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Great Lakes Policy Forum—Meeting Summary—June 3, 1999

June 3, 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 the Rwandan genocide with a report from Alison Des Forges, author of "Leave none to tell the story: genocide in Rwanda." Professor William Zartman, Director of the African Studies program at SAIS, was the discussant, and Susan Collins Marks, Executive Vice President of Search for Common Ground facilitated the discussion.

Decentralization of the political systems in Rwanda

Last March, local elections have taken place all over the country establishing new executive committees and communal development committees. This process represent a commitment on the part of the government in Rwanda in empowering the population at the grassroots level. This democratic process offer to Rwandan the occasion for the first time to identify their aspiration for reconstruction and reconciliation and to express their own wishes through elected officials.

In the past, the de-concentration of power in Rwanda use to go down only until the Burgomaster level. Often, those Burgomaster were controlling their area in a very authoritarian way and they plaid a terrible role in the genocide. The power was centrally controlled, and any orders had to be executed.

If this election process represents an effort to disempower people at the Burgomaster level, those officials have still very important. However, their role is now balanced by equally powerful communal development committees.

Decentralization of the judicial system in Rwanda

Another point of action taking place is the decentralization of the Rwandan judicial process. A new judicial process should be established to deal with the thousands of prisoners accused of having killed but not having masterminded the killing during the genocide. This system will be similar to a traditional Rwandan locally based justice system where local elders render justice. In the new system, the officials in charge would be elected.

This new system brings different concerns. First, this system is empowering a set of non-judicial actors that would be vested with all judicial powers. Then, the defendants would not have recourse to attorneys. Finally, if in order to have any implementation to begin, a law will have to go through parliament, this will take a number of months. It also seems that at the rate at which people will be able to be try, it would take three hundreds year to go through the caseload. This system appear to be an agonizing problem and the mortality would probably take care of the 125,000 people remaining in jail before their judgment to be done.

Political and judicial situation in Burundi

The Arusha Peace process and the internal partnership constitute real optimistic signs of changes. Today, there is also more room for political groups and NGOs, and at every level, there are government officials and Burundian NGOs advocating for reforms, justice and reconciliation.

However, the Burundian political structure seem to perpetuate a system where a small ethnic regional minority retain control over the state and the access to resources. Unlike in Rwanda where a real commitment has been done to empowering the grassroots, in Burundi the structures remain top-down centralized and doesn’t take into account the traditional and cultural structures.

The justice sector seems also to maintain dominance over a group of people rather than to bring justice and in Burundian prison, 10,000 people are still waiting to be judged. However, the Justice Minister, the procure general, the number two officer in the justice ministry, and several NGOs are working to try to improve the situation.

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