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International Criminal Justice and Accountability: 30 Years after the 1994 Genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda

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The role of the International Criminal Justice in Upholding Accountability for the Crime of Genocide – 30th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda

By Beatrice Levorato Barsotti

On May 22nd, the Embassy of Rwanda and the Embassy of France organized a conference on the ‘Role of International Criminal Justice in Upholding Accountability for the Crime of Genocide’ in the context of the 30th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

The conference was held at Peace Palace in The Hague, and featured high-profile participants involved in the judicial process following the genocide. These included Judge Graciela Gatti Santana, President of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT); Aimable Havugiyaremye, Prosecutor General at the National Public Prosecution Authority in Rwanda; Guillaume Lefevre Pontalis, Deputy Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor of France; and Prof. Dr. Carsten Stahn, Professor of International Criminal Law & Global Justice at Leiden University.

H.E. Mr. Olivier J.P. Nduhungirehe, Ambassador of the Republic of Rwanda to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and H.E. Mr. François Alabrune, Ambassador of France to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, opened the conference with their opening remarks.

In his opening remarks, the Rwandan Ambassador underscored the devastating impact of the genocide, which resulted in over a million deaths within three months, the destruction of Rwanda’s economy and infrastructure, and the displacement of millions. He addressed the immense challenges faced by the new government in seeking justice amid the widespread loss of judicial personnel and infrastructure. The Ambassador detailed the three-pronged approach to ensuring accountability through Rwandan national jurisdictions, foreign tribunals, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). He expressed hope that the conference would provide valuable insights into the successes and challenges of the ICTR and contribute to the broader understanding of how international criminal justice can effectively prosecute genocide suspects. The Ambassador concluded by encouraging a fruitful and interactive debate among the diplomatic, academic, and legal communities present.

“I hope that the debate will be as informative and interactive as possible, and could enable the diplomatic, academic and legal communities in The Hague to draw lessons from the 1994 genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi, and reflect on the best way to ensure accountability and to prosecute, in an effective manner, suspects of genocide.” Said Ambassador Nduhungirehe.

H.E. Mr. Alabrune, Ambassador of France, drew attention to two critical and contemporary questions: what lessons can we draw from the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, and have these lessons been integrated into the fight against impunity for the crime of genocide? Reflecting on the friendship between France and Rwanda, the Ambassador emphasized the themes of memory and justice. He highlighted the duty to remember and combat negationism to prevent history from repeating itself and to facilitate reconciliation and recovery for the victims. The Ambassador also noted that in response to the genocide, which unfolded before the eyes of the international community, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) on 8 November 1994, based in Arusha, Tanzania. The ICTR was tasked with trying those responsible for the genocide against the Tutsis and was the first international tribunal to rule specifically on genocide, carrying forward the legacy of the Nuremberg Tribunal. The ICTR pioneered many aspects of international criminal justice, setting important precedents for future tribunals.

Ambassador Alabrune said: “The international community witnessed the last genocide of the 20th century. This kwibuka, this commemoration participates in this work and this duty of memory. The duty to remember is not only to remember; it is remembering so as not to repeat. The duty to remember also means fighting against negationism.”

Judge Graciela Gatti-Santana highlighted the significance of the conference in reflecting on the achievements of international criminal justice in prosecuting genocide suspects and emphasized the importance of international cooperation. The judge acknowledged the pioneering role of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and its successor, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (MICT), in defining and prosecuting genocide. She underscored the crucial role of national and international collaboration in achieving these milestones and emphasized the need for continued efforts to ensure accountability and combat impunity. She also highlighted the importance of disseminating the jurisprudence of international judicial mechanisms to prevent genocide denial and revisionism.

Starting with a reflection on the beauty of the landscapes of Rwanda, Mame Mandiaye Niang, Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, delved into the challenges of dispensing justice amidst the lingering anguish and resentment following the atrocities of 1994. Having witnessed firsthand the aftermath of genocide, as well as the arduous processes of investigation and prosecution, before ascending to the judiciary himself, Niang recounted the palpable dissatisfaction with the international community. The discontent emanated from all sides: perpetrators saw the ICTR as biased toward the victors, while neither victims nor perpetrators found solace in its proceedings. Kenya’s pivotal decision to cooperate in 1997 marked a turning point, facilitating the apprehension of numerous leaders and the establishment of a detention center. Mr. Havuguyaremye emphasized a poignant message: the transformative power of justice in reclaiming the humanity denied to those scarred by unspeakable atrocities.

