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Learning from Rwanda

January 18, 2012

Racially divided countries such as the United States can learn great lessons from Rwanda — lessons on how to heal the deeply rooted racial segregation present in everyday interpersonal relationships, institutions, communities, and ecologies of separation (inner cities, suburbs, exurbs, rural areas).

To the glee of some westerners and the criticism of others, Rwandans are developing their own style of participatory democracy rooted in their indigenous cultural values. The National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation, a constitutionally mandated government agency — the only such agency in the world — is deeply rooted in their indigenous culture. Established in the late 1990s, it coordinates and evaluates restorative justice efforts occurring in various sectors of society such as the gacaca (ga-CHA-cha) grassroots elder-based judicial process.

The gacaca process addresses the need for perpetrators to confess, apologize, if necessary be given prison sentences, and then reintegrate back into communities. Tens of thousands of perpetrators have gone through the gacaca system, which has proved much more effective than the traditional court system. There are numerous other reconciliation efforts being administered through law enforcement, media, businesses, public schools, and local governments. For example, Rwandans are required to do community cleanups in their neighborhoods and villages every last Saturday or be fined — these efforts not only clean the streets, they also encourage informal conversations and healing among neighbors.

The National Commission coordinates and evaluates these multi-sector restorative justice efforts, feeding this information into the policy-making circles of the national government. As a result, over the years restorative justice has become a core value of Rwandan policy-making, enabling reconciliation efforts to become an integral part of policies addressing the quality of life needs of the Rwandan citizenry. This integration is based on the realization that forgiveness and living together cannot be achieved unless the basic material needs of victims and of repentant perpetrators of genocide are met. 

A government that takes care of its citizens and rewards them for living together in peace and harmony cannot help but be a nation-state in which people come to value reconciliation and learning how to live together. It becomes a source for the patriotic fervor Rwandans have for their country as shown through standard social-scientific measures of citizenship identity and participation.

The Rwandan approach makes restorative justice an ongoing multisector process embedded in the realistic realization that post-genocide healing never ends; rather, this healing is the lifelong multigenerational endeavor of people to work through their pains of tragic loss informally through living together.

It is not a Western matter of “getting over it and moving on,” which never happens, even in the West, since we are, after all, human. In reality we are fragile and break easily, though we repress and then assume that the pain is gone. Instead, what matters in the Rwandan context is that a terrible mass murder occurred among friends, families, lovers, and between authority figures and those who obediently respected them. This mass murder destroyed every ounce of trust on the most basic level. It is a massive pain that must be worked through each day, rebuilding trust each day through sharing life experiences, including the most terrible ones. The wounds gradually heal each day as victims and perpetrators embrace each other and repeat a phrase that is repeated often in Rwanda, both at public events and in the privacy of the home: “no more genocide, never.”

Read the whole article.


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