Thirty Years On, Lessons from Rwanda on Transitional Justice and Atrocity Prevention in Africa


Thirty years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, painful memories of those gruesome 100 days, during which almost one million Rwandan citizens lost their lives, still haunt the people of Rwanda, the rest of Africa, and the world. It is a solemn occasion to remember and honor the victims and survivors of the genocide and to acknowledge the tremendous strength and resilience they have shown in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. It is a time to recognize victims as rights-holders and acknowledge the grievous wrongs they suffered. It is a moment for Africa and the rest of the world to join the people of Rwanda in naming the victims previously only counted as casualties of the genocide and reaffirming the human worth of those whom the genocidaires called “cockroaches” and “snakes.” However, the occasion should also be one for candid introspection on the African continent, and around the world, about the policies and mechanisms in place to prevent such atrocities.

As Rwandans reflect on the path their country has so far traveled toward recovery, the rest of Africa and the world should consider and internalize the lessons from the cataclysmic tragedy that unfolded three decades ago. Those lessons should be incorporated into our policies and actions to prevent mass atrocities. The 30th commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda comes at a time when leaders, practitioners, and civil society actors are promoting the African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy (AUTJP) across the continent.

Adopted in 2019, the AUTJP defines common standards for transitional justice processes and offers guidelines on how governments can effectively use these processes to help African nations move from a divided and painful past to a commonly shared vision for a peaceful, developed future. The AUTJP is informed by the lived realities of African people and their colonial history and draws from the transitional justice experiences of African states, including Rwanda. As such, the AUTJP can serve as a useful guide for African states as they consider the hard lessons learned from Rwanda’s long and arduous journey toward recovery from the genocide against the Tutsi.

Reading the Signs

The Rwandan experience is instructive not only for how to address gross human rights violations but also how to prevent atrocities from happening in the first place. The AUTJP calls for an approach that takes into account the diversity within African societies as a way to combat hate speech and discrimination based on factors such as religion, ethnicity, and language, which create societal divisions and incite violence. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda demonstrated the importance of recognizing and addressing risk factors and early warning signs of genocide. African states should take these signs seriously and implement mechanisms to detect and address them. It is imperative for African governments to take concrete steps to prevent the targeting of vulnerable populations and actions that seek their social death, which often precedes physical genocidal attacks.

This 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is an opportunity for African states to look inward and re-evaluate the state of minority rights, socioeconomic justice, and the conduct of politics in their countries. The commemoration serves as a reminder to African states to fully embrace the shared values of equality, non-discrimination, equity, and fairness espoused in the AUTJP as effective safeguards against genocide and mass atrocities.

Impunity Is Never an Option

Another lesson to draw from the Rwandan experience is that, regardless of circumstances, impunity for gross human rights violations is unjustifiable. Following the genocide against the Tutsi, the Rwandan government was confronted with over 120,000 individuals detained and accused of participating in the killings. The sheer magnitude of perpetrators, coupled with the lingering tension and fragile peace at the time, could have been used as justification to stall investigations and prosecutions. However, through the combined contributions of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, domestic courts, and modified versions of “gacaca,” or indigenous justice mechanisms, the Rwandan government was able to hold those involved in the violence to account.

The AUTJP underscores the shared commitment of African states to condemn and reject impunity, as affirmed in Article 4(o) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. The Rwandan experience shows that combating impunity through criminal investigation, prosecution, and sanction of perpetrators is fundamental to promoting sustainable peace, social cohesion, and reconciliation. It proves that impunity is never an option. As articulated by the UN Secretary-General in his 2023 Guidance Note on Transitional Justice, it is no longer a question of what is the most expedient transitional justice mechanism to implement but rather “what is the best way in this particular context to satisfy the rights of victims and society at large to truth, justice, reparation, and non-recurrence.”

As described in the AUTJP, African states exercise discretion over the timing and sequencing of transitional justice mechanisms. That said, however, states should not exploit this discretion to indefinitely defer accountability and prolong impunity for gross human rights violations. Evidence across the continent has shown that the failure to hold perpetrators accountable perpetuates a cycle of violence and human rights violations.

Reparation Is a Must

Finally, it is important to note that, despite commendable efforts to provide reparations to victims and survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, much still needs to be done. The commemorations are indeed an important aspect of memorialization and also a form of symbolic reparation. However, as outlined in the AUTJP, reparation programs must be comprehensive and holistic. Reparation is a right held by victims, their immediate families, and dependents. It should encompass not only symbolic measures such as tributes to the victims but also compensation, restitution, and rehabilitation, including mental health and psychosocial support, as well as concrete initiatives to guarantee the non-recurrence of violations.

The Rwandan experience serves as a lesson to other African countries that national healing and reconciliation cannot be achieved solely through the enactment of laws or the establishment of institutional mechanisms. Instead, they require a concerted effort to redress the harm suffered by victims and their families and to address the needs of the communities affected by violence.

PHOTO: Names of about 800 victims of the Rwandan genocide are displayed on a wall at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, March 4, 2019. The memorial, one of the nearly 200 such sites around the country, is the final resting place of approximately 250,000 victims. (Tech. Sgt. Timothy Moore/U.S. Air Force)