In 1994, one of history’s most tragic chapters played out a when almost one million were killed in three-months during the Rwandan genocide.
Twenty years on, the Rome Statute system stands as the world’s best option for ensuring that such crimes do not go unpunished.
Yet the international community—Rwanda included—need to do more much to ensure the clarion call of “never again” becomes a reality.
Neighbor against neighbor
Rwanda’s genocide was built upon years of tensions between the country’s majority Hutu ethnic group and the minority Tutsis.
These divisions were reinforced by a colonial system that gave the Tutsis inordinate social, political and economic power until the country achieved independence in 1959—at which point the power balance shifted towards the Hutu population.
The assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down on 6 April 1994, sparked the genocide. Yet planning for the atrocities by some Hutu elites had begun years earlier.
Following Habyarimana’s death, Hutu political and military extremists led a campaign against ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, killing an estimated 800,000 people in a country of 7.5 million—a literal decimation of the population.
No less horrific was the systematic use of rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing against Tutsi and moderate Hutu women. As many as 500,000 women may have been raped.
The violence only came to an end in July, when Tutsi rebels led by now President Paul Kagame defeated government forces in the capital city of Kigali.
Justice for the genocide
In order to hold accountable those responsible for the genocide, justice efforts in Rwanda were multi-faceted, with national trials and community-based mechanisms accompanying international efforts.
Responding to the genocide and to contribute to the process of national reconciliation, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was empowered to prosecute those responsible for the genocide and other serious crimes in Rwanda between January and December 1994.
The ICTR was designed to prosecute a small number of people who were most responsible for the genocide, and has to date convicted 49 individuals. It is scheduled to conclude its operations in 2015.
Along with the ICTR trials, the Rwandan government prosecuted suspected genocidaires.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases flooding its judicial system, the government also established gacaca courts, which drew from a community-based model of dispute resolution. While the gacaca courts delivered punitive justice, they also focused on reconciliation efforts.
The ICC and delivering on the promise of “never again”
Since the Holocaust, the world has repeatedly promised that such crimes would “never again” be allowed to occur and would not go unpunished.
Unfortunately, its actions have not quite lived up to those commitments.
Many UN officials and civil society leaders warn that the current crisis in the Central African Republic risks turning into genocide.
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, however, the world took perhaps its biggest step forward towards ensuring that there will be no impunity for those who commit genocide and other grave crimes.
In 1998, over 200 civil society organizations, led by the Coalition, joined with over 160 state governments in Rome. After weeks of negotiations, the ICC Rome Statute was adopted.
A short time later, the ICC came into being. In 2010, the Court issued its first arrest warrant for the crime of genocide.
Rwanda working against international justice
The Rome Statute provides a powerful deterrent against genocide, but in order to deliver on the promise of “never again,” the ICC needs stronger and more coherent support from the international community.
For example, while the Court has charged Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur, states have not acted to bring him to justice, instead allowing him to travel abroad in defiance of the warrants for his arrest.
Particularly troubling is that Rwanda has in recent years been hostile to the Court, backing a mass withdrawal of African states from the ICC at a recent AU summit.
A state with such a recent history of mass atrocities should be at the forefront the movement to end impunity for crimes like genocide, not actively working against it.
So, this April, in commemoration of Genocide Awareness Month, we ask states to remember the genocide in Rwanda and consider what steps they can take to ensure such events never again occur.
Joining and supporting the ICC while adopting national laws to prosecute these grave crimes is a good place to start.
Coalition members mark 20th anniversary of Rwandan genocide
A number of our member organizations issued statements on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
Amnesty International criticized the international community for failing to act on the lessons of the Rwanda genocide, pointing, in particular, to the ongoing conflicts in the CAR and South Sudan.
Human Rights Watch welcomed progress made in Rwanda and commended the work of the national and international courts in delivering justice. However, while the group acknowledged improvements to Rwanda’s judicial system, it noted concerns over the judiciary’s lack of independence and the mixed results of the country’s gacaca courts, as well as the need for prosecutions of Tutsi rebel forces for crimes they are alleged to have committed.
Similarly, Avocats Sans Frontières’ Chantal van Cutsem recognized the continued need for effective and independent justice, while the International Federation for Human Rights took the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned thus far.
Have your say – how can Rwanda demonstrate its commitment to international justice?
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