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Rwandan genocide trials unjust, says Kroc fellow

Meg Mirshak | Friday, October 19, 2007

Anu Chakravarty, a visiting fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, presented her dissertation Thursday, the product of 18 months spent doing field research in Rwanda about the genocide trials there.

Chakravarty is completing her dissertation at Cornell University, where she received a master’s degree in 2004. She is working on a comparative study while at the Kroc Institute.

She spoke about her dissertation, “Surrendering Consent: The Political Consequences of the Genocide Trials in Rwanda,” to about 50 people in the Hesburgh Center. Her work focuses on the genocide trial process. The trials came several years after the 1990-94 civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a group of Tutsi refugees who fled the country in the 1980s, invaded Rwanda in 1990, Chakravarty said.

“The RPF never expected [the civil war] to end up in genocide,” she said. But threatened by Tutsi power, the Hutus rebelled. Nearly 300,000 Hutus participated in the organized killing of 800,000 Tutsi people in 1994.

After the genocide came the trials, which Chakravarty believes were unjust. Approximately 760,000 people have been accused of involvement in the genocide. Chakravarty said some prisoners are reluctant to confess, because no evidence from the killings is presented at a trial.

She described the “consent-effect” by which the Rwandan government promises political support and benefits in exchange for a confession from Hutu perpetrators. According to Chakravarty’s data, citizens, despite believing that state rulers lack the moral authority to govern, concede to the government the “right to rule.”

While in Rwanda, Chakravarty interviewed 38 prisoners. Eighteen had confessed to participating in the killings, and the other 20 had not. Chakravarty said prisoners are coerced to confess by incentives in the law, such as being released without serving prison-time after participating in a trial. “Some of them confess having done nothing,” Chakravarty said.

But once they confess, they become even more vulnerable.

“If the government does not follow through [with benefits], they are worse off than before,” she said.

In her interviews with the prisoners, Chakravarty found that both prisoners who had confessed and those who had not confessed were aware of incentives in the law. By confessing to participating in the genocide through the trial process, Chakravarty said, accused perpetrators produce political power for ruling elites and deprive people of political rights.

In her interviews, Chakravarty asked the prisoners if reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi people was possible. For the most part, they believed it was.

“There is an incredible sense of guilt,” Chakravarty said. “They [Hutus and Tutsis] will do anything to bring [Rwanda] back to where it was.”

After watching eight genocide trials, Chakravarty said, “there is potential on an individual basis for interpersonal reconciliation between everyday Hutu and Tutsi.”