Eight years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the extermination of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Rwandan survivors and Western diplomats vowed publicly, “Justice will be done.” But no country or international institution had ever processed 800,000 murder cases before, and the pledge would prove far easier to make than to meet.
Today, two judicial experiments are underway in Central Africa, which are intended to respond to Rwanda’s demand for retribution and truth, and its need for deterrence and reconciliation. The first is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a United Nations court convened in Arusha, Tanzania, that is trying the masterminds behind the genocide. The second is the more traditional, and far more charged, process of community catharsis in Rwanda itself, which is meant to resolve the fates of lower-level genocide suspects and to help victims learn precisely how their loved ones were murdered.
The courtroom record of the ICTR has been obscured by the scandals that have plagued it since its creation in 1995. Just last year, two investigators working at the tribunal were discovered to be wanted genocidaires. They had acquired false passports and been hired by the court’s unsuspecting defense lawyers. Both men went from being paid indirectly by the UN to being imprisoned by it. The headline in one African paper said it all: “SHOCK AS ICTR MAN TURNS GENOCIDE SUSPECT.”
The more fundamental criticism of the tribunal is that, despite the $500 million spent so far, the people in charge are lazy or incompetent and its proceedings are too slow. “The tribunal was set up in 1995 and there have been nine decisions handed down so far,” says Martin Ngoga, the Rwandan government’s representative at the tribunal. “That is an average of one-point-something decisions each year, and it now costs $90 million a year!”
The early delays could be attributed at least partially to logistics. The court took up space in a dreary, largely windowless concrete conference center in Arusha, Tanzania, a town of 200,000, with dusty, unpaved roads. The building, which has the name “The Geneva of Africa” on its façade and opened in 1978, looks more like a Stalinist blockhouse than it does an emblem of the world’s commitment to justice. When the UN lawyers began arriving, the conference center contained no courtroom and lacked reliable phones, electricity, and Internet service. On my first visit to Arusha in 1998, the tribunal’s library consisted of two small wheeled trolleys piled with a random assortment of donated international legal reference books.
Legal talent was not easy to attract. The hardy few who volunteered had to survive the notoriously tortuous UN hiring process, which demands mounds of paperwork, often prefers multinationality to experience and skill, and defers decisions on appointments for six months or more. A 1997 UN audit blamed the court for corruption and gross mismanagement. Court reporters could not type. UN finance personnel embezzled funds. In February 1997 Secretary-General Kofi Annan dismissed the …