“We seek to make the very worst people in the world nervous”

The Nyamata Church is about 30 kilometres south of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. On April 11, 1994, this small rural church was the site of a violent massacre. Like many churches, the Nyamata church is surrounded by a graveyard – in two mass graves are the remains of 45,308 genocide victims.

During the Rwandan genocide, Human Rights Watch estimates that half a million people were killed – the vast majority of whom constituted around three quarters of the Tutsi population; the BBC places this figure higher, at 800,000. Regardless of the exact detail, the horror of the event is undeniable.

In instances of genocide, the shock and the destruction can paralyse both individuals and institutions. In the face of such enormous destruction and such wanton cruelty, there seems no appropriate response. And yet it is in the aftermath, whilst evidence is still fresh, that both national and international forces must be compelled to act in order to begin the legal process. 

This is where Justice Rapid Response (JRR) enters the picture. Ashoka Fellow, Andras Vamos-Goldman, is the Executive Director of Justice Rapid Response and has been developing the initiative since its inception. In conflicts where genocides, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes may have taken place, the situation is extremely fragile. Speaking at a Chatham House event in October 2007, Andras Vamos-Goldman emphasises the necessity of using the right expertise to “identify, collect and preserve information” that is required to “support […] accountability processes”. Justice Rapid Response’s answer has been to train and develop a roster of diverse professionals who are qualified to work and who can be deployed at short notice in these situations.

Over the course of the last five and a half years, Justice Rapid Response has certified over 500 individuals from over 90 countries. The professionals on the roster include some 60 categories such as criminal and human rights investigators, legal experts including prosecutors, forensics specialists, police and military analysts, sexual and gender based violence investigators, witness protection and management specialists, and intelligence analysts. Individuals who take part in the training are nominated by their organisations – whether these are state justice bodies, international organisations, or police forces. Upon completing the training , and based on their performance, they are  certified to the roster. These experts are then deployed by Justice Rapid Response, at the request of entities with the mandate and jurisdiction over situations where mass atrocities have been committed, such as the ICC and the UN, as well as states themselves.

Whilst the initial burden of investigation lies with the state, the capacity of state powers in the post-conflict situation can often be a problem. The case of the Rwandan genocide illustrates the complication of state involvement. For example, from as early as 1990 there are reports of the Rwandan government arming Hutu civillians. In 1993, $750,000 worth of machetes were imported into the country by the government. In the aftermath of genocide, the carnage and chaos had left the state infrastructure depleted. The post-conflict state was extremely delicate – ridden with debts to the World Bank and war exhaustion – it had few resources to support investigations.

In the case of war torn states, Justice Rapid Response can provide resources in the form of the required expertise to structure and support investigations too.

Conventionally, the vast majority of resources in post conflict situations are directed towards rebuilding justice systems. Vamos-Goldman takes a different approach – asserting that the identification and preservation of evidence is crucial to the long term capacity building projects that deal with the broader justice system. He maintains that proper investigation is the crux of creating accountability; which is the means to ultimately end cycles of violence. The methodological standard set by Justice Rapid Response, consisting of rigorously recruiting and training experts and making the right person available at the right place and the right time, is already transforming the quality and state of investigations internationally. 

Through proper investigation, and the consequent creation of accountability, JRR is challenging the individuals and groups behind the worst crimes internationally. Their mission was best summarised by Andras Vamos-Goldman at the Skoll World Forum 2015: “We seek to make the very worst people in the world nervous.”

-By Meera Patel, Operations and Communications Associate at Ashoka UK. For more news from the Ashoka network, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on twitter.

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