Fluid Ways to Justice

By Western standards, the trials starting this week in Rwanda of more than 100,000 people held as suspects for the 1994 genocide are anything but fair.

Judges will be only respected local elders. The accused have no lawyers. Sentences will be uneven. And the trials may be held outside, perhaps with an entire village sitting around on the grass giving testimony against the killers of some 800,000 people.

This will be traditional Rwandan justice, called gacaca (meaning "justice on the grass"). It's a practical substitute for a poor nation in place of a more rigorous and expensive international trial. The ringleaders of the Rwandan genocide are on trial in a UN court set up in Tanzania.

Rwanda's gacaca is the latest example of the ad hoc nature of justice for crimes against humanity or massive human rights violations. Cambodia has rejected international control over trials against former Khmer Rouge leaders. Indonesia won't bend to foreign pressure to try soldiers who massacred thousands in East Timor.

On a more theoretical basis, the United States refuses to let the new International Criminal Court try American soldiers who might someday be seen as breaking international law.

South Africa decided to bypass trials of its apartheid enforcers and seek individual repentance under a "truth commission." That worked relatively well and may have inspired Rwanda in adopting this slogan for its gacaca justice: "The truth heals."

Justice has many parts, but airing the truth about a crime is primary. The drive to impose international justice on perpetrators of local atrocities, as with the creation of the ICC, is compelled in large part by ability of leaders to hide misdeeds.

A nation that at least exposes its past atrocities is on the road to reconciliation. International justice may help deter people in other nations from committing similar acts.

Indigenous justice, if it works, is a better course than an international system of judges-without-frontiers. But if a nation falters in reconciliatory justice, then the international community cannot look away.

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