In the context of post-conflict transitions, the victims of political violence play an important role. Compensation based on the entitlement of victims can be seen in accordance with ‘positive discrimination’ favouring disadvantaged members of society. Victims of mass crimes are vulnerable, they are in need of redress and they even have the right to compensation because of the harm they have suffered. As previously discussed, victim claims can be traced to the psychological rule that it is just and fair to be compensated for bad luck or suffering. Why then can it become problematic to entitle the victims of political crimes?
The status of victims in Rwanda
Rwanda witnessed a cruel genocide in 1994. An estimated 75% of the country’s Tutsi population was slaughtered by extremist forces of the then Hutu-led government and its militias.
The victims of this event are an important social category in Rwanda. The leitmotiv of the country’s post-genocide politics, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the victorious rebel movement which ended the genocide, is “Never Again”. Honouring and remembering the victims and survivors of the genocide is one of its central pillars. However, identifying the victims eligible for reparation and commemoration is a highly politicised and contested question. Besides the recognised Tutsi, the violence in Rwanda left many other victims, including ‘ordinary’ civil war victims and the Hutu that were denounced and killed in RPF-controlled areas or in revenge.
But these victims have no place in official memory and no access to reparation programmes, so they feel abandoned and unjustly treated. This uniform denial and neglect of the suffering of parts of the population leads to bitterness and victim competition. So, for example, there have been reported cases of victim egoism in the context of the semi-traditional gacaca courts that were implemented in 2002 to deal with crimes of the genocide. The procedures have reportedly been misused for personal ends including enrichment and revenge. Such incidents, and the fact that only genocide cases and not ‘ordinary’ war crimes can be brought to justice, leads to a continuing feeling of exclusion on the side of parts of the population.
Victimhood is an interesting phenomenon when it comes to entitlement and justice. On one hand, being victimised shatters the lives of those affected. Compensation for suffering is a central element of criminal law, as is punishment for perpetrators. Victims are part of the least advantaged in society, and their entitlement can be seen as a contribution to the creation of social cohesion and equity.
On the other hand, research has found that victims tend to behave selfishly, led by a sense of entitlement to ‘equal the score’. Vamik Volkan has observed such “exaggerated entitlement” in studying groups of victims that make claims for their own group regardless of the costs and consequences for others.
A sacred role?
In the Rwandan case, the moral authority that emerged from the victimisation of the Tutsi has built the moral high-ground for claims to power and the mobilisation of support. The leading social group in Rwandan society is constructed around heroes and genocide victims, taken to be Tutsi. So many Hutu feel like second-class citizens, due to an assumed collective guilt.
In this way, victimhood is the only thing able to free people from guilt, and provide first-class citizenship and moral superiority.
Competition over victimhood and political mobilisation
As a result, Hutu exiles around the world are not surprisingly mobilising around their victimhood, framing their demands in the language of human rights, suffering and international justice.
On the 20th anniversary of the genocide, for example, the Rwandan diaspora in Belgium initiated the #ITooAmAVictim campaign, with Rwandans and supporters around the globe sharing their experience of perceived victimisation. By pointing to victimhood caused by the RPF, the political opposition is also questioning the moral entitlement of the RPF government.
This competition over the deservingness of victim status makes victimhood an attractive resource that can be used for political and economic ends. Especially in the international arena, where claims based on victimhood resonate with human rights discourse, all actors are pointing to experiences of victimisation to gain moral ground and try to secure international support.
In Rwanda, these issues do not contribute to deepening understanding and ways of living together. Instead, they foster rumours and resentment. This does not support useful structures for social justice.