Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Responding to Rwanda: Accountability Mechanisms in the Aftermath of Genocide

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Responding to Rwanda: Accountability Mechanisms in the Aftermath of Genocide

Article excerpt

After the, Nazi Holocaust, the world community pledged "never gain." Yet the 50 years that have followed the Nuremberg trials have been a golden age of impunity as over 170 million civilians have been killed by their own governments without any hope that their killers would ever be brought to justice.(1) Due to Cold War politics, no steps toward international accountability were pursued when two million people were butchered in Cambodia's killing fields, 30,000 disappeared in Argentina's Dirty War, 200,000 were massacred in East Timor, 750,000 were exterminated in Uganda, 100,000 Kurds were gassed in Iraq or 75,000 peasants were slaughtered by death squads in El Salvador.(2)

The world's most recent genocide occurred in the small central African country of Rwanda, where from April to July 1994, members of the Hutu tribe murdered over 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe.(3) Comparing the scale of the international crimes committed in Rwanda to those committed in Nazi Germany, the exiled prime minister-designate of Rwanda asked, "Is it because we're Africans that a court has not been set up?" In November 1994 the United Nations Security Council, which had been criticized for failing to take action to prevent or halt the slaughter, responded by creating the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda with jurisdiction over the genocidal acts committed in Rwanda between 1 January and 31 December 1994.(4)

This article addresses the question of whether the creation of an international tribunal was the best available choice for responding to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. By using Rwanda as a case study, it analyzes the range of potential accountability mechanisms and examines the problems and challenges presented by international criminal trials.


Historically, the international community has relied on five alternative ways of responding to violations of international humanitarian law: (1) doing nothing, (2) granting amnesty, (3) creating a truth commission, (4) assisting in domestic prosecutions and (5) creating an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to try the offenders.(5)

The most frequent response of the international community to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes has been to do nothing. Very few of the perpetrators of such crimes have ever been brought to justice, and the basic truth of what happened has seldom been exposed by governmental bodies or governmental organizations.(6) Sometimes this has resulted from international indifference or paralysis. On other occasions, justice and truth were bartered away to achieve short-term peace. Rwanda was somewhat unusual in that the victims of the genocide--the Tutsis--emerged victorious from the civil war, but the country was so decimated that the new Tutsi government sought international assistance to achieve accountability for the genocide.(7) Given the international community's failure to head off or halt the Rwandan genocide, there was tremendous pressure for the U.N. Security Council to do something in response to the atrocities in order to shore up its credibility.(8)

The granting of amnesty(9) can be useful in settling civil conflicts or facilitating the exit of a dictator and a transition to democracy. These short-term benefits render the use of amnesty an attractive tool to the international community.(10) In the past few years, the United Nations, in order to bring an end to abuses and restore peace, has embraced de jure or de facto amnesties for perpetrators of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia,(11) apartheid crimes in South Africa and torture and disappearances in Central America.(12) The most recent example concerned the military leaders in Haiti, who in 1992 had murdered some 3,000 civilians perceived as enemies of the regime.(13) In order to induce the Haitian military leaders to relinquish power to the democratically elected government, the U. …

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