Tribunal Should Vigorously Pursue Crimes of Rwandan Patriotic Front
June 1, 2009
The tribunal's failure to address the war crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front risks leaving the impression that it is delivering only victor's justice. That's a poor legacy for this historic effort at international justice.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda should urgently indict senior officers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who are alleged to have committed war crimes in Rwanda in 1994, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the ICTR's chief prosecutor released today. To date, the tribunal has tried only leading figures responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide and has failed to bring cases against RPF officers despite having jurisdiction to pursue these crimes.

On June 4, 2009, the chief prosecutor, Hassan Jallow, and the tribunal's president, Judge Dennis Byron, will brief the UN Security Council in New York on the progress of the tribunal's genocide trials over the past six months.

The tribunal's mandate requires it to prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda in 1994. However, unlike the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which has prosecuted crimes committed by all parties to the conflict, the ICTR has prosecuted persons belonging to only one side. The Rwandan Patriotic Front is now the country's ruling party.

"The tribunal's failure to address the war crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front risks leaving the impression that it is delivering only victor's justice," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "That's a poor legacy for this historic effort at international justice."

In 1994, the Rwandan government, assisted by tens of thousands of soldiers, militia, and ordinary citizens, began a genocidal campaign to wipe out the country's Tutsi population. The campaign took place over three months, leading to the deaths of up to 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu, while the world community looked on and failed to end the slaughter. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by current President Paul Kagame, ended the genocide after a military campaign in which its forces killed tens of thousands of civilians in the same three-month period.

"Seeking justice for the victims of RPF crimes neither denies the genocide nor equates these crimes with genocide," said Roth. "It simply asserts that all victims, regardless of the power of the alleged perpetrators, have the right to see justice done."

Crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front have been well documented, including by a United Nations Commission of Experts in 1994 which concluded that the group "perpetrated serious breaches of international humanitarian law" and "crimes against humanity." According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between April and August 1994, the RPF killed between 25,000 and 45,000 civilians. At least four United Nations agencies, Human Rights Watch, and other nongovernmental organizations have also documented RPF crimes. The tribunal has investigated crimes committed by the RPF for more than 10 years and has gathered witness testimony and physical evidence.

Instead of pursuing indictments of such cases at the Tanzania-based tribunal, Chief Prosecutor Hassan Jallow decided in June 2008 to transfer files of Rwandan Patriotic Front suspects to Rwanda for a domestic prosecution. At the time, two of the tribunal's trial chambers had just denied requests to transfer pending genocide cases to Rwanda on the grounds that the Rwandan judiciary could not guarantee a fair trial.

"Given the tribunal's decision not to transfer genocide cases to Rwanda for fear of political interference by the Rwandan authorities, it is hard to understand why the prosecutor sent those same authorities a sensitive Rwandan Patriotic Front case for trial," said Roth. "The prosecutor should have ensured justice is served by trying the cases at the tribunal before a fair and impartial panel of judges."

In a briefing to the UN Security Council in June 2008, Jallow made a commitment to monitor the Rwandan RPF trial closely and to recall the case if the proceedings failed to meet international standards.

The prosecution of RPF officers in Rwanda proved to be a political whitewash. Rwandan authorities arrested four military officers in June 2008 and charged them with war crimes for the 1994 killings of 15 civilians, including 13 clergy and a 9-year-old boy. Trial proceedings lasted only a matter of days with little-to-no international attention. The tribunal's Office of the Prosecutor sent an observer for one day of trial, closing arguments, and the verdict. Two of the officers confessed to the killing and were sentenced to eight years in prison (later reduced to five years on appeal). Two more senior officers were acquitted. The prosecutor's office has yet to release a statement indicating whether the trial met international fair trial standards.

"The Office of the Prosecutor did not diligently monitor the trial and has not yet stated publicly whether it met international standards," said Roth. "Prosecutor Jallow should provide his assessment when he briefs the Security Council and make a commitment to seek indictments for other Rwandan Patriotic Front cases. A failure to do so betrays the rights of the victims' families to obtain justice and risks undermining the tribunal's legitimacy in the eyes of future generations."