Law student searches for Justice in Rwanda
By Kevin Hyde
More than a decade after genocide ravaged their country, the citizens of Rwanda live among people they know killed their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. In some cases, these murders happened right in front of them.
The question that continues to haunt Becca O'Neill is whether total reconciliation is possible in such a place. "And, if it is," she asks, "is that something the government can give its people?"
The second-year University of Louisville law student has a unique perspective on issues such as reconciliation, forgiveness and justice in the African nation. She has met hundreds of Rwandese-first working for a human rights organization there in 2004 and this past summer as one of the first two Americans ever to intern at Rwanda's controversial National Service of Gacaca Courts in Kigali.
During her internship, which was funded in part by a grant from the UofL Student Bar Foundation, O'Neill had the rare opportunity to see firsthand a country struggling for "a sense of order and basic justice" in the wake of genocide.
For 100 days-from April 6 to July 4, 1994-it is estimated that between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans died during the genocide. Most Americans know about this, O'Neill says, but few consider what it must be like to live there today-in the aftermath.
"Since 1994 the West has had time to vocalize its regret over allowing the genocide to occur," she says. "We have rolled out all the slogans, the apologies and even made some decent movies.
"But while we occupy a space from which it is safe to feel guilty and reflective, Rwandans are still faced with the reality of living in a country that is reeling from the effects of genocide."
And how does one even begin to understand the legal situation?
"Judges and attorneys were targeted during the genocide, and those who weren't killed had long since fled the country," O'Neill says. "Rwanda had to rebuild its legal system as well as attempt to maintain order."
The Gacaca Courts
In the years immediately following the genocide, Rwanda incarcerated more than 120,000 people suspected of committing genocide crimes. These atrocities were carried out by both civilians and trained militias.
"Throughout the country those who had murdered their neighbors, friends and even family members were walking free," O'Neill says. "For decades, groups of Rwandans had been murdered because of their perceived ethnic identity. After the genocide, victims and perpetrators alike assumed the government would simply be unable to punish those responsible for carrying out the genocide."
But the country was determined to try.
Rwanda launched the Gacaca court system in 2001 to expedite the trials of genocide suspects. The system is named for and based on the traditional practice of community hearings used to resolve local disputes. The process merges the customary system with a more formal, Western court structure.
Gacaca is unique, O'Neill says, because the cases are tried and heard at the local level, and the judges are laypeople. There are more than 12,000 courts in Rwanda, and the entire Rwandese population participates.
"It's not an amnesty system," she stresses. "The judges can impose sentences as high as life imprisonment."
But Gacaca is a controversial system.
"The lack of attorneys and professional judges during trials has raised the ire of several leading international nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Penal Reform International," O'Neill explains. "It has been argued that Gacaca violates international standards of fair trial and due process."
But the U.N. Convention on Human Rights does allow for transitional justice systems that fall short of these standards in emergency circumstances.
While the human rights organizations are critical, O'Neill says, "They widely acknowledge that the situation represents such an emergency and that Gacaca presents the best opportunity for peace in Rwanda today."
Dedicated to Social Service
O'Neill's first encounter with Rwanda was as a grant writer for a human rights organization there, following the completion of her undergraduate studies in social work at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
The Charlotte, N.C., native then served as a social worker in Brooklyn, helping disadvantaged people with legal issues. Based on her experiences in Rwanda and Brooklyn, she decided that the best way to fuel her dedication to social service was through legal education.
So she entered the UofL Brandeis School of Law in 2006.
The law school has a strong emphasis on public service, says Mary Jo Gleason, director of its Samuel L. Greenebaum Public Service Program.
"The program is broad enough to allow for law students to design many interesting programs both nationally and internationally," Gleason says. "Two examples are one student who did an internship in the Amazon jungle-in Venezuela-with an international human rights organization helping indigenous people, and another student who did an internship with Amnesty International in Hong Kong, China." It wasn't long before O'Neill was designing an internship in Rwanda's Gacaca courts.
"I was one of two interns, the other also an American law student," she says. "She and I were the first-ever interns at Gacaca from the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of Gacaca and the amount of criticism it has received, outsiders are not often invited to work there."
O'Neill served in Gacaca's legal support unit, which responds to any complaints and concerns about how Gacaca is working.
"There are several attorneys who are assigned to various geographic sections of Rwanda," she says. "Comp-laints come from Rwandese civilians who feel they or their family member did not receive a fair trial, and from international organizations. The legal support unit works with both prison and survivor organizations in an ongoing effort to oversee and improve Gacaca."
As an intern, O'Neill was charged with three key tasks.
First, she needed to learn as much as possible about Gacaca, which was often complicated because the legislation establishing the courts has changed several times. "My initial task was to read all of the legislation and attempt to understand it," she says. "My coworkers saw me as an ‘ambassador' for Gacaca, someone from the outside who could learn firsthand how the system functioned and spread that information to legal communities in the U.S."
O'Neill admits she was shocked and somewhat flattered to discover that those working in the system saw her as someone who could educate others about Gacaca. "The attorneys working in Gacaca have a great desire for the American legal community to learn about Gacaca," she says.
Her second task was to read and review a series of reports by different international organizations that evaluated phases of the court system.
"I then presented my assessments to my supervisors, who in turn decided which aspects of the reports to add-ress with international donors and aid organizations," she says. "I was also asked to write proposals for potential donor organizations, such as the United States Agency for International Development."
Lastly, O'Neill was assigned a series of reports to write focusing on the successes and failures of Gacaca. Her supervisor, Andrews Kananga, an attorney in the legal support unit, recommended that she view the system through the lens of international standards of fair trial. He also encouraged her to speak with survivors and perpetrators alike.
"You get to know the effectiveness of Gacaca," Kananga says. "Survivors are willing to forgive the perpetrators who are willing to ask for forgiveness. It's a new form of justice, focusing on the restorative, reconciliatory aspects."
It often came back to the horrific question: How do you forgive someone who murdered a family member right in front of you? O'Neill met several people who were able to make that prodigious leap.
"When I meet people like this, I am astounded by their grace and strength," she says. "Of course, I have also met Rwandans who cannot find a way to forgive. When I meet them, it makes sense to me. I empathize with them and admire their ability to survive after such harrowing personal tragedies."
Alphonse Muleefu, another one of O'Neill's supervisors who works in the Gacaca legal support unit, was impressed with how O'Neill handled her duties. "She was very dedicated and I greatly appreciated her teamwork and spirit," Muleefu says. "It was dynamic how she was able to work in an environment that uses Kinyarwanda, a language she could neither speak nor write."
While it was clear to O'Neill that those at Gacaca are working hard to enforce the law-as well as respond to criticism and suggestions for improvement-she noticed "a sense of frustration" in the office.
"Gacaca receives letters of complaint every day from international organizations," she says. "While they are well intentioned and aimed at improvement and oversight, Rwanda is truly in an impossible situation.
"Its mandate, to restore peace and justice in post-genocide Rwanda, all while trying to punish offenders and provide a sense of stability and calm in the country, is enormous."
And it doesn't help that the system is still scrambling to find donors, she says. So it's difficult for Gacaca to make the improvements it and the international community wants.
"But the progress in Rwandan justice since 1994 is incredible," she adds. "I don't think anyone inside or out of Rwanda would have predicted that such an innovative and organized system could have been implemented."
Still, the expectations are staggering.
"Both the international community and Rwandans have very high demands. And despite all of the grand hopes, Gacaca cannot force someone to forgive a murderer," O'Neill concludes. "The role that Gacaca can fulfill is to provide a sense of order and basic justice throughout a country that has for so long gone without any sense of those things."