Rwanda Five Years after the Genocide

By Schabas, William | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Rwanda Five Years after the Genocide


Schabas, William, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


ABSTRACT

BILL SCHABAS HAS VISITED Rwanda over a dozen times since the genocide of 1994, and has participated in rebuilding the country's legal system. This article briefly surveys the colonial history of Rwanda from its "discovery" by German colonists to the genocide of the 1990s and the relative success -- given the starting point -- of the post-genocide government.

Schabas argues that it has served the cause of reconciliation that Rwanda's post-1994 government has opted for criminal prosecution of those responsible, and has resisted the suggestion that a less judicial approach, perhaps like that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, be adopted. Since 1997 trials have been taking place at a modest pace. Perhaps a thousand or so have now been judged. There have been a respectable number of acquittals, a healthy sign. Several thousand have also offered to confess in exchange for reduced sentences.

APRIL 6, 1994. PRESIDENT JUVENAL HABYARIMANA'S PLANE crashes near the Kigali airport. Within the hour, racist extremists have set up roadblocks where they force people to produce identity cards that indicate their ethnic identity. The triage is quick and brutal. In the space of three months, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi are murdered, victims of the only undisputed genocide since the Holocaust. The international community stands by and watches.

Lessons learned? Five years have gone by. Rwanda's acting prime minister during the fateful months of 1994 has pleaded guilty to genocide before an international war crimes tribunal. His henchmen are in United Nations custody, awaiting trial before a court that did not even exist when the crimes were committed. Elections are being held in Rwanda, the first in decades. A continent away, NATO invokes Western guilt about the Rwandan genocide to justify bombing Yugoslavia. President Clinton had choked on the "g-word" in 1994. It is now part of his daily lexicon.

Have the international trials of genocide perpetrators, not to mention their domestic counterparts within Rwanda, helped the country move forward from its tragic past? Would the "international community" behave any differently if a new genocide were to occur in Africa? Does Kosovo signal progress from the inertia of the humanitarian agenda in 1994, or is it merely a reflection of the West's heightened concern for the lives of Europeans and the strategic importance of their territory?

I have visited Rwanda perhaps 15 times since 1994. My work there has been focused principally on the justice sector, attempting to jump start the judicial system so that it could cope with the challenges of accountability for genocide. My institution, the University of Quebec at Montreal, has been deeply involved in teaching at the law faculty of the Rwandan National University. We are proud of the fact that in April 1999, five years after the genocide, more than 50 students for whose teaching we have been principally responsible will graduate with law degrees. There are not 50 lawyers in all of Rwanda at present.

Yet optimism about the situation comes with difficulty and great scepticism. Ethnic conflict in the region seems endemic. When Rwanda cools down, the killing pops up somewhere else, in Burundi or Congo. It is like fighting a forest fire with buckets of water. The problems are regional, even continental. When will it all stop? Can anything meaningful be done?

Is ethnic conflict in Rwanda terminal?

When the genocide erupted in 1994, the Western media frequently portrayed the situation as a tribal conflict. This played on stereotypes most "Europeans" (to Rwandans, Canadians are "Europeans") learned in childhood, nurtured by colonialist literature and film, of the mad savages who rip each other apart on a whim. The truth, for those who cared to look, is that Rwanda was a nation state centuries before Canada. Rwanda was "discovered" in the 1890s by German colonists, then transferred to Belgium after the First World War. …

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