It would be difficult for many to imagine the near total destruction of their nation’s infrastructure upon the backdrop of genocide, for the nation to survive such atrocities and to begin on the long road to recovery.
The 28 February 2013 saw the rare opportunity to hear, first hand, from one individual who has experienced just that and now plays an important role in the continued reconstruction of his nation. The Qatar Law Forum, on its continued efforts to champion the rule of law, hosted the Chief Justice of Rwanda, His Lordship Professor Sam Rugege, who delivered an insightful talk entitled Rwanda: Past, Present and Future.
Chief Justice Rugege’s talk began with an inevitable subject as it is “almost impossible” to discuss Rwanda without having regard to the 1994 genocide where up to a million were killed in the course of 100 days in circumstances that “should not have arisen in the modern world”.
The aftermath of the genocide was used as the backdrop for the further discussion of country-wide judicial reform. The genocide had left the country at the stage of almost complete destruction in terms of infrastructure, institutions and facilities. Post-genocide Rwanda was a country in need of reconstruction at a scale which would be difficult for many to fathom. With respect to judicial requirements specifically, Rwanda hardly had any judges, prosecutors and lawyers as only “a handful survived” the 1994 atrocities.
Rwanda began with the task, in earnest, of rebuilding and recruiting. The new Rwandan Constitution paved the way for the framework of a new structure of the court service. In that process the nation was cautious not to replicate the old, as the justice sector had historically been a neglected institution to the extent that the ordinary Rwandan failed to view the justice system as a beacon that upheld the rule of law. Rwanda took the opportunity to “start afresh and to build something better than what was before”. The fresh start allowed Rwanda to learn from the best examples from around the world but at the same time maintain autonomy and cater for the unique requirements of the nation.
One such requirement has been the establishment of Gacaca courts. These are traditional courts, based at village level consisting of panels of judges from members of the local communities. Gacaca courts, which only ceased to operate in 2012, played a crucial role in hearing many cases linked to the atrocities from the genocide. One of the aims of the Gacaca courts was to establish justice and promote reconciliation between communities of perpetrators and victims from the genocide.
Chief Justice Rugege explained that the reconstruction of Rwanda had not and could not be restricted to the judiciary. In addition to asking what could be done to improve the judiciary, the administration in Rwanda appreciated that a key part of sustained enrichment for the country lay in economic development and social improvement. The establishment of specialist commercial courts with one of the aims being to instil confidence in foreign investors had played a role in the economic strategy for the country.
One of the recurring themes of the talk was the importance of growing public confidence in public institutions. Maintaining separation of powers to ensure an independent judiciary which allows judges to perform their roles without fear is crucial to the developing Rwanda. Other broader social themes were the drive to create a society whose focus is unity rather than division and aims to improve family life and social cohesion.
Looking forward, the Chief Justice stated that the Rwandan administration had identified the need to embrace technology with a push towards fibre-optic internet, e-filing and electronic management systems for the various courts all with the aim of improving efficiency and saving the time it takes for a case to conclude.
As important as it is to be tech-savvy, the Chief Justice reiterated that Rwanda had high expectations and equally high goals to achieve as a country. As is often synonymous with a discussion of any African nation, corruption is a problem that is seemingly being tackled head-on in Rwanda and the Chief Justice was proud of the good ranking Rwanda has in anti-corruption league tables from various monitoring bodies. A strong stance on corruption is closely linked with high levels of public confidence in a country’s administration; another statistic Rwanda was said to be proud of in recent years.
With an administration that can be trusted to do its utmost to not be tarnished by corruption and ineptitude, Rwandans will find it easier to invest their hopes and trust in the rule of law, the Chief Justice explained.
Looking to the future, the Chief Justice was unsurprisingly full of optimism and hope for a country that has gone strides in a short space of time towards its goal of building and establishing a strong, stable and just nation.