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Rwanda: Justice Progress after Genocide

National, International Courts Played Vital Role; Challenges Remain

(Nairobi) – Significant progress has been made in national and international courts to bring to justice those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide.

The 20-page paper, “Justice After Genocide: 20 Years On,” focuses on the achievements of courts in Rwanda, at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and in other countries, to hold to account those who planned, ordered, and carried out the genocide.

“The Rwandan genocide was one of the most terrifying episodes of targeted ethnic violence in recent world history,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “On the 20th anniversary of these horrific events, Human Rights Watch stands in solidarity with the victims and with those who survived.”

Between April and July 1994, Hutu extremists in Rwanda carried out a genocideaimed at wiping out the Tutsi minority, killing more than a half million people in just three months.  Many Hutu who attempted to hide or defend Tutsi and those who opposed the genocide were also killed.

The briefing paper, based on Human Rights Watch field research and trial observation in Rwanda over many years, highlights the exceptional challenge of delivering justice in a country devastated by genocide. The Rwandan government embarked on an unprecedented and ambitious approach, using both conventional courts and community-based gacaca courts.

The briefing paper outlines the achievements as well as the flaws of Rwanda’s conventional and gacaca courts, and the uneven standard of trials in both jurisdictions.

In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, in particular, conventional courts convicted numerous defendants after unfair trials. In more recent years, the government has carried out   a range of legal and institutional reforms that have improved respect for due process, but concerns remain about the judiciary’s lack of independence.

Gacaca courts left a mixed legacy. The speed with which they processed almost two million cases was remarkable, and the participation of local communities across the country was important. However, many gacaca hearings resulted in unfair trials and were marred by intimidation, corruption, and flawed decision-making.

The briefing paper also takes stock of the work of the ICTR as it winds down in 2014, and describes a new momentum for prosecution of Rwandan genocide suspects by courts in foreign countries, as well as moves toward extraditing suspects to Rwanda.

In contrast with progress in genocide prosecutions, few members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the former rebel group that put an end to the genocide and is now the ruling party in Rwanda, have been prosecuted in Rwanda, and none by the ICTR.

“RPF troops killed tens of thousands of civilians as they took over the country in 1994,” Bekele said. “These killings are not equivalent or comparable to the genocide, but they constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the victims and their families have a right to see justice done.”

Finally, the paper describes the lasting impact of the Rwandan genocide on neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the legacy of the shameful international failure to act to prevent the genocide in 1994.

“As the world’s eyes turn to Rwanda once again, Rwanda and other countries should build on the achievements of the last 20 years in delivering justice for these terrible crimes,” Bekele said. “They should keep up the efforts to arrest and prosecute, in fair and credible trials, others responsible for these crimes who are still at large.”

The video's narrator, Alison Des Forges

Alison Des Forges was Human Rights Watch’s senior advisor in the Africa Division and one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda. In the period leading up to the genocide, she worked tirelessly to alert world powers to the impending crisis in Rwanda. Her efforts did not stop when the genocide ended. She continued painstakingly gathering information on these horrific crimes, which she compiled into what has become one of the main reference books on the Rwandan genocide: “Leave none to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda”, published in 1999.

Alison Des Forges campaigned vigorously for justice for the genocide until her sudden death in a plane crash in the US on February 12, 2009. She also documented human rights abuses by the new government of Rwanda after the genocide and advocated for accountability for all abuses, past and present.

Photo Essay by Corinne Dufka

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