Skip to main content

How a Tribunal May Damage Its Legacy

Published in: AfrikaPost (Germany)

As a newly minted investigator at the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda in 1995, I was not sure how people in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, would respond when I told them my line of work. In casual conversations at local restaurants I was surprised by how often I was asked if the tribunal planned to investigate crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).  Rwanda was still in the early stages of recovering from the genocide that took at least a half million lives over the course of a three month period in 1994. Bones were still scattered on the hillsides.

Like many who had followed the conflict from afar, I had been primarily aware of the genocide committed by the former government - the selective, systematic killing of Tutsi at roadblocks, in  homes, and in churches or community centers where they had gathered in hope that there would be safety in numbers. I was much less familiar with the crimes committed by the RPF, the armed movement that ultimately gained control of Rwanda and has become the governing party today. The RPF were seen by many as heroes for driving out the genocidaires while the international community stood by and watched. Few discussed the suffering the RPF had inflicted while carrying out this feat.

I quickly learned, however, that there are rarely clean hands in a war. A UN Commission of Experts in 1994 found that the RPF had committed crimes against humanity and war crimes and "strongly recommended" that the Security Council ensure that the persons responsible for those crimes be brought to justice. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimated the number of RPF victims to have been between 25,000 and 45,000 from April to August 1994. Human  Rights Watch also had documented RPF massacres of groups of unarmed civilians in eastern, central, and southern Rwanda.  While these crimes were not of the same nature as the genocide and were on a much smaller scale, they were still significant crimes and fell squarely within the Rwanda tribunal's mandate. Their victims also were entitled to justice, and that is what I told people who asked about those crimes.

While at the tribunal, I understood that these cases would have to wait. Security at the office in Kigali was poor. Shortly after we moved to a new office building and hired local security guards, two of them were caught trying to steal a generator. There was little reason to believe that information about witnesses was much safer.  Also, cooperation from the Rwandan government was essential for prosecutions. When the government was unhappy with the tribunal, it refused to let witnesses travel to the seat of the court in Tanzania, forcing a suspension of proceedings. That is exactly what happened when the former prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, announced in 2002 that the tribunal would investigate RPF cases. Only when genocide trials were drawing to a close and witnesses from Rwanda were no longer needed would RPF trials be possible.

Now, 13 years later, the trials are winding down and the tribunal is preparing to shut its doors. Yet the current prosecutor is not willing to follow through on RPF crimes and fulfill the tribunal's mandate. He claims that the Rwandan government is trying these cases and therefore he does not need to. Yet the Rwandan government has prosecuted only a handful of people for RPF crimes -- and these were low ranking soldiers charged with "crimes of revenge" or "human rights violations," not war crimes or crimes against humanity. Those convicted were given light sentences, and there is reason to believe trials were far from fair and impartial.

The tribunal's judges have repeatedly refused the prosecutor's requests to transfer cases to national courts in Rwanda because they believe the defendants would face unfair trials. The decisions emphasized the fear that potential defense witnesses face, ranging from intimidation to violence or death. Foreign jurisdictions, including Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, have dismissed requests for extradition to Rwanda on similar grounds.

The approach by the Rwanda tribunal's prosecutor contrasts sharply with that of the prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The Special Court is a mixed national and international court established in 2002 to try those most responsible for horrific crimes -- including widespread mutilation, murder of civilians, abduction and sexual violence -- committed during Sierra Leone's lengthy armed conflict. Though rebels committed the majority of the crimes, government forces and their allies were also were responsible for serious crimes, though on a smaller scale.

 Rather than ignore the government's crimes, the prosecutor for the Special Court investigated and prosecuted those most responsible for atrocities regardless of the suspect's affiliation, sending the important message that violating the laws of war is never acceptable, even if done to rid the country of even worse abusers. Rather than shy away from a potentially unpopular case, the court's first trial was against Sam Hinga Norman who was then the Interior Minister and was viewed by many as a hero for his role in ridding the country of rebels.

Unlike victims in Sierra Leone, the vast majority of RPF victims have little hope of seeing justice. Rwandans are even less likely to talk about RPF crimes openly today than when I was there because discussing the crimes has been equated by the government with holding "genocide ideology" (a criminal offense involving any act deemed to espouse hatred or lead to violence). Filing complaints for the RPF crimes in national courts would be risky business. 

Though the Rwanda tribunal's prosecutor seems willing to overlook the RPF crimes, people in Rwanda remain all too aware of them. A failure to prosecute these crimes  will call into question the court's impartiality and undermine its legacy and the valuable work the court has done to date in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 genocide. The prosecutor can still change his mind. If not, as the International Criminal Court develops its approach to investigations, the Rwanda tribunal could sadly end up as a model of what not to do.   

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country