Rwanda 2014: Backing justice

7 April 2014

Brussels – On 7 April 1994, Rwanda’s genocide started, eventually claiming some 800,000 victims. In 1996, tens of thousands of genocide trials needed to be carried out, and the devastated judicial system needed to be reconstructed. Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) mobilised in response to this massive need for justice. Today, Chantal van Cutsem, ASF coordinator for the Great Lakes region, reflects on the continued need for effective, independent justice in Rwanda.   

Question:  Soon after the genocide, ASF set up its first permanent mission in Rwanda. How would you describe the situation on the ground at the time? 

Chantal van Cutsem: It was unprecedented. Tens of thousands of people accused of genocide were awaiting trial, and the justice system was virtually wiped out. Most of the infrastructure, such as prisons and courts, had been destroyed and justice actors, including lawyers, were few. Faced with this challenge, 12,000 local Gacaca courts were set up all over the country, delivering around one and a half million judgments.  ASF spent five years monitoring how the Gacaca courts worked, and helped train people from the local population to act as judges. We also supported the conventional courts, training magistrates and providing legal advice for those accused of genocide, as well as for victims.

Q: Twenty years on, some observers, including other human rights NGOs, are quite critical of how the Rwandan justice system dealt with the genocide. What do you think? 

CvC: The aim of any judicial system is to deliver fair justice. For this, the principles of a fair trial need to be scrupulously followed, including a fair hearing for all the parties, and a ruling delivered within a reasonable period of time. There are still a number of people in preventive detention, awaiting judgement, often on appeal. There are also victims are still waiting for some form of reparation.

Q: Apart from processing genocide-related cases, what is the main challenge the Rwandan judicial system faces in 2014? 

CvC: For many years, we have worked alongside those involved in the judicial system, civil society, and those seeking justice to help to promote justice for all. Now, we hope that the Rwandan bar association and Rwandan civil society organisations will continue this work in order to ensure independent, fair, high-quality justice. If the economic boom that the country is experiencing is accompanied by respect for the principles of impartiality and independence of the justice system, all Rwandans can benefit.

Picture: The Kigali Memorial Centre is built on a site where over 250,000 victims of the genocide are buried © ASF

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