I have a dream

28 Aug 2013

A guest post by Albert Gasake, Legal Advocacy Coordinator of Survivors Fund on a survivor’s reflection on the “I have a dream” speech.

Today, August 28th, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the famous speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) in 1963 – ‘I have a dream’.  The speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century by a 1999 poll of scholars of public address.

MLK called for an end to injustice and abuse of civil rights owed to African-American people.  As I reflect today on King’s speech and cause, I immediately thought of another 20-year-old civil rights and justice battle, which survivors of genocide in Rwanda have been tirelessly calling for and grappling with. If you are a survivor of the genocide against Tutsi or have closely followed the pressing issues of post-genocide Rwanda, I am sure you may have certainly predicted the battle I’m talking about. No doubt, I am obviously referring to the call for reparation for survivors of the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda.

Like MLK 50 years ago, I think it would be fair to say that 20 years after the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, survivors also have a dream. A dream that moral, physical and material harm suffered during the genocide will be one day be recognized and meaningfully repaired. Although this harm is often irreparable, international and national courts have required states, including Rwanda, to pay victims compensation for both material and psychological injury sustained as a direct result of their actions or policies. Genocide being a state crime, reparation serves both to acknowledge the violation and to sanction perpetrators and the state in question. The moral is simple: A society that once tolerated human rights abuses must come to terms with its past, accept responsibility, and try to make amends.

The crime of genocide causes serious and often pervasive damage to the physical and moral integrity of its survivors. This is particularly true for some 309,000 survivors of the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda whose visible and invisible wounds are still raw today.

Many survivors have found it difficult to move on with their lives in the absence of such reparation, mostly because they lack the means to do so. For a majority, gacaca courts have not provided a tangible outcome that improves their lives. This is particularly frustrating for survivors, particularly for those who participated and testified before the 11,000 gacaca courts that were established throughout Rwanda. When the Government of Rwanda introduced gacaca in 2001, it promised survivors that a law on compensation would be adopted that would lead to the establishment of a compensation fund. It promised that such a fund would also address reparation claims for moral damage. However, the fund was never established and as a result, the vast majority of gacaca judgments which awarded survivors with restitution and/or some compensation for property damage were never fully enforced.

The lack of adequate reparation on a national level is made worse by the complete absence of reparation at the international level.

While the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR) has delivered important judgments and hold some of those most responsible for the genocide to account, it has had little impact on survivors. The UNICTR has not enabled survivors to participate in proceedings as survivors, but solely as witnesses. Past presidents of the UNICTR identified the lack of reparation for survivors as one of the main shortcomings of the tribunal. In 2002, then- President Pillay reminded the UN Security Council that “compensation for victims is essential if Rwanda is to recover from the genocidal experience.”  A proposal submitted by UNICTR judges at the time to the UN Security Council to establish a specialized agency to administer a compensation scheme or trust fund was not heeded.

Many survivors believe that the Rwandan Government should honour its promise to establish a compensation fund and/or explicitly support survivors call for an international Trust Fund, which would make it easier to enforce gacaca judgments, in particular as many perpetrators are too poor themselves to pay compensation.

April 2014 will mark the 20th commemoration of the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda. This will also mark the closure of the United Nations International Tribunal for Rwanda. As Martin Luther King rightly said in his historic speech we are remembering today, now is the time for several thousands of survivors to see their right to reparation honored. Now is the time for the government of Rwanda and the international community to live up to their promises and indeed its obligation under international law to provide effective remedy to survivors.  Now is the time to realise the dream of survivors whilst there is still time to do so.