Skip to main content
Law and Atrocity: Settling Accounts in Rwanda
Ohio Northern University Law Review
  • Mark A. Drumbl, Washington and Lee University School of Law
Document Type
Publication Date

Ten years ago, genocide ravaged the tiny African nation of Rwanda. In the wake of this violence, Rwanda has struggled to reconstruct, rebuild, and reconcile. Law-in particular, criminal trials for alleged perpetrators of genocide- has figured prominently among various policy mechanisms in postgenocide Rwanda. Criminal trials for Rwandan genocidaires' aspire to achieve several goals. These include exacting retribution, promoting reconciliation, deterring future violence, expressing victims' outrage, maintaining peace, and cultivating a culture of human rights.2 In this Lecture, I examine the extent to which these trials attain these multiple, often competing, and largely overwhelming goals. Part I begins by setting out some historical background to the internecine conflict in Rwanda. This background may be helpful to those readers not familiar with the provenance and implementation of the 1994 genocide. Part II provides an overview of the current state of criminal prosecutions for individuals accused of involvement in genocide in Rwanda. In Part Ill, I examine what these prosecutions have accomplished and inquire about the extent to which they attain their diverse and highly ambitious aspirations. Part IV tracks the emergence of a different-and not necessarily complementary policy mechanism, namely the use of traditional dispute resolution (gacaca) in Rwanda and its controversial application to certain defendants accused of involvement in genocide. The restorative methodologies of gacaca stand in some contrast to the adversarial approaches of criminal trials. This comparative assessment serves important pedagogical purposes. This is the basis for Part V, in which I offer a number of lessons that Rwanda's spirited attempt to impose law in the wake of mass atrocity can offer for other sites of such tragedy and for international criminal law generally. Although international law mandates accountability for serious human rights abusers, the processes of accountability cannot exist only in the abstract for the benefit of the international community. These processes also must resonate on the ground in afflicted places and among afflicted persons. Whereas formalized legal process often enjoys unique authority, informal or extra-judicial narratives may benefit from considerable legitimacy in memorializing atrocity and then transcending it. If the privileging of formalized law comes at the expense of these other methods of accountability and remembering, then law may dis-serve the communities it claims to help.


Posted with permission of the copyright owner.

Citation Information
Mark A. Drumbl, Law and Atrocity: Settling Accounts in Rwanda, 31 Ohio N. U. L. Rev. 41 (2005).