Aimable Havugiyaremye, Prosecutor General at National Public Prosecution Authority of Rwanda, intervened on the national reconciliation in Rwanda, the process and challenges in the past and today. To understand the genocide against the Tutsi, he stressed the importance of examining Rwanda’s history, particularly the transformation of social classes into ethnic divisions by colonial powers. Before colonization, Rwandan society was organized into fluid social classes—Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa—based on occupation and wealth, with minimal conflict. However, Belgian colonizers, employing a divide and conquer strategy, rigidified these classes into fixed ethnic identities by introducing identity cards and favoring the Tutsi minority, thereby exacerbating social inequalities and fostering resentment. This colonial manipulation laid the groundwork for ethnic tensions that erupted into violence, notably during the 1959 Social Revolution, and culminated in the 1994 genocide. The General Prosecutor described the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) liberation war beginning in 1990, aimed at fighting injustice. By 1994, the genocide was in full execution, leaving Rwanda devastated with mass killings and a shattered nation. Post-genocide, the critical challenge was to deliver justice amidst a destroyed judicial infrastructure and a populace in flight.

Reconciliation efforts focused on rebuilding the social fabric without revenge, eradicating the culture of impunity, and reconstructing a unified national identity. The establishment of Gacaca courts, despite criticism, allowed for community-based justice, addressing the massive number of genocide suspects. These courts were crucial in processing cases rapidly and ensuring accountability.

Challenges persisted, including identifying suspects who had changed names, ensuring political will for prosecutions, and addressing refugee statuses complicating extradition. The General Prosecutor underscored the importance of international judicial cooperation and combating genocide negationism, which remains a painful reminder of past atrocities. He concluded by affirming that the pursuit of justice is an ongoing, generational struggle, essential for global accountability and the prevention of future genocides.

Guillaume Lefevre Pontalis, Deputy Anti Terrorist Prosecutor of France, explained the efforts made in France to prosecute suspected perpetuators and current challenges, as well as the joint efforts to fight impunity. The main challenge highlighted by the Deputy was the initial challenge of creating some sort of jurisdiction, creating an expertise pool with historical and technical knowledge on the genocide in Rwanda. They had to wait until 2012 to create in Paris a centralised unit. They applied the universal jurisdicition principle – given that the persons persecuted were not French, and the crime wasn’t committed in France. The Deputy highlighted the challenges stemming from the fact that it was not their jurisdiction, hence they lacked important materials as archives, evidence. These difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that the crime had been committed 20 years ago. The deputy underscored the improtance of criminal, justical and police cooperation in this context. Finally, he explained the symbolic improtance of 2024. In fact, there will be two processes. In general, he stressed that judgin will remain one of France priorities, new investigations are nearing completion and should lead to new projects in the years to come.

In conclusion of the Conference, Prof. dr. Carsten Stahn emphasized the importance of the past in moving forward, underscoring that commemoration not only honors the dead but also aids survivors in rebuilding their lives, which he deemed more vital than legal frameworks. He highlighted how the unique Dutch approach to international criminal justice, similar to Rwanda’s Gacaca courts, facilitated reconciliation by incorporating local contexts and allowing victims to see justice served, sometimes between neighbors and former enemies. Reflecting on Rwanda’s history, he noted the colonial manipulation that transformed social classes into rigid ethnic divisions, sowing seeds of conflict that erupted into the 1994 genocide. He echoed the Attorney General’s insights on the importance of judicial cooperation and the fight against impunity, stressing the development of international legal standards to combat genocide.

The Professor pointed out the enduring challenges in preventing genocide, incitement to genocide, proving genocidal intent, and preventing violence, but also noted positive developments like the creation of the International Criminal Court and evolving case law that mandates states to prevent mass atrocities extraterritorially. He praised innovative legal approaches that prosecute incitement to genocide even without subsequent crimes, and he highlighted the critical role of media in either promoting or preventing hate. The Professor concluded by emphasizing the need for robust international cooperation and continuous efforts to strengthen legal mechanisms and prevent future genocides, drawing lessons from Rwanda’s painful history and the ongoing struggle for justice and reconciliation.

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