Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Zac Nsenga, Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda

  My name is Zac Nsenga and am currently serving as the Ambassador of Rwanda to the United States. I also served as Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2000 with concurrent accreditation to the Nordic countries and Dublin. I am greatly honored to be asked to share with the committee, Rwanda's experience on reconciliation. I do hope that our experience will contribute the committee's efforts as it deals with Northern Ireland's past.

  In my submission, I have tried to highlight what I think is relevant from Rwanda's experience on reconciliation. So, please feel free to contact me at any time during the hearing should you require more information or clarification as regards our experience.



  Rwanda is one of the 53 African states situated geographically more to the East than to centre of Africa. It borders Uganda to the North, Tanzania to the East, Burundi to the South and DRC to the West. It has a population of 8.2 million and the size of Wales in the UK Rwanda is struggling to recover from her bitter recent history of chronic human rights violation, a culture of impunity and 1994 genocide. Most Rwandans now believe that classical justice alone is not enough to bring about reconciliation given the magnitude of the task ahead of them. Rwandans are now probing through their historic past for some of the other initiatives that can restore unity and reconciliation.

  Historically, Rwanda existed as kingdom under a centralized administration headed by king. The people of Rwanda have always shared a common culture, religion and language (kinyarwanda). They were differentiated along social lines depending on level of wealth (cows). Normally, Batutsi class depended on cows for livelihood. Abahutu depended on agriculture where as the Batwa either did pottery or specialized in entertaining at the king's court.

  All the three classes paid tribute to the king in return for protection and various favours. Batutsi who lost their cattle due to disease epidemic such as Rinderpest would become Bahutu and like wise Bahutus who obtained cattle would become Batutsi thus climbing the ladder of the social strata. This social mobility ended abruptly with the onset of colonial administration. What had hitherto been social classes until then, took a fixed ethnic outlook and thus there emerged the "Tutsi, Hutus and Twa ethnic groups". Some even go further to refer to them as "major Rwandan tribes".

  A traditional justice system called GACACA predominated as an institution for resolving conflict, rendering justice and reconciliation. The king was the ultimate judge and arbiter for those cases that ever reached him. Despite the traditional nature of the system, harmony and cohesion had been established among Rwandans and within the kingdom.

  The colonial administration drastically changed the traditional system with a new order in which they ruled indirectly through the king whose power had been completely usurped. New sets of rules and instructions that were unfair and unpopular to ordinary people were being implemented by their king (Tutsi) to the detriment of the centuries old cohesion. The western form of justice inherited was taken as alien, divisive, unfairly applied and only served the interest of the colonial administration.

  These serious colonial distortions undermined the cohesive process characteristic of the pre colonial era and sowed the seed of disaster that was in waiting. No wonder therefore that unlike many of the African countries that obtained independence with a united sense of nationalism, Rwanda's transition to independence was marred with bloody massacres recognized by many as the first Rwandan genocide of 1959. Tens of thousands of "Tutsis" and many pro-monarchist "Hutus" were massacred or forced into exile. State inspired violence continued to be directed against innocent "Tutsi" in form of persecution, loss or destruction of property, torture, imprisonment and forced exile.

  A culture of impunity prevailed for all those decades until 1994 genocide. No body was ever held to account for all the human rights violations. In actual fact, impunity was codified into the Rwandan law under what was termed as "Amnesty law of 20 May 1963" which exonerated all those responsible for the 1959-62 massacres and "Amnesty law of 30 November 1974" granting amnesty to those who committed political crimes and massacres of Tutsis in 1972. It was this long established culture of impunity that paved the way for 1994 genocide.

  The peculiar nature of the Rwandan genocide by which large proportion of population got involved in massive crimes against humanity posed the greatest bottleneck to the administration of justice and reconciliation. And indeed, the challenge in the aftermath of genocide has been how to bring about accountability for genocide, end impunity and set the country on the path to the rule of law on one hand and on the other to bring about national unity and reconciliation as a basis for peace, stability and development.

  It was this kind of dilemma that led the government of Rwanda to initiate nation wide debates and international consultations on the future of justice in Rwanda. Fundamental conclusions were arrived at:

    —  It would take over 150 years for Rwanda's justice system (national courts and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) to complete the current genocide suspects in custody (120,000 inmates).

    —  Given our historic past, eradicating a culture of impunity is a must if justice and reconciliation is to be realized.

    —  Classical justice alone would not be sufficient to bring about healing and reconciliation in a society that has endured impunity and injustice for so long and whose social fabric had been destroyed by 1994 genocide.

    —  Since a large number of citizens publicly committed crimes against their neighbors and in the eyes of the whole population, the society would play a role in recounting the facts, disclosing the truth and participating in both reconstitution of Rwandan social fabric and the healing process as a matter of national obligation.

