Many survivors of the Rwandan genocide lost their entire families—spouses, parents, children, extended families, and friends—and have suffered complex health problems, like HIV/AIDS, as a result of sexual violence during the genocide. Large numbers live in dire poverty. Many have developed long-term psychological problems as a result of their trauma. But survivors have also shown enormous strength by creating groups to help each other, preserving important sites as memorials, and rebuilding their lives—at times alongside the very people who perpetrated the genocide.
The post-genocide Rwandan government pursued a policy of “unity and reconciliation,” adopting a new constitution, creating programs to empower women, and increasing economic growth and stability. While credited with stabilizing the country, the government continues to face accusations of committing human rights abuses inside Rwanda against political opponents, and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
When roughly one million refugees—including perpetrators of the genocide—fled Rwanda, the epicenter of violence shifted from Rwanda to the DRC (formerly known as Zaire). Beginning in 1996, the DRC turned into the battleground for continuing armed conflict between Rwanda’s new government and the perpetrators of the 1994 crimes who fled there. It is estimated that more than five million people have died in the ongoing conflict in the DRC in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
In October 2010, the United Nations released a report documenting human rights violations in the DRC in 1996 and 1997, asserting that invading Rwandan troops and their rebel allies killed tens of thousands of Hutus, including many civilians. Some of those accused are members of the Rwandan government, who have condemned the accusations. Violence in the DRC continues today.
Seven months after the genocide began, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in neighboring Arusha, Tanzania, to bring to justice those accused of high level crimes. On September 2, 1998, the ICTR delivered its first conviction for genocide when it ruled that Jean-Paul Akayesu was guilty of inciting and leading acts of violence against Tutsi civilians in the town where he served as mayor. The Rwanda tribunals also included a landmark case that prosecuted three journalists for using the media to spread hate speech and directly incite violence during the genocide. Since the Nuremberg trials of the Holocaust, no perpetrator had been convicted for that crime.
Learn more about incitement to genocide in international law.
In June 2006, human rights groups urged the tribunal to also address war crimes and crimes against humanity alleged to have been committed by the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army during reprisals following the genocide. The suggestion of any crimes on the part of the RPF has been vigorously denied by the government of Rwanda, many of whose officials belonged to the RPF, including current President Paul Kagame.
The ICTR convicted 60 individuals and acquitted 14. The court has been criticized for some of these acquittals and light sentences for those convicted, as well as for its high cost and slow pace. The ICTR officially closed on December 31, 2015, but a number of its cases continued through the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (Mechanism). The Mechanism was established in 2012 to wind down the ICTR’s active prosecutions and is in the process of wrapping up the open cases.
In addition to the formal ICTR proceedings in Arusha, the government of Rwanda instituted an innovative adaptation of local justice inspired by tradition, called gacaca. The courts were set up to speed up the prosecutions of hundreds of thousands of those suspected to have participated in the genocide who were being held in overcrowded jails.
The gacaca process allowed communities to face the accused and publicly testify about what had happened; this form of community justice has been seen as a way to help with reconciliation. Close to two million people were tried by the courts, and roughly 65 percent were found guilty. Some of those found guilty through this process were sentenced to long jail sentences. Others were released and sent back to their communities.
Reconciling the Past
The process of reckoning with the Rwandan genocide continues. In 2021, following a report ordered by French President Emmanuel Macron, the French government acknowledged its failure to help prevent the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan government has welcomed France’s recognition of its role in the genocide. The findings mirror those of a 600-page report commissioned by the Rwandan government—also released in 2021—which concluded that France “did nothing to stop” the atrocity crimes of 1994.