Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, barely 70 individuals out of thousands involved in the 1994 massacres have been convicted by the UN-backed court that was designed to deliver justice.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) pioneered the first genocide trials in Africa, but after almost 20 years of legal argument and an estimated bill of US$1.7 billion, only a tiny proportion of the Rwandan malefactors has been brought to justice.
Next year the ICTR’s courtrooms at Arusha, in neighboring Tanzania, are scheduled to be handed back to local authorities and returned to use as an international conference center. The ICTR dealt with the government leadership and those who motivated the Interahamwe militias. However, excessive court delays caused cases to drag on for up to 10 years.
A total of 92 people, overwhelmingly Hutus, were indicted for their role in the 100-day genocide that killed 800,000.
Nine suspects — including Felicien Kabuga, alleged to have purchased the machetes handed out to Hutu militias and who was part-owner of the Mille Collines radio station which broadcast hate campaigns against Tutsis — have never been located. Several suspects are thought to be hiding in eastern Congo.
Of 83 defendants put through ICTR courts, 12 were acquitted either at the end of their trial or on appeal to the upper chamber — which is shared with the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). A dozen are still challenging their convictions. Confronted by bulging prisons and the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of individuals participated in the bloodbath, the Rwandan government warned that it would take more than 200 years for the ICTR to deal with all outstanding accusations.
The country sidestepped legal formalities to speed up the process of punishment and reconciliation through traditional Gacaca Community Courts. Gacaca means to sit down and discuss issues on a village’s grassy clearing.
The informal courts ran for about 10 years, between 2002 and 2012, during which time the government estimated that 1.9 million people appeared before locally elected judges.
Defendants were given shorter sentences in exchange for confessing, and encouraged to seek forgiveness from victims’ families. Some perpetrators were sentenced to hard labor.
Human rights groups criticized the Gacaca process for not meeting international fair trial standards and for endangering witnesses who gave evidence.
In many cases neighbors had turned on each other in 1994 and a number of witnesses who spoke out were murdered.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, estimated that Gacaca courts had cost his country about US$40 million, compared to the US$1.7 billion spent by the ICTR.
Assessing the tribunal’s record at an anniversary commemoration, the ICTR’s senior legal adviser Roland Amoussouga, summarized its achievements:
“The genocide of 1994 in Rwanda is no longer a matter of conjecture or argument. It is a well-established fact of history that has been judicially taken notice of by mankind. This ... is the first time high-ranking individuals have been called to account before an international court of law for massive violations of human rights in Africa. The tribunal’s work sends a strong message to Africa’s leaders and warlords.” He said.
Among those convicted and sentenced to life in prison was former Rwandan prime minister Jean Kambanda, who was in power at the start of the genocide.