Justice, Not Platitudes

November 27, 2007

Robert Krueger’s new book on Burundi is excellent, yet deeply flawed.

Robert Krueger’s new book provides an impressively detailed – and long overdue – account of the atrocities by Tutsis against Hutus in Burundi during the 1990s. But his view that Burundi’s war criminals should not be prosecuted for their crimes – and by extension that Burundi’s victims should be denied their right to justice – flies in the face of international human rights standards, and does not reflect the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Burundians I have heard from since my sister Charlotte was murdered by Hutu-extremists in Burundi in December 2000 (http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/london/2005/07/316594.html).

Neither is Robert Krueger’s view shared by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, who have carried out detailed research in Burundi since the early 1990s. These groups share the view of many Burundians that the ongoing failure to punish those responsible for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity is a driving force behind the abuses which still go on today, under the new, ostensibly “democratic” government: http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR160022007

Few who have lost loved ones in violent circumstances would dispute that forgiveness has a role to play. But what’s disappointing is that Mr. Krueger appears to conflate the slow, painful and deeply personal victim-led process of forgiveness with a formal, government-led arrangement in which ”forgiveness” is equated with “immunity from prosecution”, and in which amnesty can be granted to the perpetrator against the victim’s will.

What Mr. Krueger fails to mention in his account of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, is that the majority of victims – including the family of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – opposed the granting of amnesty to their abusers. Many felt embittered by the process, not “reconciled”, and – perhaps most damningly of all – many felt that the TRC had undermined rather than advanced the process of communal reconciliation: http://www.csvr.org.za/papers/papkhul.htm

Even with such problems, South Africa’s TRC is widely regarded as the most successful such “experiment”. In the majority of cases, according to Human Rights Watch, (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2001/04/30/global12849.htm), amnesty processes have yielded results ranging from the disappointing to the disastrous. In Sierra Leone, for example, arguably a far more apt comparison with Burundi than South Africa, a 1999 amnesty preceded a massive upsurge in violence by the RUF rebels. In Zimbabwe, amnesties have repeatedly been granted in the name of “reconciliation”, with the predictable result that violence and abuse have become endemic. In Rwanda, a series of de facto amnesties for massacres of Tutsis actually preceded the 1994 genocide. As Robert Krueger himself notes, the violence that began in Burundi in 1993 had its roots in the unpunished crimes of the 1970s – and was itself preceded by the granting of a general amnesty.

Another disturbing distortion is the conflation of justice with “retribution”. Most victims I know want to see their loved ones’ killers prosecuted not out of some crazed “blood lust” (many oppose the death penalty), but to stop the perpetrator from doing it again, to deter others, and to restore the dignity of the dead. It seems deeply unfortunate that the most basic, common sense rationale for justice as practiced worldwide from Japan to Djibouti, should be deemed inappropriate in a situation as manifestly unjust as Burundi.

Faced with a history as horrific and complex as Burundi’s, it is all too tempting to throw up our hands and ask “why doesn’t everyone just forgive each other?”. But it seems sad that someone who has witnessed the consequences of impunity firsthand should take such a seemingly simplistic view. To suppose that the cycle of corruption, impunity and abuse can be ended while killers retain their power and influence seems both naive and irresponsible.

Few would dispute Mr. Krueger’s opinion that prosecuting every perpetrator in Burundi may prove an impossible task. But to move from this to the conclusion that no-one should therefore be prosecuted is a bit like saying that because a government can’t cure everyone with TB, they shouldn’t try to cure anyone.

The eminently pragmatic solution agreed – under international pressure – by the Burundian authorities in 2005 (http://globalpolicy.igc.org/intljustice/general/2005/truthcom.htm) is the formation of a “special chamber” within the Burundian judiciary to prosecute those suspected of leading and orchestrating the worst of the violence, combined with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with more junior figures. But like the nominally-democratic government of Cambodia, the government of Burundi has many members who are themselves implicated in serious crimes. In Cambodia, it took years of international pressure before the government finally followed-through on its promise to deliver justice for the Khmer Rouge victims. In Burundi, the authorities have likewise, to date, shown a marked reluctance to honour the part of the 2005 deal that involves war criminals getting prosecuted. In the meantime, these criminals continue to kill, rape, embezzle, and destabilise the country. It is sad that, rather than using his influence to press the Burundian government to keep their promises, Mr. Krueger chooses instead to downgrade the right of victims – guaranteed in article eight of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to “an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals”.

Robert Krueger’s new book is excellent in many ways. But he has done Burundi’s victims a gross disservice by perpetuating the idea that a distorted and politicised notion of ”forgiveness” could serve as a meaningful substitute for justice. The 21 victims of the December 2000 “Titanic Express” massacre – my sister Charlotte among them – deserve better than that. So do the 156 Congolese Tutsi refugees massacred by the same group at Gatumba in August 2004 and the thousands of others, both Hutu and Tutsi, who have been killed in the past two decades. The families of the dead want justice – not platitudes – and we have already waited too long.

(NB – this piece began as a response to this article in the Dallas Morning News)

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