Time of Trial in Rwanda

By Garbus, Martin | The Nation, March 27, 1995 | Go to article overview

Time of Trial in Rwanda


Garbus, Martin, The Nation


On May 25, 1993, the U.N. Security Council created the ponderously titled International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991. The council expressed the hope that bringing the perpetrators of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia to account under international law would "contribute to the restoration and maintenance of peace."

Last November, the tribunal's jurisdiction was expanded to cover Rwanda, where last April as many as 500,000 people, mostly members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, were slaughtered by soldiers, militia members and civilians from the Hutu majority.

The International Tribunal's Bosnian trials may start later this year, in The Hague; the Rwandan trials may not begin until 1996, possibly in Tanzania. The tribunal for both countries is made up of eleven judges from as many countries, and is divided into two trial chambers and an appellate chamber. Its 1994 budget was only $11 million in U.N.-allocated funds, plus several million dollars in voluntary contributions of money, personnel and equipment from various countries.

Proceeding at a glacial pace, the tribunal only this January appointed Honore Rakotomanana, the former president of the Supreme Court of Madagascar, as chief prosecutor for Rwanda; he has begun his investigation in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Rakotomanana is working under the tribunal's chief judge, Richard Goldstone, who was widely praised for his inquiries into police misconduct in South Africa.

The problems the court faces in Rwanda are monumental. Nevertheless, for all the political difficulties it faces and the questions of law and procedure that remain to be worked out, the establishment of an international court to apply the Nuremberg principles to the perpetrators of atrocities in contemporary wars is an important step. It deserves far greater support from the international community than it has received so far.

I had a firsthand look at the magnitude of the difficulties the court faces in Rwanda when I visited there late last year. If the present Tutsi-dominated government is to survive, it must demonstrate that it can bring to justice those who instigated the killings and prevent yet another wave of massacres. But, as is the case with the Serbian war criminals, bringing the defendants to trial will be a difficult matter. Some of the Hutu killers are now languishing in horribly overcrowded Kigali jails, but the majority of them are comfortably ensconced in neighboring Zaire, where they are paying off the government and are not likely to be extradited either by the U.N. tribunal or the Rwandan courts. The deposed generals and officials are using Zaire as a power base to plot the overthrow of the present Rwandan government.

The threat posed by these expatriates goes far to explain why the Kigali government last fall voted against the U.N. resolution extending the International Tribunal's jurisdiction to Rwanda, though it agreed to cooperate fully with the court. What Rwanda objected to is the tribunal's mandate barring the death penalty. For reasons of justice--given the extreme gravity of the crimes--but also for reasons of national security, the Rwandan people want the prime culprits to be executed rather than put in prison, from which they might be released by a future Hutu government.

The death penalty is an important issue for President Pasteur Bizimungu. Rwandan law permits it, and Bizimungu believes that it should be imposed on those responsible for acts of genocide. He points out that eleven of the twenty-two Nuremberg defendants were executed and sees no reason that the International Tribunal shouldn't do the same to Rwanda's killers.

Rwanda desperately needs the rule of law. So far it's received little help.

Justice Minister Alphonse-Marie Nkubito told me that perhaps as many as 300,000 people could have committed crimes during the storm of violence that raged over the nation last year. …

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