Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 2 (Spring 2000): Litigating Human Rights: Promise v. Perils: Articles: What Does "International Justice" Look Like in Post-Genocide Rwanda?

Apr 6, 2000

Recently an independent team of investigators commissioned by the United Nations confirmed what we in Rwanda already knew: The UN bears some responsibility for the 1994 genocide that took about a million lives, mostly Tutsi. Earlier reports had determined that the killings could have been avoided if the UN had responded to early warning signs.

Aware of its abandonment of the Rwandan people when innocents were slain before the blue helmets, the UN hastened to set up the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda with the special mandate of prosecuting the leading perpetrators. Rwandans believe that only justice can bring peace and normalcy to our traumatized society. And the truth is that the Tribunal is the best hope we have of achieving this. Yet, to most Rwandans, the Tribunal faces serious shortcomings and is no more than a UN political scheme to save face, doing too little too late for Rwanda.

In November 1994, those of us in favor of the Tribunal were dismayed when the Rwandan government voted against it in the Security Council. The government objected to the fact that the Tribunal cannot apply the death penalty, as per international law. The government also did not approve of the decision to carry out Tribunal proceedings outside of Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania.

The government later reversed its position, but it still objects to these terms, as do a great number of Rwandans and especially genocide survivors. Many Rwandans find it unacceptable that the convicted masterminds are allowed to escape a punishment of death. This is particularly absurd to them since lesser genocide offenders receive the death penalty from our national courts.

The fact that the prosecutorial branch of the Tribunal has offices in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is of little consolation. Many Rwandans are bitter towards “those people of Arusha,” as the Tribunal investigators are sometimes called. After the visit of some investigators to the Mabanza rural commune in Kibuye Prefecture, an area known for particularly bloody massacres, its mayor commented: “It is a pity these people of Arusha have left without even bothering to show a single sign of sympathy before the remains of ours who were massacred in these hills.” The mayor also disapproved of the fact that the investigators came to gather information for the defense of the accused, while the Tribunal provides no assistance to the town’s starving widows and orphans.

When pressed, many Rwandans acknowledge the impartiality of the Arusha proceedings compared to those the Rwandan magistrates conduct. Along with my colleagues at LIPRODHOR, I have monitored both sets of proceedings for years. Rwandan jurisdictions would do well to adopt the practices of the Tribunal magistrates who utilize experts in trial proceedings, examine case files in depth, apply high standards for thorough evidence, and provide the full right to defense of the accused prior to judgment. The Rwandan public and genocide survivors also have a high regard for the Tribunal’s witness-protection system, which helps to shelter survivors from potential intimidators; national tribunals have no such program.

Still, public opinion of the Tribunal is overwhelmingly negative. The most recurrent criticism is linked to its perceived incompetence. People wonder how up until now the Tribunal has only managed to convict 7 people and detain 39 in the Arusha facilities, given all the money it reportedly absorbs. It took over three years to arrive at a recent guilty verdict for Georges Rutaganda, the former leader of the infamous Interahamwe militia, which implemented the genocide.

Some Rwandan political activists and survivors’ organizations adopt a hard line against the Tribunal, even rejecting its right to prosecute. They cynically declare that “foreigners” have created the Tribunal “to make business out of the genocide . . . out of the blood of ours who passed away.” After the November 1999 decision to release the heinous génocidaire Jean Bosco Barayagwiza on a technicality, IBUKA, the most prominent of such organizations, accused the UN of denying the magnitude of the genocide. IBUKA also called the Tribunal a “trompe l’oeil” for survivors, which translates in our local language as a “don’t-cry-child toy.”

Like the government, the survivors assert that the root cause of the genocide lies with the colonialist policy of “ethnic divide and rule.” They feel that the international community, which stood by and did nothing as Rwandans suffered, cannot feign to be here now to teach us how to handle our problems. The government, if given the financial resources, can do the work of bringing the offenders to justice. Unfortunately, in taking such stands, some of these survivor groups may be doing more to advance government propaganda than the cause of justice.

Such harsh criticisms of the Tribunal have widespread influence among the public, particularly because survivor groups dominate state- controlled radio and television, the most important means of communication in Rwanda. There are two written bulletins published by private groups (one of which is my organization, LIPRODHOR) that inform the Rwandan population on the functioning of the Tribunal. But with half the population illiterate, most Rwandans know little about the real work of the Tribunal.

The negative image of the Tribunal undermines Rwandans’ hope for justice in general, and international justice in particular. As a consequence, in the long run we may be more prone to take matters into our own hands and repeat the sort of violent human tragedy that brought the Tribunal into being in the first place. Particularly in our country, with its history of impunity, it is not possible to separate justice and respect for human rights.

The Tribunal can make a difference for the future of human rights in Rwanda by exposing the truth of the genocide: It was not a result of ancient, tribal hatred, but rather a carefully planned exploitation of ethnic differences by rulers seeking to hold onto their power. With this truth, we may lay the groundwork for reconciliation, and through reconciliation, we can build understanding of each other’s human rights.

Yet today, bitter perceptions among the public are severe enough to threaten the continued existence of the Tribunal. What saves it is Rwandan indifference. Victims of the genocide are much more concerned about what is happening in Rwandan courts, where over 125,000 detainees are held, the vast majority of those suspected of participation in the killings. These cases are more personal since the accused are those whom the victims saw breaking into their homes with machetes and clubs, not the masterminds who schemed to “leave none to tell the story” in the distant state offices. Furthermore, unlike the Tribunal, the national courts compensate survivors for material losses.

To gain legitimacy in Rwanda the Tribunal needs to improve its work and efficiency while ameliorating its image. This is not to say that it should cave in to government and survivor-group criticism; it should do nothing that would threaten its independence and pursuit of justice. But it does need to improve its communication strategies with the Rwandan people to counter misperceptions of its role, procedures, and philosophy and to let the importance of its work be known. The longer the Tribunal keeps a distance from the people, the less it will appear to be serving the interests of Rwandans.

This will not be an easy task. Post-genocide Rwandan society is deeply divided. The war left behind not only chronic poverty, family dislocation, ethnic hatred, and trauma, but also a widespread legacy of negativism from which the Tribunal likely suffers. Even local human rights activists are confronted by the accusing fingers of their compatriots asking, “What did you do during the genocide when innocent people were being butchered?” Disillusionment mingled with trauma can constitute a great obstacle to any initiative, no matter how well intentioned. No institution can be expected to gain support from all strata of the population. Still, efforts must be made. If the Tribunal were to overcome these challenges, it would show that international justice can be more than just rhetoric.

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