    —  Questioning the past for solutions on reconciliation would be a good idea to start with. The history of Rwanda provided rich tradition of peaceful co"existence and reconciliation. Other alternative solutions from elsewhere would be incorporated if found fitting to the Rwandan situation.


  Based on the above considerations, Gacaca system of justice was adopted though legislation. The advantage of gacaca concept is that every Rwandan is familiar with it and it is well rooted into the Rwandan culture and tradition. Nobody would have to go for training on what it is, how it works and its benefits to the community.

  The word Gacaca in Kinyarwanda means "in the grass". In pre-colonial Rwanda, it was used to settle community disputes and conflict, thus rendering justice and reconciliation to communities. Both the offender and the offended would be judged by a team of respected elders of high reputation known for their impartiality (INYANGAMUGAYO). The community plays the role of the judge, the prosecution and implemention of the sentence passed.

  Judgments passed are intended to facilitate the victim and the offender to forgive and reconcile. The offender would be reintegrated into society without any retribution and would promise the community not to repeat the offence. The offender is asked to compensate the victim. The system ensured harmony in the kingdom of Rwanda. It was respected because of its fairness emanating from the impartiality of the judges and the whole community.


    1.  To expedite the trial of over 120,000 genocide suspects.

    2.  Truth telling through confession and witnesses from the public. This avails evidence and information for purposes of prosecution and documentation of genocide.

    3.  To end culture of impunity that has characterized Rwanda.

    4.  To facilitate Reconciliation through confessions and seeking apologies.


  Traditional gacaca was never applied to crimes of such magnitude as genocide. That is why it was important to empower it through an act of legislation in order for it to pass relatively heavier punishment. Impunity had to end and be seen to be tackled, lest Gacaca would be seen, especially by the survivors of genocide, as a kind of amnesty similar to the ones of 1963 and 1974. It is for this very reason (able to try and punish) that Gacaca was preferred as opposed to the South African Truth and Reconciliation. It was also imperative to categorize the level of involvement in genocide crimes because not all cases of genocide suspects would be handled by Gacaca.

Category 1

  All persons whose criminal acts or criminal participation place them among planners, organizers, supervisors and ringleaders of the genocide or crimes against humanity; all persons who at that time were in the organs of leadership, army, gendarmerie, communal police or militia and committed genocide or encouraged others to commit crimes; persons who committed acts of torture against others even if they did not result into death; persons who committed acts of rape.

Category 2

  This category includes those who killed with or without intent to kill but they were not the planners of genocide; or caused serious body injuries with intent to kill but did not achieve their objective; or those who aided others to kill such as by giving information on victims hide out.

Category 3

  Includes all who committed acts of Arson.

  Gacaca tribunals have jurisdiction over categories 2 and 3. Punishment is executed through community service or a combination of community service and imprisonment. Most in category 3 have been acquitted already because they have already been in prison for long. Category 1 suspects are under the jurisdiction of ordinary national courts and international tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania.


    1.  Many prisoners have confessed, recounted the truth about what happened and asked for forgiveness.

    2.  Gacaca process has led to the release of over 42,000 prisoners to be handled by gacaca courts or for reintegration into their communities.

    3.  Reconciliation is in progress as those released and have asked for forgiveness are engaged in day to day challenges of facing the realities of our history and the survivors they wronged.

    4.  Gacaca has had a positive impact to the community through confidence building and community participation for a common goal.

    5.  Concept of community service as opposed to imprisonment has been adopted. Many who are convicted through gacaca courts spend half or all their punishment doing community work such as building schools, health centres, road construction etc.


  The major challenges include:

    1.  Gacaca system poses a lot of financial and logistical bottleneck. There are more than 10,000 courts around the country which implies a lot of communication, transportation and administrative requirements.

    2.  Survivor's compensation is still problematic. Where as more is done focusing on trials and reconciliation, resources have to be available to compensate the survivors of genocide who are expected to forgive and reconcile their tormentors without anything in return.


  Rwandans know that gacaca is not a panacea in itself. It is one of those tools that can facilitate reconciliation through expediting trials, ending impunity and truth telling. The alternative means more than a century of a burden that only the Rwandans have to shoulder. Gacaca system will help us put the burden of a huge prison population behind us and increase chances for reconciliation. It is a home grown solution known to Rwandans of all walks of life. We do not need expertise and neither do we need training on the system.

  Certainly, it presents a lot of financial and logistic challenges. But these are worth tackling. The alternative, in the case of Rwanda, is more costly. I believe that within any given society and especially the conflict stricken ones like Rwanda, there are many local initiatives that can be re-visited for solutions. There is no one single answer to justice and reconciliation. A combination of initiatives : political, economic, social and cultural efforts play a big role. And it seems to me that the Northern Ireland Affairs committee is on the right path trying to examine all these aspects from different experiences.

29 December 2004

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