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Rwanda’s coming of age

In his speech to mark the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, President Paul Kagame noted that the first generation of men and women born during the genocide will come of age this year. There is more to this than obvious symbolism. Rwanda’s median age is estimated at 18.7, which means that less than half of the country’s current population experienced the genocide first-hand. The figure is arresting – and suggests that Kagame’s government may soon have to adapt the way in which it controls the public discourse surrounding the genocide. 

The changing nature of how Rwanda relates to its tragic history is particularly relevant this year. In 2012, two radically different legal processes designed to judge those guilty of genocide are due to conclude. The final hearings of Rwanda’s gacaca community courts – based on a traditional method of conflict resolution and reconciliation – will end in June. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania – created to prosecute the architects of the genocide under international law – will lose its power to indict in July.

Despite the ICTR’s reduced mandate, its difficult relationship with the Rwandan authorities is likely to continue. Kagame has criticised the Tribunal’s ineffectiveness at apprehending genocide suspects, and the length and cost of its judicial procedures. The issue of the Tribunal investigating crimes allegedly committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994 is likely to be left unaddressed – just as Kagame wanted.

The most recent source of tensions between Kigali and Arusha is the final destination of the ICTR’s extensive archives. The argument isn’t new – it has been brewing since 2009, or earlier. While Rwanda demands that the archives be housed in Kigali, the ICTR has expressed a number of concerns about this solution – both officially and unofficially. These range from the pragmatic (the lack of proper facilities to store the archives in Kigali), to the legalistic (the archives, compiled by the UN, legally belong to the international community), to the accusatory (a concern that confidential information might be “lost” or used inappropriately in Rwanda). In his speech, Kagame made his position categorical: “we should be the primary custodians of all these things because they are the core part of our history and of great value to us. There is no sound reason why all records regarding the genocide should [not] be in our custody in our country, here in Rwanda.”

The conclusion of the gacaca process had a predictably warmer mention from Kagame. He praised Rwandans for administering justice and, at the same time, uniting as a nation. Gacaca has been criticised by some human rights organisations – and others – for falling short of international legal requirements for trying genocide crimes. In other quarters, it has been praised as a monumental achievement and commended for its grassroots, participatory nature; the speed with which it dealt with the backlog of cases; and the emphasis on incorporating reconciliation into the legal framework. Some genocide survivors have argued that, while the judicial process has been accelerated, true reconciliation is likely to take significantly longer. I wonder whether this is where Rwanda’s youth will really come to the fore – a generation living in the shadow of the memory of a genocide it did not experience.