During an exclusive visit to the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel, the Chief Justice to Rwanda spoke of the massive reconstruction and reconciliation effort needed to rebuild his country's judicial system, following the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million died.
Addressing a select audience of law-makers, barristers, the media, dignitaries and human rights experts on 28 February, Professor Sam Rugege delivered a one-off, keynote speech which highlighted how Rwanda had dealt with tens of thousands of suspected war criminals, ‘trying' them via a traditional system of village courts.
With no courts or functioning legal system (or government) in the aftermath of the genocide, Justice Rugege and colleagues built a functioning legal system from the ground-up and in the process helped earn Rwanda an enviable reputation for low corruption.
Invited by the Qatar Law Forum and sponsored by Allen & Overy, Justice Rugege looked at both past and future challenges facing his country and its judiciary. He explained that in 2003, when a new constitution come into force, dozens of Law graduates had to be trained up as new judicial officers to take over the country's near-destroyed legal system
"In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, there was a need to rebuild public institutions, including the judiciary," he said. "The physical infrastructure had been destroyed and the human resources greatly reduced as many judicial officers had either been killed or had fled the country.
"There was need to restructure and modernise the judiciary to make it functional, efficient and more easily accessible to all. This was not easy given the general devastation of the country and lack of resources. The process was therefore slow."
When judicial reforms started in earnest there was a backlog of over 54,000 cases, some going back as far as the 1980s, he said. Cases took years to be processed through the courts and the public had little confidence in the judicial system.
"Strategies were devised to speed up the hearing and adjudication of cases. We were fortunate to get funding to hire contractual judicial officers who specifically and exclusively handled backlog cases. Within a period of seven years the backlog was almost completely cleared leaving only problematic cases, for instance those with missing documents."
He added that one major consequence of the reforms had been greatly enhanced public confidence in the judiciary, both in terms of its ability to dispense justice fairly as well as in a reasonable timeframe. "The rule of law is part and parcel of good governance," he said, and "good governance is an important factor in creating the environment for respect for the rule of law among the citizens."
Professor Rugege was invited by the Qatar Law Forum, and the event was chaired by Robin Knowles QC CBE, Chairman of Pro-Bono in the LMC. Among notable guests was the Hon. Mr Justice Blair, who helped advise the Rwandan Judiciary on banking law.
The event ended with a question and answers session, followed by a private networking event.