Jan Pronk


Address at the Closing of Gaca Courts Activities, Kigali, Rwanda, June 18, 2012

I visited Rwanda shortly after the beginning of the genocide on April 7, 1994.  The horror was beyond imagination. I saw terror and fear in Kigali, death bodies in the villages around, mutilated corpses in the river, an endless flow. Death was everywhere; you could smell it. In those years I had been in Cambodia, Somalia, Liberia, Bosnia and Sudan. In all these countries I had witnessed mass killings, but Rwanda was the worst ever.

The questions forced themselves on us: Could this not have been foreseen? Why didn’t we stop this? Did we do enough? What to do now? Different answers were given by the international community. But for some of us three points stood out:

  • a sense of responsibility, because we had failed to act and to protect, and feelings of shame,
  • a desire to show solidarity, supporting survivors, despite this failure,
  • the awareness of a duty to help rebuilding the nation.

We knew that this would require more than relief only. Causes of the tragedy would have to be addressed; justice would have to be done; revenge and repetition would have to be staved off. Confidence would have to be put in a new regime that professed to do all this. Political choices would have to be made, backing the regime, and supporting the people of Rwanda not only with humanitarian assistance, but throughout, without strings attached. The survivors of the genocide had every right to choose their own path towards justice and reconciliation and to take their own decisions concerning rehabilitation of their society.

Project assistance and technical assistance would not suffice. Donors, not willing to take risks and eager to control, tend to choose such conventional recipes. However, the rebuilding of a nation in ruins demands more than restoring capacities. A completely new start will have to be made. This requires general financial assistance, remission of debts, and aid beyond traditional development programmes. So, we decided to help rebuilding legal institutions: the Ministry of Justice, training of lawyers, judicial processes, prisons, identity cards without distinctions between Hutu’s and Tutsi’s, and general budget support for the new government.

The need to start anew, from scratch, required a new approach, both within Rwanda and internationally. It had to be based on trust in the new leaders of the nation. Elsewhere - for instance in Somalia, Liberia, Cambodia or Zimbabwe -  such confidence seemed less than justified, because the new rulers emerging after a violent civil war, short of a vision on a sustainable future, were seeking security through oppression rather than reconciliation.

Our discussions with the new leaders of Rwanda were intense. We did not always agree. However, complete agreement was not necessary, because serving the interests of the outside world is less relevant than meeting the conditions for the rebirth of Rwanda as a community of people. We understood: it is your nation, your people, and your future which are at stake. The new leaders made clear that they had a vision about the future of Rwanda as a new nation for all people, without discrimination, and that they wanted to be a government for and of all people. They convinced us that they were trustworthy indeed and sincere in their endeavours to start a process of healing.


Lessons learned

Which lessons have I learned?

One: prevention of genocide and protection of people demand early attention and early action, both within a nation and internationally. Early attention and action means ‘early/early’. It also means, first and foremost: early political steps. In quite a few situations in this world this lesson is yet to be applied.

Two: the bigger a failure to prevent and protect, the larger the need for by early, fast and adequate action in order to help the victims and to rehabilitate the society after the violence. A slow response, hesitant answers, silence and non-action are bound to result in re-emerging and escalating violence.  

Three: invest in mutual trust. Take the risk trusting new leaders, who claim to seek an end to brutal violence. Start expressing confidence instead of distrust, and stay alert. Trust may prove itself. Distrust right from the beginning can have paralyzing consequences and turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Four: apply non-conventional procedures in international assistance and cooperation.

Five: in situations of mass violence, injustice and killings: go there, see, feel, smell, listen and speak out. Do not only talk in international meetings and conferences. Go to the field, be witness, and respond on the ground.



This conference has demonstrated that the decision, ten years ago, to apply an indigenous approach towards justice and reconciliation, was wise. It was the right way to go. I am aware that some politicians and human rights experts living abroad have expressed their scepticism about Gacaca and criticised the choices made. However, I am convinced that Gacaca has been a success. I am not saying this in order to deny outsiders, who had remained silent at the time, the right to criticize. I also do not share the opinion that Gacaca was a lesser wrong. In the circumstances which had emerged after the genocide, which had wrecked the legal system, this was indeed the best option available to try masses of perpetrators of the massacres. However, Gacaca has turned out to be more than just a better option in this regard. Healing a society after genocide demands more than administering justice and halting impunity. Healing requires truth finding and reconciliation, next to doing justice. Meeting these objectives has been made possible by empowering victims and survivors, and enabling them to tell their stories in public, to share these with each other and with the perpetrators.

The judicial procedures have been implemented with dignity and honour. Gacaca has proven itself as an honest way to achieve justice, including acquittal when justified, and reconciliation. The system was not perfect. It couldn’t be, if only because of the countless numbers of victims and perpetrators. Moreover, some questions will remain, for instance those concerning the relation between personal reconciliation and national reconciliation, and - more difficult - between forgiveness and reconciliation. However, there is no doubt in my mind: the Gacaca proceedings have made an essential contribution to the rebuilding of the nation, based on justice, peace and non-discrimination.

Genocide has been conducted in other countries as well. In that respect Rwanda is not unique. However, the numbers and proportions were unparalleled.  Moreover, pursuing the course of Gacaca was possible because of strong leadership, determined to establish people-centred governance. Gacaca may not be easily applicable elsewhere. Similar forms of large scale transitional justice could perhaps be tried in North Uganda or, in a more distant future, Sudan. May I venture, in my capacity as former UN Special Representative in Sudan, having been in charge of the peace operation in that country, that the healing of Sudan would also require truth finding and reconciliation, beyond legal procedures, and that it would be advisable to call on all Sudanese to participate in such a process.  

During this conference responsible Rwandese officials have said: the Gacaca proceedings will be closed, but the book will not be closed, because we want to keep the Gacaca culture alive. This is a promise, to be kept.

May I ask you to go one step further? Please invest in reconciliation not only at home, but also abroad, beyond the national frontiers of Rwanda. Such a step would not imply a copy/paste approach to Gacaca, but the broadening of the culture, the goal and the mindset of reconciliation elsewhere. Rwanda, its people and its government, can play a role in supporting people centred indigenous approaches to peace, justice and reconciliation also in the Great Lakes countries and elsewhere, for instance in the Horn of Africa.

Rwanda is a new nation now.
The country, its leaders and its people have earned much credibility.
You deserve the respect of the international community (which, having looked away during the massacres, should be modest anyway).

Please, stay on course and help achieving international reconciliation as well.


Jan Pronk

Address at the Closing of Gacaca Courts Activities,
Kigali, Rwanda,
June 18, 2012.