COLUMBIA, MISS. — I could see terror in the eyes of the tall, elderly widow as she dared to speak in a classroom crowded by neighbors who knew the killers responsible for exterminating her entire family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The widow, a lone surviving Tutsi in her village, said she was afraid that her voice would not be heard when the village elects judges later this year to decide the fate of those who killed her family.
Those judges will likely be relatives, friends, or even accomplices of those who murdered her loved ones. By speaking out, she made herself a potential target for violence and ostracism in the Hutu-dominated community where she must survive daily. She also fears that justice will not be done under the proposed Gacaca court system aimed at reconciliation. (The Gacaca courts are based on a traditional system predating colonialism, with village elders judging community matters.)
This widow's dilemma revives the question: What is the appropriate punishment for murder? We need an international referendum on the death penalty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rwanda, still slowly recovering from the genocide in which more than 1 million people were killed over the span of four months.
Most of the dead were from the minority Tutsi ethnic group. Many were exterminated by paid killers in efficient, well-armed government militias. Others were murdered by neighbors and friends wielding machetes and clubs.
Earlier this year, I worked as a communications consultant with the Rwandan Ministry of Justice, responsible for more than 125,000 people who have been in prison for six years awaiting trial on genocide charges. The genocide has decimated Rwanda's judicial system. It would take all the lawyers and judges now in the country more than 100 years to try all these cases using the present legal system.
Therefore, Rwanda launched a bold initiative to create special community courts under supervision of the country's Supreme Court. They will adjudicate the genocide cases involving defendants guilty of lesser offenses such as conspiracy, the destruction of property, and so on. These Gacaca courts will encourage all community members to take part in the trials and require them to tell the truth about what they witnessed during the genocide.
The idea behind Gacaca is not only to decide the genocide cases, but also to promote truth and reconciliation, much like the process initiated in South Africa following the end of its violent apartheid regime. Part of the reconciliation process is to have victims confront their assailants in a context that will promote confession and forgiveness.
But when it comes to punishing those with a direct hand in the mass murders, an ironic double standard exists concerning the death penalty. While the death penalty is carried out almost weekly for less heinous crimes in the US, the international community harshly criticized the Rwandan government when it publicly executed 22 genocide convicts in April 1998. Since then, the government has held off on executing 300 others sentenced to death. Rwanda has protested what it sees as the too lenient proceedings of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, where the organizers and orchestrators of the genocide are being tried.
Under international law, which emphasizes protecting the human rights of the accused, those with the greatest responsibility for the genocide face a maximum penalty of life in prison, if found guilty. The real problem for Rwanda is how to operate under this double standard. Rwanda needs to dispense with the backlog of genocide cases in a way that gives the appearance of justice under international legal standards and also addresses its particular need to break the cycle of violence against Tutsis. This cycle is commonly called the culture of impunity. The perpetrators were never sufficiently punished to deter them from doing it again.
For more than 40 years, the majority Hutu ethnic group has killed, raped, and tortured Tutsis without fear of prosecution or other serious consequence. Previous regimes looked the other way. Hutus came to believe that they were doing the government a favor by their murderous acts.
Following the slaughter of a million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers, the present government in Rwanda cannot ignore this historic culture of crime without punishment. To do so would reinforce impunity. It's difficult for a country so devastated, with so much international pressure on it and so few resources, to deliver justice to victims and survivors and also destroy the culture of impunity without the central tool of a death penalty.
It is possible to forgive and reconcile even after the most heinous crimes. Some survivors in Rwanda have forgiven those who killed their families. Intellectually, I'm against the death penalty, but I couldnot look into that lone Tutsi widow's eyes and tell her that Rwanda has no right to pursue justice by executing the killers of her family. The opposite assurance, in fact, might be the only thing that would keep some in the classroom from attacking her any night.
*Tim Gallimore, a mass-media consultant and freelance writer/editor, recently served as assistant director for the US Agency for International Development on its Rwanda Rule of Law, "Gacaca" community-justice project.
The international community advises against the death penalty. But does it practice what it preaches?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society