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Vol 37 No 19

Published 20th September 1996

Holding out hope

The genocide in the Great Lakes region has prompted new efforts to hold murderers and torturers accountable

Unprecedented political change in Africa over the past six years has had huge consequences for human rights. There have been shining instances, notably South Africa, which hold out hope of things getting better. However, nowhere is it evident that democratisation leads quickly and easily to respect for human rights. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 highlighted the question of accountability. Confronting this issue is central to any attempt to prevent human rights abuses in Africa or elsewhere. Conventional wisdom says human rights violators must be brought to justice, to deter future crimes. Yet in the context of mass slaughter or amid the challenges of political transition, this principle runs into problems. Many of those involved settle for 'impunity' in the name of national reconciliation and stability and, less publicly, of cost. 'Impunity' can bring peace, while revenge is stored up for the future. 'Justice' (perhaps trials of key people but unlawful detention for the many) may be seen as retribution or as a chance for a new government to show how bad its predecessor was.

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