One day in April 2011, about 70 villagers from a maize-growing community in the Amuria district of northeastern Uganda gathered in a dusty yard surrounded by thatched huts. They came to hear a young man confess to the crimes he had committed there and in a neighboring community in 2004. Back then, he was a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that terrorized northern Uganda from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s.
He wore a plain white T-shirt. Standing with a local elder at his side, he described committing two murders and one rape and burning down a hut. The victims and their families were sitting at the far edge of the gathering, and with tears streaming down his face, the man apologized to them and asked for forgiveness. He promised that his clan would compensate theirs with livestock and by rebuilding the burnt hut.
After long deliberations, the victims’ families accepted his apology and offer of compensation. Elders from the two clans then gathered under a shea-nut tree and broke four long spears to signify that there would be no more bloodshed.
Three months later, in a village marketplace in the Bugesera district of southern Rwanda, a middle-aged prisoner in a pink uniform stood before 90 villagers and a panel of nine lay judges, and confessed that he had killed three people during the 1994 genocide. Several survivors of that period rose to defend him against accusations that he had killed a fourth person.
The following week, the gacaca community court acquitted him of that murder. For the other three, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison — reduced to three months of community service because he had confessed and had already spent nine years in jail awaiting trial.
These are but two examples of the many local proceedings that have been carried out across northern Uganda and Rwanda to hold accountable low-level perpetrators of mass atrocities. In Rwanda, the gacaca courts prosecuted 400,000 genocide suspects in 11,000 communities between 2002 and 2012 — the most extensive attempt at judging mass crimes anywhere to date.
That effort, as well as the local reconciliation rituals in Uganda, marks a quiet revolution in postconflict justice, and a welcome departure from the orthodoxy set by the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II.
The postwar trials, which gave birth to modern international criminal law, treated mass violence as a top-down phenomenon: Any atrocities were deemed to be the responsibility of the political and military elites who had ordered them, rather than the foot soldiers and civilians who had committed them. The executioners were considered to have followed orders under duress.
This thinking has also dominated the practice of the International Criminal Court and most ad-hoc or so-called hybrid criminal tribunals — for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste and Cambodia. Most truth and reconciliation commissions have also focused on high-level perpetrators. A few — in South Africa, Guatemala, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste, for example — have considered the responsibility of low-level offenders, such as police officers and members of the security forces. But even then the approach was seen as a second-best option when high-ranking officials could not be compelled to testify.
The processes favored in Uganda and Rwanda are fundamentally different: They treat everyday perpetrators as central, not secondary, actors, and they encourage direct communication between perpetrators and survivors.
This local, personal approach is a necessary response to the increasing complexity and intimacy of conflict since the end of the Cold War. Modern large-scale violence has often involved civilians acting independently or as members of rebel movements, paramilitary organizations, private security companies, armed gangs, self-defense units and vigilante groups, sometimes with clear chains of command but often without.
Political scientists like Timothy Longman, Scott Straus, Lee Ann Fujii and Omar McDoom, who have studied why hundreds of thousands of Rwandans turned against their neighbors in 1994, have challenged the view that genocide is primarily the result of government orders. They have identified the many personal motivations that can lead ordinary citizens to commit murder, including ethnic hatred, communal solidarity, greed, fear or ambition.
Mass violence has also become more intimate. In some 800 interviews I conducted in Rwanda and Uganda between 2003 and 2013, I asked atrocity survivors whom they considered to be the principal perpetrators. Most cited the specific individual — the one they knew personally — who had wielded the machete or thrown the grenade, not the faceless official who may have ordered the violence.
This proximity extends to postconflict environments: Especially in small agricultural communities, as in Rwanda and Uganda, perpetrators and survivors often have to live side by side. And when daily subsistence depends on peaceful coexistence, reconciliation is not a luxury but a necessity.
This is one reason that a central feature of the proceedings in Uganda and Rwanda is face-to-face dialogue. Perpetrators are invited to confess their crimes, apologize and ask for forgiveness. Victims are invited to express their anger directly to the perpetrators and question them about the details of their crimes and their repentance. The hope is that such open airings and shared reckonings will ease lingering communal tensions and forestall future violence.
International courts are often set up far from where the crimes were committed, on the theory that being at a remove from the affected communities will protect the judges’ impartiality. This is a laudable instinct, but it partly misses the mark. If one stated objective of judging mass violence is to reconcile divided communities, then victims and perpetrators must also be brought together again, and close to the scene of the crimes.
Phil Clark, the author of The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers, teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.