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Great Lakes Policy Forum—Meeting Summary—May 13, 1999

Presider: Barnett R. Rubin, Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations
Speaker: Anthony W. Gambino, Great Lakes Coordinator, USAID
Discussant: David Shorr
May 13, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

This Great Lakes Policy Forum meeting focused on judicial systems in Rwanda and Burundi with a report from Anthony Gambino, Great Lakes Coordinator for USAID, on his recent assessment mission to the region. David Shorr was the discussant and Barnett R. Rubin, Director of the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations facilitated the discussion.

Decentralization of the Political System in Rwanda

Last March, local elections took place throughout the country to establish new executive and communal development committees. This process represents a commitment by the Rwandan government to empower the population. This democratic process gave Rwandans the unprecedented opportunity to voice their hopes for reconstruction and reconciliation through elected officials.

In the past, power was decentralized only to the level of the Burgomaster, or mayor. These officials maintained an authoritarian hold on their region and played a terrible role in the genocide. The election of the executive and communal committees provides an important counterbalance to the Burgomasters.

Decentralization of the Judicial System in Rwanda

Another major reform is the decentralization of the Rwandan judicial system, although it still requires a lengthy approval process by the parliament. A new judicial process is being established to try the thousands of prisoners who have been accused of killing but not masterminding the genocide. This new system will be modeled after the traditional local process where elders render the verdict. In this case, however, the new judges will be elected by the community.

These judicial reforms present new challenges as well. First, this system would empower nonjudicial actors with judicial powers. Second, attorneys would not be provided for the defendants. Third, it would take many years to try all 125,000 cases, and a great deal of the defendants may die before they go to trial.

Political and Judicial Situation in Burundi

The Arusha Peace process and the Internal Partnership represent true signs of change in Burundi. There is increased political space for both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the governmental representatives to advocate for reforms, justice, and reconciliation.

However, the Burundian political structure seems to perpetuate a system where an ethnic minority retains control over the state and access to resources. Unlike Rwanda, where a real commitment has been made to empowering the population, Burundian political and judicial structures remain centralized without addressing cultural differences and local concerns.

Although there are efforts being made to improve the Burundian judicial system, it remains biased. Ten thousand people remain in prison while they await judgment.

Any comments please contact Veronique Aubert

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