Interning in Rwanda: A 2L’s Story

In June 2007, Louisville Law student Becca O'Neill traveled to Rwanda to serve as an intern for the National Service of Gacaca Courts in Kigali, Rwanda. Her internship was funded in part by a grant from the Student Bar Foundation.

Rwanda's Gacaca court system was launched in 2001 to expedite the trials of over 100,000 genocide suspects in the country's prisons at that time. This court system was named after and based on a traditional practice of community hearings used to resolve local disputes. However, the new process merges the customary system with a more formal--Western--court structure. The Gacaca tribunals are legally established judicial bodies, and judges of these courts can impose sentences as high as life imprisonment.

O'Neill had worked as a grant writer for human rights organization in Rwanda following completion of her undergraduate studies in social work. Following this experience, O'Neill began her career in social work in earnest, working in the legal arena as a social worker in Brooklyn, N.Y. O'Neill's experiences in both Rwanda and in Brooklyn pulled her inexorably toward a degree in law as she realized that her dedication to social justice could best be realized through a legal education.

O'Neill entered the University of Louisville's Law School in 2006. The law school's emphasis on and support of public service allowed O'Neill to propose an internship in Rwanda's Gacaca courts as a means of meeting the service requirement. In June 2006, she began her work at the National Service of Gacaca Courts in Kigali, Rwanda--one of two interns, the other also an American law student. She and O'Neill were the first U.S. interns permitted to work in the Gacaca system.

O'Neill served in Gacaca's Legal Support Unit, which responds to any complaints and concerns that Gacaca is not functioning properly. Complaints come from both Rwandese civilians and international organizations. The organization works with both prisons and survivor organizations to oversee and improve Gacaca.

As an intern, O'Neill was charged with three key tasks:

  • First, O'Neill learned as much as possible about Gacaca and, she explains, "acted as an ‘ambassador' for Gacaca--someone from the outside who could learn first hand how the system functioned and spread that information to legal communities in the US."
  • Second, O'Neill read and reviewed a series of reports that came from different international organizations and evaluated various phases of Gacaca. O'Neill explained, "I was given several reports each week to read and assess. I then presented my assessments to my supervisors, who in turn decided which aspects of the reports to address with international donors and aid organizations."
  • Finally, O'Neill wrote a series of reports that focused on the successes and failures of Gacaca. O'Neill explains that she was asked to "view Gacaca through the lens of international standards of fair trial. I was also encouraged to speak to survivors and perpetrators alike in an effort to understand the unique situation Rwanda faces."