The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has been in existence for eighteen years and has cost billions of dollars. In all that time, it has indicted only 92 genocide suspects, tried just over fifty, convicted a little over 30 and acquitted more than a dozen. Needless to say, the ICTR does not earn much praise in Rwanda.
Now the tribunal has caused even more anguish and shock among Rwandans by acquitting two former ministers in the government that oversaw the genocide in Rwanda. The role of Justin Mugenzi and Prosper Mugiraneza in the genocide in 1994 is well-known.
But should we really be shocked and dismayed at this decision knowing what the ICTR is like?
Ask anybody today, not just Rwandans, to describe the ICTR and you are likely to get this: incompetent, a mockery of justice, an insult to the memory of the victims of genocide, the very epitome of insensitivity, an obscenely expensive operation, and many more.
Or something like this. It is just another United Nations body – bloated, unwieldy, home to crazies, activists, obscure jurists, people on the fringe, and so on.
The ICTR has done anything but what it was set up for – to try genocide and crimes against humanity and hopefully set up legal standards that would contribute to jurisprudence in international criminal law.
Rwandans have known the incompetence of the court since it was established. Still, they had some hope that it could somehow live up to their expectation and bring to justice the perpetrators of genocide. That is why there is so much anger and dismay at the acquittal of the two ex-ministers whose culpability is obvious and proven, except to the learned judges at the tribunal.
The shock comes from concerns that the acquittals may be the beginning of a trend to absolve the actual authors of the genocide of any responsibility In effect this would mean that the genocide was never planned and directives given for its execution. No one was responsible for it. Therefore it did not happen. Obviously this sort of absolution for the top authority that directed the genocide is an insidious way of denying that it ever happened.
This – denial of genocide – has been at the heart of proceedings at the ICTR since its establishment. And although the case is presented in legal arguments, its basis and intention are political. In this sense, the ICTR has provided a platform for various groups with a political agenda of their own and against Rwanda.
Most of the arguments denying the genocide that have been presented by various groups both at the ICTR and elsewhere can be summarised in three propositions.
First, there was a double genocide. In effect, one genocide cancels the other. So, there was no genocide and no one can be guilty of something that did not happen.
Second, the massacres were a result of a civil war and therefore were not genocide, and responsibilities for this lies with the two sides in the war.
Third, the massacres, on a scale unknown in human history until then, were a result of spontaneous anger caused by the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana. No one planned, organised and directed them. There was no genocide therefore.
These propositions are clearly flawed.
The ICTR has also been a platform for settling political scores against the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). It has been manipulated or thwarted by powers unhappy with the RPF for a variety of reasons – the defeat of a client regime, humiliation on the battlefield and loss of influence due to perceived geopolitical realignments.
Its second prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, was a crusader against the RPF. Instead of investigating and hunting down the perpetrators of genocide, she spent much energy and time trying to prove that the RPF was equally guilty of crimes against humanity and its leaders must also be made to answer.
The idea behind Del Ponte’s action was simple. It was to equate the genocide with deaths resulting from war, spread the responsibility and thereby diminish or remove culpability from perpetrators of the crime. A more dangerous political reason was to implicate the RPF in war crimes, deny it the moral right to govern, divert its attention and energy from development to defending its record and generally make it fail.
The defence of the accused has been hijacked by lawyers, like Peter Erlinder, and activists with an ideological bias – a misplaced and residual anti-imperialist streak from the 1960s. Naturally, their defence of genocide suspects has been more an attempt to expose an imperialist conspiracy led by the United States with the Government of Rwanda as its agent than a concern for justice.
We have seen similar ideological and activist bias in the so-called UN Group of Experts reports.
The ICTR was probably never meant to see justice done but to ease the conscience of those who had vowed that never again should genocide happen, and yet it had and they had nothing to stop it.
The attitude of some countries to the ICTR indicates the little value attached to the life of Africans. If a Western national is killed by terrorists, for instance, everything will be done to catch and punish the killers. Not so with Rwandans.
So, what should we expect from the ICTR? Certainly not justice. Nor compassion for the victims of genocide. It is just another lucrative UN body serving the interests of those in the international community who are more equal than others.