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Letter Sent to US Ambassador John Negroponte, President of UN Security Council

Letter also sent to members of Security Council

H.E. Ambassador John Negroponte
President of the Security Council
United States Permanent Mission
to the United Nations
7019 UN Plaza
New York, NY 10017

Dear Ambassador Negroponte:

In 1994 soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) killed thousands of civilians, in the process committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. A U.N. Commission of Experts concluded that the RPA had "perpetrated serious breaches of international humanitarian law" and "crimes against humanity." The Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to prosecute not just the genocide that had devastated Rwanda but also "other systematic, widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law" (Security Council Resolution 955, 1994), including those committed by members of the RPA.

The government of Rwanda now opposes the prosecution of RPA members by the tribunal. In confronting this challenge, the Security Council should demonstrate its commitment to the equitable justice essential for long-term peace in Central Africa by calling on Rwanda to cooperate fully with the tribunal.

On July 23 the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda reported to the Security Council that the Rwandan government was hindering the progress of genocide trials as a way of pressuring her to slow down investigations of crimes allegedly committed by members of the RPA in 1994. The recent difficulties between the tribunal and the Rwandan government began soon after the prosecutor announced that indictments would be sought against members of the RPA. In at least two meetings with high-ranking United Nations or tribunal officials, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has privately expressed concern at the speed with which investigations against RPA officers and soldiers are progressing-exactly contrary to the official Rwandan government position deploring the slowness with which the tribunal works.

The Rwandan government suggests that the tribunal should try only cases of genocide and leave prosecution of RPA crimes to Rwandan courts. It asserts that these courts have tried, convicted, and punished RPA members who committed abuses. But the trials have been few and the penalties of those convicted have been light. Only one senior officer, a major, has been tried for massacres committed in 1994. Convicted by court martial in January 1998 after confessing to having ordered the slaughter of more than thirty civilians, he was sentenced to life in prison, but he successfully appealed his sentence and was freed soon after. By June 1998 five others had been convicted of capital offenses committed in 1994, but four were privates and one a corporal, and all received light sentences. The corporal, convicted of having killed fifteen civilians, was punished by only two years in prison.

Most Rwandans know nothing of these RPA trials or discount their importance because of the small number and light penalties involved. Victims of RPA abuses in 1994, their families, and many other Rwandans continue to demand justice for these crimes.

The Rwandan government has just launched an innovative popular justice program called gacaca courts, with the stated purpose of delivering justice and contributing to reconciliation. Although the law establishing these new jurisdictions mandates them to try crimes against humanity and war crimes, Rwandan government authorities have made it clear from the start that these popular courts are to deal only with accusations of genocide. Despite such clear orders, Rwandans continue asking gacaca courts to list those killed by RPA soldiers among the victims of 1994 and they ask that these local courts bring implicated RPA soldiers to justice. So far their requests have been in vain.

Rwandan authorities have told Rwandans, as they have told the Security Council, that Rwandan courts will deal with RPA crimes. Had Rwandan prosecutors wanted to try these crimes, they have had ample time to act. They have also had ample evidence: RPA violations of international humanitarian law have been documented by monitors of the field office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, by the U.N. Commission of Experts, and by Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues in various publications, including a detailed account in Leave None to Tell the Story (1999).

In a response to the prosecutor, the Rwandan government concludes correctly that the tribunal is at a crossroads and that its credibility is at stake. But its credibility does not hinge on any of the improvements suggested by the Rwandan government, useful though some of them might be. It hangs rather on the full implementation of its mandate as established by the Security Council in 1994.

Victims of RPA crimes have virtually no chance of obtaining justice in any Rwandan court, whether military court or gacaca court. Failing to provide them justice at the international tribunal as well will feed resentment and desire for revenge, explosive sentiments in a region where armed groups continue to operate in opposition to recognized governments.

We urge the Security Council to address the central issue, namely the need for the prosecutor to be able to investigate and charge those who committed the gravest crimes in 1994, whether genocide or other violations of international humanitarian law. In this we are asking that the prosecutor be given the same latitude to pursue the worst abuses by all sides to the conflict as she has in the former Yugoslavia. By insisting that the Rwandan government give its full cooperation by facilitating the travel of witnesses and by providing documentation needed by the prosecutor, the Security Council will fulfill its original intention of contributing to justice as the basis for peace and reconciliation in the region.

I thank you for your attention. HRW remains at your service should you desire further background on this important matter.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Cc: Permanent Representatives of the Members of the U.N. Security Council

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