A group of CGA graduate students traveled to Rwanda in January 2019 as part of the MSGA’s Global Field Intensive (GFI) program. For students examining international and local justice mechanisms, Rwanda offers a valuable opportunity to see these mechanisms in action: indescribably horrific crimes were committed in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda, resulting in approximately 1 million fatalities. The MSGA students in the course were asked to consider: how does a country rebuild after such horribly devastating atrocities? How does it attempt to achieve justice? Is reconciliation between perpetrators and victims possible?
The Rwanda GFI is led by Clinical Professor Jennifer Trahan, who heads the MSGA Concentration in Human Rights and International Law. As a human rights lawyer, she authored the 2010 Human Rights Watch 500-page publication “Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: A Digest of the Case Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.” In developing and leading this program, she hoped that students would “develop a better understanding of the role of the colonial powers in Rwanda, the events of 1994, and the tragic consequences of the failure of the UN, particularly the Security Council, to react to the unfolding genocide.”
In pre-trip class sessions, students focused on the three separate trial mechanisms designed to achieve accountability for the genocide: the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (which tried the highest level perpetrators in Arusha, Tanzania); Rwandan domestic courts (which tried organizers and leaders of the genocide); and the domestic mechanism knows as “Gacaca” whereby lower-level perpetrators were tried throughout Rwanda. They additionally considered grassroots reconciliation efforts within Rwanda, and memorialization of the genocide.
Once in Rwanda, site visits and special briefings illustrated the range and complexity of these various issues. MSGA student and Rwanda participant Michelle Dolinarhad been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, but had never visited Rwanda. Michelle noted the impact of a meeting “with the Fugitive Tracking Unit and the Prosecutors responsible for convicting génocidaires in Rwanda. This meeting, which came right after our meeting with the Rwandan Bar Association, an organization composed solely of defense attorneys, illuminated the obstacles which continue to make prosecuting génocidaires challenging.”
In addition to formal briefings, Michelle along with the rest of the students encountered Rwandans who shared their stories of the genocide. Michelle said, “nothing is more eye-opening and inspirational than hearing from the survivors themselves. It’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers and statistics, but the stories of bravery, courage and strength help to humanize the true magnitude and impact of such horrific crimes.”
The GFI participants returned to New York with no clear answers on how best to achieve reconciliation, and more questions for further research, an outcome Professor Trahan expected: “Visiting a ‘reconciliation’ village, students ponder first-hand whether the interaction between perpetrator and victim represented reconciliation and/or by what metrics a country might attempt to measure whether reconciliation has been accomplished.”
As a graduate student Katie Dobosz Kenney participated in a GFI in Cuba. Now as a program administrator who traveled with the students and Professor Trahan, she noted the trip’s value in understanding a difficult issue: “In Rwanda specifically, students' perceptions of justice and reconciliation were both challenged and transformed through face-to-face meetings with Rwandan organizations and government agencies, as well as survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.”
CGA’s global field intensives are designed to bring students into direct contact with practitioners and affected populations at the heart of today’s most critical issues. Whether in a visit to a memorial, conversation with a war crimes prosecutor, or chance meeting with a survivor of the genocide, the Rwanda GFI demonstrated what Michelle Dolinar described as the “very clear differences between reconciliation, forgiveness and justice” and left students with further questions to examine as scholars and future practitioners.