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African Justice: a Mixture of Modern and Traditional Approaches


Many African states have sought justice and reconciliation after long years of civil conflict without resorting to internationally backed criminal tribunals. Their own approaches to national reconciliation after civil conflict vary.

Rakiya Omaar is the director of the human rights group African Rights, which has offices in London and Kigali. She cites South Africa, with its successful elections and Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as one success. Another is Mozambique, which held elections in 1994 after years of warfare between the RENAMO and FRELIMO groups: “Perhaps many human rights purists would not regard Mozambique as a successful definition of justice because they think that the only criteria for that is for those responsible for the human rights abuses to be prosecuted, and RENAMO was not…but particularly after long and bitter warfare…what constitutes a successful end to that conflict is often very different from the way it is defined by human rights groups in London and the United States.”

If trials of the alleged abusers are to be held, Omaar says it’s best to have them as close to the populace as possible. She faults the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for being held in neighboring Tanzania rather than in Rwanda: “The notion that perpetrators of genocide should be tried in very far away countries, where the process and trials don’t permeate back into the countries where [violence took] place, is misplaced. People need to see part of the process [for it] to have much impact on them psychologically and be part of healing and reconciliation… I would say … the tribunal in Arusha…has very little relevance for the everyday lives [of the victims] and their desperation for justice. It is seen as a foreign entity, very far away physically and psychologically….”

What has been more successful in Rwanda, she says, has been the use of village-based trials, or gacaca, to try the accused. And she says the Acholi of northern Uganda have their own ideas for ending civil war with the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army: “They have made it clear in not having Joseph Kony and leaders of LRA simply handpicked and tried in Europe or somewhere far away. What is important to them is having an environment in which the perpetrators acknowledge their crimes in front of the community against whom they committed those atrocities, and to go through a ritual…by which those individuals acknowledge their wrongs and seek atonement. They say if that happens, reconciliation within the community is possible.”