The Génocidaires: Rethinking Justice

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 Imagegenocide. 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 or follow her on twitter @joleneh340


6 thoughts on “The Génocidaires: Rethinking Justice

  1. This is actually true. Unfortunately, some conflicts where genocide could have been avoided by conflicting parties and their supporters, due to political interests, innocent people get killed. The world is becoming a worse place to live. Nevertheless, individuals working for restoring traumatized people and reconstruction have less influence to stop political and business leaders. What is happening in the DR Congo is a ” GENOCIDE” that has never taken place in the world, unfortunately political leaders involved for looting that country are well-known but no action is taken against them.

    Alleviation of such sufferings are taking place but more need to be done for the world leaders to have the talents to be called “GOOD LEADERS”.

  2. The crime of genocide includes a third party, namely the world that either intervenes as a neutral to end the conflict, takes sides, or stands by as the atrocities mount. The world may or may not be complicit in the extermination of people either directly, indirectly, or indifferently or it may choose to engage in stopping or preventing the violence from escalating or happening in the first place.

    Genocide is an unspeakable crime that mankind must stop from the outset. History offers too many examples of the world ignoring the plight of the victims and the heinous crimes of the perpetrators. When will the world accept the fact that we are responsible for stopping this crime against humanity?

    I mention this third actor because reconciliation and restorative justice are important actions for the genocidaires and the victims to observe. I advocate for reconciliation over revenge; however, there is a greater need to stamp out this scourge of mankind altogether. The world must learn that whether the genocide takes place in Europe, Africa, or on any continent, it must not happen in the first place. If genocide breaks out, it must be stopped immediately internally or externally.

    The people of Rwanda declared that they have no oil, vast acres of precious stones, or mineral reserves to merit the attention of the significant world powers. The issue is mankind’s inhumanity to his fellow man for whatever reason and any where on the face of the earth.

  3. As Samantha Powers has noted in her outstanding book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” the focus on whether a particular situation can be deemed to be “genocide” under international law is problematic.

    Semantic debates over whether actions merely have “characteristics of genocide” can be used as an excuse for inaction in the face of indisputable crimes against humanity.

    Ultimately, the self-interest of particular states overrides humanitarian concerns. This is why there has been thoughtful criticism of the 1948 Genocide Treaty.

    See e.g. (from a brief search on Google):

    genocide : Criticisms of the genocide convention — Encyclopedia ……/genocide/…/Criticisms-of-the-genocide-conventi…‎
    The deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race. The term, derived from the Greek genos …

    The Genocide Convention: A Reflection – Inter-Disciplinary.Net…/wvw6singh.pdf‎
    by H Singh – Related articles

    Genocide, commonly referred to as the Genocide Convention. It is at this ….. At various points in time, analysts and critics of the Convention have suggested …
    Can There Be Genocide Without The Intent To Commit Genocide ……/can-there-be-genocide-without-the-intent…‎

    Dec 31, 2010 – Critics of the Genocide Convention have taken exception to the limited scope of the convention’s definition of protected entities, especially the …
    Genocide : a philosophic criticism of genocide as it is defined in the …‎
    by HM Haldorson – 1992 – Cited by 1 – Related articles

    Aug 27, 2009 – Criticisms focus on the role of intent in genocide, and also include other clarifications to both Articles II and III of the Genocide Convention.

    Redefining Genocide – Genocide Watch‎
    culminated with the establishment of the Genocide Convention in 1948 by the UN. …. Chalk and Jonassohn wrongly criticized Kuper for including the US …

    CBC News In Depth: Sudan: The Genocide Convention‎
    Sep 18, 2006 – So far, the Genocide Convention has had the opposite effect to what Lemkin intended. Power and other critics point out the convention does not …

    BBC News – Analysis: Defining genocide‎
    Aug 27, 2010 – Article Two of the convention defines genocide as “any of the following … But in spite of these criticisms, there are many who say genocide is …
    Initiative on the UN Genocide Convention – Institute for Cultural … › english › HR Initiatives‎
    However, the definition of “genocide” in the Convention has remained relatively … unclear and therefore the Convention is often criticized as being ineffective.

    The Genocide Convention and Unprotected Groups – University of …‎
    by DS Bettwy – 1947 – Related articles
    Genocide of 1948 (Genocide Convention) provides that genocide is a crime … levels. At the same time, the list has been the subject of considerable criticism …

  4. Thank you Jolene. Justice or reconciliation. So black and white. Of course we should seek both and develop the means by which injustices can be better provented. Alas I do not perceive this. It seems to me that justice systems and conflict analysis and the general public can be insufficiently systemic in their approach and understanding and search for resolution.

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