Peacekeepers' role in ever-changing and unpredictable environments

Twenty-seven years ago this month, the life of this country hung on a thread. Not literally, not practically, not virtually, not apparently, not with any nearness qualification.

Violence against civilians, war crimes, mass atrocity crimes and crimes against humanity are probably as old as war itself. Human atrocities continue to occur in many parts of the world and on a daily basis, for example in Syria, Iraq and, most remarkably, on the African continent.

Violence against civilians and in particular, women and children continues to characterise a number of peacekeeping missions despite many of them having protection of civilian’s mandate.

The Nuremberg trials after the Second World War sought to provide justice by punishing the perpetrators of genocide and bringing a form of closure and retribution for the victims as well as ensuring ‘never again’. While the trials brought to light the importance of international justice in the face of genocide, they did not halt the brutality of future genocides and mass atrocity crimes.

Rwanda is a good case study. In the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, millions of Rwandans participated in the genocide in which over 1 million men, women and children were brutally murdered in about 3 months. As a result, thousands of perpetrators had to be dealt with. Addressing the justice problem in post–genocide Rwanda required the use of unconventional methods because of three main reasons.

First; as already indicated, the number of Genocide suspects was overwhelming.

Second; it would have been very costly to try about 150,000 genocide suspects using the conventional courts which had also been terribly weakened by the genocide.

Third and most important, what the Rwandan society needed was a justice system that could address the longstanding problem of impunity while at the same time promoting social harmony. Justice, as administered through national conventional courts, could not have achieved this outcome.

Jurisdictions aside, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) couldn’t also have provided a good solution. For example, the ICTR held its first trial in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1997 and, as of 2014, the tribunal had completed only 75 cases.  According to the UK-based newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, by 2013 the ICTR had “spent well over 1 billion pound sterling to put just 43 people permanently behind bars.”

Informed by the unique genocide, Rwandan context and Rwandan history, the leadership in Rwanda – with President Paul Kagame at the helm – turned to the old Rwandan traditional institution of Gacaca to complement the conventional courts. Gacaca courts were able to dispense restorative justice in a relatively very short time and in a cost effective manner. They are also credited for having promoted national unity and reconciliation.  

There are other examples of transitional justice mechanisms that were used or are still being used in other countries and from which you can draw lessons and experiences. In addition, there are also some lessons that can be learned from the tragic past. While the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was indeed tragic, the experiences and lessons drawn from it continue to inform Rwandans in search for homegrown solutions based on the Rwandan history, culture and unique context.

The Genocide also informs Rwanda’s threat assessment with genocide ideology as the most serious security threat facing Rwanda. The experiences and lessons learnt from the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi have also contributed to the building of a coherent and highly resilient Rwandan society.

The Rwanda Peace Academy, therefore, provides a unique and contextual environment to learn about Genocide, Mass Atrocity crimes and Transitional Justice in Peace Support Operations. Future peacekeepers will be expected to provide advice on the measures to prevent genocide and mass atrocity crimes. They will also be expected to contribute to capacity development of judicial institutions and mechanisms, particularly those of the Host Nations.

I wish, however, to caution future peacekeepers on the nature of contemporary peacekeeping operations. They function in constantly changing and unpredictable environments with different actors characterised by different, and sometimes conflicting, interests. Cooperation and engagement with the host government and the opposing party or parties is sometimes not forthcoming. In addition, members of the local population and international community usually have high expectations in peacekeepers, both in the protection of civilians and in administration of justice.

This article was extracted from the Rwanda Defence Forces’ Chief of Defence Staff Gen Patrick Nyamvumba’s remarks at the opening of the Genocide, Mass Atrocity Crimes and Transitional Justice Course in Kigali on Tuesday. The course is being conducted by Rwanda Peace Academy in partnership with the British Peace Support Team East Africa, and attracted participants from at least eight African countries.