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Félicien Kabuga on his US Department of State wanted poster. Photo source: US Department of State

(Paris) – The arrest of Félicien Kabuga, one of the alleged masterminds behind the Rwandan genocide, in France on May 16, 2020 brings victims and survivors one step closer to justice 26 years later. Kabuga is charged by an international war crimes court with genocide and related crimes during the 1994 genocide, and was living in France under a false identity at the time of his arrest.

“Félicien Kabuga’s arrest is a major victory for victims and survivors of the genocide in Rwanda who have waited more than two decades to see this leading figure face justice,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Those implicated in brutal atrocities should take note that the law can catch up with anyone, even those who seem untouchable.” 

Kabuga had evaded arrest since 1997, when he was first indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Kabuga is expected to be tried by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), which was established to handle the outstanding functions of the ICTR and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia once those tribunals closed. The mechanism has branches in Arusha, Tanzania, and The Hague, the Netherlands.

Kabuga was close to Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, who died when a plane carrying him and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on April 6, 1994. The crash triggered the start of three months of ethnic killings across Rwanda on an unprecedented scale. He was one of the chief financiers of the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which began broadcasting in April 1993.

Between April and July 1994, Hutu political and military extremists orchestrated the killing of approximately three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, leaving more than half a million people dead. Many Hutu who attempted to hide or defend Tutsi and those who opposed the genocide were also killed.

In mid-July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a predominantly Tutsi rebel group based in Uganda that had been fighting to overthrow the Rwandan government since 1990, took over the country. Its troops killed thousands of predominantly Hutu civilians, though the scale and nature of these killings were not comparable to the genocide.

Human Rights Watch documented the genocide and the RPF’s 1994 crimes in detail. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Human Rights Watch Africa division for almost two decades and one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda, published the authoritative account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story.”

“Radio RTLM, which had incited to genocide before April 6, communicated the orders for implementing the killings after that date,” Des Forges said in her account. “It instructed people to erect barriers and carry out searches; it named persons to be targeted and pointed out areas which should be attacked…. So important was this means of communication that officials admonished citizens to keep listening to the radio for instructions from the interim government.”

With Human Rights Watch, Des Forges also documented how Kabuga was implicated in ordering the thousands of machetes imported in 1993 and early 1994 and how he supported the military training for the Interahamwe youth militia associated to Habyarimana’s party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (Mouvement révolutionnaire national pour le développement, MRND).

The United Nations Security Council created the ICTR, based in Arusha, in 1994 in response to the genocide. The tribunal indicted 93 people, convicted and sentenced 61, and acquitted 14. It was expected to try mostly high-level suspects and those who played a leading role in the genocide. It tried and convicted several prominent figures for crimes committed during the genocide, including the former prime minister, Jean Kambanda, the former army chief of staff, Gen. Augustin Bizimungu, and the former Defense Ministry chief of staff, Col. Théoneste Bagosora.

The tribunal achieved important milestones and established jurisprudence in international criminal law. It was the first international tribunal to convict a woman of genocide crimes, including rape, and the first international court since the 1946 Nuremberg tribunal to convict media executives for crimes of genocide.

However, the tribunal had inherent limitations and attracted criticism. The tribunal handled a relatively small number of cases and had high operating costs. The trials were often lengthy and slowed down by bureaucratic processes. Some Rwandans have criticized the tribunal, citing its lack of reparation for victims and its location outside Rwanda, and complained that genocide convicts were allowed to speak to the media.

The tribunal’s unwillingness to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the RPF in 1994 was a significant failing of the tribunal, Human Rights Watch said.

The IRMCT, created in 2010, is tasked with addressing the remaining tribunal-indicted fugitives, seven of whom remain at large. It has retained jurisdiction over Kabuga and Augustin Bizimana and Protais Mpiranya, both fugitives. Five others are to be tried by the Rwandan authorities. 

The Rwandan justice system also tried a large number of genocide suspects, both in conventional domestic courts and in local, community-based gacaca courts. The standards of these trials have varied enormously and political interference and pressure resulted in some unfair trials. Other cases have shown greater respect for due process. The gacaca trials ended in 2012.

Court officials at the residual mechanism highlighted the cooperation by France, where Kabuga was living covertly with family at the time of his arrest, and a number of other governments to enable Kabuga’s arrest after so many years. The French justice ministry said in a statement that Kabuga “had with impunity stayed in Germany, Belgium, Congo-Kinshasa [Democratic Republic of Congo], Kenya, or Switzerland.”

“Arresting suspects can be one of the most difficult challenges for international courts to bring justice for atrocity crimes as they lack their own police forces,” Segun said. “Questions remain over how Kabuga was able to evade justice for over two decades, but cooperation between governments has made it possible for victims and survivors at last to see him face trial and should be replicated to secure the surrender of more international war crimes fugitives.”

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