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Applying Restorative Justice to the Genocide in Rwanda

INTERVIEW with Dan Van Ness

Dan Van Ness is Executive Director of the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, (, a programme of Prison Fellowship International, PFI, (,based in Virginia (USA). PFI is an association of national NGOS from 116 countries working in prisons and communities to reduce the damage caused by crime. Beginning in 2001, Mr. Van Ness assisted Prison Fellowship Rwanda in preparing genocide perpetrators to confront their victims, survivors and communities.

Can you give us some background on what precipitated the 1994 genocide in which so many Tutsis and Hutus were killed? Can you give us an overview?
Yes. Hutus and Tutsis are two of the many tribes in Africa. In Rwanda, Hutus make up just over 85% of the population and the Tutsis just over 10%. They lived together in relative peace until the colonial era. The Belgians, influenced by contemporary interest in phrenology (the shape of the head), concluded that the Tutsis were superior in intelligence to the Hutus. Tutsis are taller and their heads are shaped more like those of Europeans than the Hutus. Consequently, the colonial powers put Tutsis in positions of power. When Belgium granted independence to Rwanda in 1959, it established a democratic constitution and as a result the government from 1959 until 1994 was dominated by Hutus. Some Hutus were extremely belligerent in their relations with the Tutsis, in the same way that extremist groups in some countries today base their appeal on nationalism. However, most Hutus and Tutsis got along well, living side by side in their villages and even intermarrying. Nevertheless, there were extremists within the leadership of the government, the military and the church. A Tutsi rebel force carried out military actions against the Hutu government. In 1994, a peace agreement was signed in Tanzania between the rebel leaders and the Rwandan president. While flying home to Kigali from the signing, the president’s plane was shot down and he was killed. Most now believe that he was killed by the extremist Hutus, but at the time they blamed the rebels. Using their radio station and a coordinated effort by their leaders around the country, the extremist Hutus organized an effort to kill all Tutsis. Over a timeframe of 100 days, about 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, mostly by neighbours at the instigation of the extremist Hutus.
How did you become involved in the situation in Rwanda?
By 2001, roughly 110,000 people were locked up in Rwandan prisons charged with participating in the genocide. Prison Fellowship (PF) Rwanda had become actively involved in the genocide prisons almost from the moment they were established. In September 2001, PF International held a meeting in South Africa. The representatives of PF Rwanda told me that the government had decided that it could not try all the prisoners in a reasonable time using Western-style courts, so it had resurrected a pre-colonial justice mechanism called gacaca. It intended to use 11,000 of these entities to hear all but the most serious cases.
Can you explain the meaning of gacaca justice?
The word gacaca refers to the grassy space in front of an elder’s house. It was the place that members of the community would go when they had a complaint against someone else. The matter would be heard by everyone, and a solution decided upon. As with many indigenous justice processes, gacacajustice had a mixture of purposes, but one major one was restoration of victims and of community peace. The government had arranged for elections in 11,000 communities in order to select “People of Integrity” who were trusted to hear cases in the gacaca proceedings. Prisoners would be brought to the hearing and people from the community could charge them with acts of genocide. The prisoners could either admit their role or defend themselves against the accusation. The concern in the fall 2001, just before these tribunals were to start hearing cases, was that the men and women in the genocide prisons had expected to be tried in Western courts, where the best strategy is not to admit anything and insist that the government prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. So for seven years virtually all of them had denied guilt. The first problem is that gacaca processes work best if there is a confession and truth telling. The sentences available to the gacaca judges were quite limited, and consisted largely of time served and community service. Victims and survivors of the genocide recognized that the prisoners would have to be released into the community, but they were insistent that they accept responsibility for what they had done. A second problem was that many Rwandans believed that “reconciliation” meant “forgive and forget.” That was not what the government meant, but it was a common assumption. As one survivor put it, “I know we will have to forgive them and let them return home. But it would be so much easier if they would admit what they did.” I visited Rwanda in December 2001 and met with a number of people. In the course of those meetings we came to the conclusion that our contribution might be to teach the meaning of restorative justice and genuine reconciliation in the prisons, helping prisoners understand the value and importance of assuming responsibility for what they had done. We decided that a modified version of the Sycamore Tree Project® (STP) could be helpful in doing this. This turned into the Umuvumu Tree Project.