Despite UN intervention, a fragile political balance collapsed when, on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana crashed as it was about to land at Kigali airport, by most accounts having been hit by a missile. An extremist provisional government immediately took over from the government nominally in charge. There followed a nationwide campaign of targeted killings of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Prime Minister and her family were killed early on the morning of 7 April. The high level of organisation and methodical executions suggested that this campaign of violence had been long planned. This point is still a live issue in Rwanda and during the UK legal team’s stay a Rwandan Government-appointed independent commission published its report on what is alleged to be extensive French State involvement in the planning and execution of the genocide. The killings continued until the opposition Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) army took Kigali on 19 July 1994. It is estimated that approximately 800,000 people (about 10% of the population) were killed between April and July 1994. A further 200,000 fled Rwanda for neighbouring countries during the genocide and an additional 2 million, mostly Hutus, then fled to Zaire (now the DRC) and Burundi.

The genocide has left an indelible scar on Rwanda. With the slaughter of its people (with targeted killings of intellectuals), massive social wreckage and consequent ruin to the Government’s institutional memory, Rwanda faces a unique challenge of restoration.

Legal challenges

From a legal and institutional perspective, there are also big challenges. An immediate priority was to bring to justice those involved in genocide-related crimes. UN Security Council Resolution 955 created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, with jurisdiction to prosecute those responsible for genocide and related crimes in 1994, focusing on those accused of being the masterminds behind the genocide. To date only eight people have been convicted of genocide-related crimes. The remainder of the cases are being heard by Rwandan courts within Rwanda (where the death penalty was abolished in 2007).

However, the vast number of those involved in the genocide has overwhelmed the Rwandan court system.  Due to limited capacity of the formal court system, the government has set up relatively informal traditional community (Gacaca) courts which have facilitated the swift disposal of cases whilst promoting reconciliation and healing. With the 2010 deadline for winding down the Gacaca system approaching, the government’s focus is on establishing a properly functioning legal system, seen as one of the most important bulwarks against a repeat of the genocide. This includes setting up a proper economic dispute resolution system of commercial courts and arbitration facilities and also an accessible legal aid scheme.

Until 1994, Rwanda employed a mainly francophone civil legal system. Since 1994 there has been a strong move towards a system incorporating elements of Anglo-Saxon common law to enable Rwanda to capitalise upon its trading and political links with its East African Community partners such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. A hybrid legal system is therefore being developed.

Our contribution

Last summer, our team of volunteer London lawyers worked at the Institute for Legal Practice and Development (ILDP) and the Ministry of Justice. The ILPD is the first vocational law school for judges and law graduates. Funded by the government, it is at the heart of the country’s drive to educate its legal professionals in practical “lawyering”. Its new buildings provide accommodation for students who have suspended their legal practices for nine months to attend courses in advocacy, judicial decision-making, client conferencing skills and professional ethics. We found the staff and students committed to the regeneration of their country’s legal system and hungry for ideas, expertise and support. Their faith in Rwanda’s potential, despite the colossal challenges facing them and the limitations of restricted resources and mindsets was inspiring.

Interactive seminars

The UK legal team’s contribution included giving interactive seminars on how the common law operates. Our seminar on advocacy, for example, involved a fictional divorce case, dividing the class of 40 into two sides, explaining the rules of examination in chief and cross-examination and working with the groups of students to come up with questions to pose to the witness. We had a mock trial with austere judges, tenacious advocates and passionate witnesses.

We also discussed the concept of precedence—the idea of a judge being bound by or following the decision of a higher court is widely seen as a sign of judicial weakness and lack of independence—and held seminars analysing judicial decision-making, the role of the advocate in the adversarial process, cross-examination of testimony, the history and application of equity in the courts and client conference skills. Since the legal language is still French, the bilingual members of the UK team were put through their paces in delivering these seminars.

The team also devoted considerable time to drafting course content, particularly in the fields of commercial and corporate law, and was also successful in procuring the delivery of a metric tonne of legal text books to stock the Institute’s library, hitherto housing little more than Chinese language legal texts.

To the Ministry of Justice

Work at the Ministry of Justice was also targeted at helping Rwanda with its twin-track policy of building a properly functioning legal system while also introducing into that system key features of the common law. Seminars and discussions with the Ministry focused in particular on the role of arbitration in the development of the Rwandan economy. The Rwandan Arbitration Law, passed in 2007, is based on the UNCITRAL model law and provides a firm foundation for the establishment of an international arbitration facility in Kigali—the initial market for which will be the East African business community. In addition, seminars and discussions looked at the future of legal aid provision. Rwanda has already made great strides in the establishment of a system of mediation (the “Abunzi” courts) and the aim now is to build a system of low cost legal aid and legal advice close to the consumer to complement this.

Striking experience

Our team worked well with our Rwandan colleagues. What struck us most was the almost total absence of what we as UK lawyers often take for granted. From the beginning of our legal studies, we have access to excellent training, expertise, resources and history to enrich our understanding of law. Once in practice, we are part of a legal community which has evolved over centuries. Rwanda knows little such legal culture. The new lawyers there must be both pioneer and jurist in creating working and legitimate legal structures.

It is easy to be captivated by the natural beauty of the Rwandan landscape and the warmth of the earthy African air and the people. The optimism and commitment of the Rwandan legal profession which has blossomed after tragedy has been inspiring. To be of some help to a country on its path to peace and stability has been both a humbling and enriching experience.

Suella Fernandes is a barrister at No 5 Chambers. Philip Riches is a barrister at Stone Chambers. Since their return to the UK, the project has collaborated with a number of pro bono organisations and charities and is advising the Rwandan Ministry of Justice on implementation and use of a new case reporting system. In addition, assistance to the ILPD is ongoing. Those interested in assisting in this project should contact either Suella or Philip.