling to Rwanda with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar with the Zones of Conflict, Zones of Peace Program. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @joleneh340