This past week, I’ve spoken with two genocide survivors about the reconciliation process in Rwanda. The first was with Alfred, a Rwandan postgraduate. The second was Sylvere, a community leader. They’ve provided generous fodder for thought, as I research a thesis on transitional justice in Kigali.

As a political theorist, I spend considerable time thinking about the conceptions or paradigms underlying people’s intuitions about justice or reconciliation. Hence, I devote this first blog post to an important discussion on legal justice, which arose in my conversations and which features prominently in transitional justice discourse in general.

I met with Alfred at the Hotel Chez Lando, where we chatted about law as a form of redress. Alfred witnessed the genocide as a child. Alfred embraced both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and gacaca courts. Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice designed to promote communal healing and rebuilding in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide. Gacaca courts, he argued, was necessary to bring people back into the fold of the community. In contrast, the ICTR brought “justice” to those who deserved it.

"Talking through Art" display in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Jenna Zhang

“Talking through Art” display in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Jenna Zhang

I thought this was a really interesting distinction. Couldn’t those indicted by the ICTR be brought back into the fold as well? And were the perpetrators of genocide—those who actually held the axe or looted the house—not likewise deserving of “justice”?

No, Alfred said. The big fish “knew what they were doing,” while ordinary people did not.

The crux of the issue seems to be the culpability of those who create the law, and those who merely live inside it. Laws shape our understanding of the world around us. In that respect, it’s a constitutive element of our ways of life. To see beyond that way of life is difficult to say the least, requiring exceptional conscience, reflection, and imagination.

None of these are particularly pertinent to politics. When it comes down to it, politics happens to be a rather bread-and-butter business of feeding people, keeping them safe, and so on. Politics, especially democratic politics, doesn’t concern itself much with extraordinary individuals; it deals with aggregates and averages—the average, in this case, being the ordinary person, who is by definition neither extraordinarily courageous nor morally self-conscious. And we should not expect him to be, I think.

Yet this is precisely what criminal justice sometimes does. Instead of punishing ordinary people for disobeying the law, it punishes them for following the law; for living by, instead of against, the norm. It rewards unusual bravery and moral consciousness, when there is only the mundanity and bewilderment of those who imagined themselves good patriots, and found themselves standing before a criminal trial in a Kafka-esque fashion. Of course, this may be too generous in some circumstances—the degree of culpability may vary on a case-by-case basis—but the essential point remains. The Rwandan genocide was perpetrated by neighbors, friends, respected members of the community. They thought they were doing the right thing. Hence, the Gacaca courts: reconciliation for those who live under the sway of law’s empire; and in turn, justice for those who built that empire in the first place—who, as a result, can be neither held accountable nor exculpated by it.

On a more empirical note, I’ve also taken note of something peculiar in conversations, the silences, namely. There are natural silences and then there are laden silences; these fall in the latter category. People speak less readily about the present than the past—or in the very least, the part of the past which appears extricable from the present. The genocide, people talk about; the war, not so much. They may finish their sentences abruptly or smile—and say no more. The weightiness of these moments is palpable.

In some ways, silences in conversation are conscious decisions. When people wish to avert or redirect in interviews, they do so often masterfully: they talk around the question, they speak in broad terms, they touch briefly on the issue, then bring up an unrelated anecdote. They strand you in a labyrinth of recollections, opinions, tidbits of information—bedazzled, so that you fail to notice the subterfuge. Silences are different. They’re obvious and jarring. They break up the rhythm of dialogue. In that respect, I suppose they can be a way of telling someone that you’re not telling them something. Though I can’t know for sure what goes on within these pauses, their very existence is important.

 

 

 

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