Background on the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan Genocide was rooted in decades of tension between Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups, the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. The day former Rwandan president Habyarimana was killed by Hutu extremists in a plane crash on April 6, 1994, was the beginning of 100 days of genocide. Hutu extremists began the organized killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutus and seized power from a transitional government that tried to include both ethnic groups. In addition to the army, the two Hutu militia groups responsible for most of the killings were Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and Impuzamugambi (“Those Who Have The Same Goal”).

However, around 200,000 Hutu citizens also participated in the genocide, some willingly and others forcibly. Radio broadcasts served as instruments of genocide, inciting civilians to engage in the killings. Mass rape was another powerful weapon: carriers of HIV/AIDS were intentionally used to sexually assault and infect Tutsi women. By mid-July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had taken over and established a joint Hutu-Tutsi government, ending the genocide. Yet by this time, the civilian death toll had reached over 800,000, even by conservative estimates.

Levels of Judicial Redress

The response of both the Rwandan government and the international community to the genocide was historic in the way it pioneered international law-making on genocide and crimes against humanity. Their methods of applying traditional methods of justice to the process hold many lessons. The three main levels of judicial redress were the UN International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) at the international level, the Rwandan National Courts at the national level, and the Gacaca “grass” courts locally.

International: ICTR

The UN created the ICTR with the purpose of prosecuting the leaders responsible for the genocide between January 1, 1994 and December 31, 1994. The Tribunal was located in Arusha, Tanzania, and operated from 1995 until 2015, indicting 93 individuals and sentencing a total of 62 people. Its mandate allowed it to impose terms of imprisonment, but not capital punishment. It succeeded in holding high-ranked military and civilian leaders, including a former Prime Minister and senior military offers, responsible for genocide-related deaths, sentencing a number of them to life imprisonment. It set an example for international tribunals in a number of ways: it was the first to issue genocide-related verdicts and to recognize sexual violence as acts of genocide under certain circumstances. It was also the first to hold media-affiliated persons responsible for broadcasts that incited people to commit acts of genocide.

Although the ICTR accomplished a great deal, it also failed in several ways. Rwandans criticized the ICTR’s failure to provide any reparations to victims. The ICTR’s unwillingness to try any crimes against humanity committed in 1994 by the ruling RPF, in which thousands of Hutus were killed, was also a point of reproach. Others criticized the tribunal’s location outside Rwanda, the high costs and lengths of trials that resulted in relatively few convictions, and the fact that those convicted of genocide were able to speak to the media.

National: Rwandan National Courts

While the ICTR was responsible for prosecuting responsible authorities at the highest level, the Rwandan National Court (RNC) focused on trying lower-level genocide suspects. One way the RNC differed from the ICTR was that it was able to issue the death penalty. In one case, 22 convicts were publicly executed in 1998, despite major inadequacies in the hearings. The death penalty was abolished in 2007, with two key areas of impact: 1) the ICTR was then able to transfer cases to the RNC 2) European countries opposed to the death penalty were willing to extradite genocide suspects within their borders. By 2007, the RNC had tried 10,000 suspects.

Local: Gacaca Courts

In 2001, the Rwandan government established thousands of traditional, pre-colonial Gacaca courts, in which hearings took place outdoors and heads of households served as judges. Their purpose was to help clear a backlog of 115,000 genocide cases and alleviate prison overcrowding (130,000 suspects had been crammed into prison space meant for 12,000). Through Gacaca courts, the government also hoped to uncover unknown details of the genocide, and to encourage a sense of reconciliation between the two ethnic groups. In the words of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, it was an “African solution to African problems.”

Rwanda’s unique approach to transitional justice incorporated traditional practices into modern law, with a number of important outcomes. For one, they provided speedy trials with widespread participation and overall approval, as well as a reduced prison population. With regard to reconciliation, they led to a better understanding of what happened in 1994 and helped locate and identify bodies. They also played a part in helping to ease tensions. By 2010, Gacaca courts had prosecuted approximately 1.5 million cases (Britannica).

However, while the Gacaca courts were a success in the ways mentioned above, their communal nature allowed trials to be easily misused. Though they were meant to focus on trying low-level genocide suspects, sometimes they were used to settle personal scores. Other criticisms were similar to those aimed at the ICTR: reconciliation was limited because acts of genocide committed by the RPF were excluded from trial, and there was no compensation for survivors. In fact, in order to free up prisons, the government granted amnesty to tens of thousands of genocide suspects charged with lesser crimes, if they admitted to, and asked forgiveness for their wrongs. This meant that many survivors had to live alongside pardoned genocide convicts.

Rwanda’s experimentation in transitional justice left behind a “mixed legacy”, in which a sped-up judicial process and a clearer understanding of what happened in 1994 was achieved at the cost of flawed trials that led to instances of injustice.

Key Lessons

  • Rwanda had three levels of judicial redress that worked together to ensure that both leaders and civilians would be brought to trial.
  • Holding leaders responsible reinforced the idea that no one is above the law.
  • Traditional Gacaca courts were useful for speeding up the process, but they often came at the cost of fair trials.
  • Holding the current ruling party for past crimes proved to be very difficult.
  • It is important for reconciliation that the guilty are brought to trial, but also that victims are compensated.



Last Updated: April 27, 2018

Author: Sarah Kim