UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — He was just mayor of a town that can't be found in world atlases. But Jean-Paul Akayesu made history Sept. 2 as the first person to be convicted of genocide.
In comparison with former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda - who pleaded guilty and was first to be sentenced - Mr. Akayesu is a small fish. But to human rights advocates and lawyers, he is a significant catch.
"This is a major development in the evolution of international law," says Georgetown Law School professor Robert Drinan.
In their verdict, the three judges also ruled that the rape and other forms of sexual violence that occurred in 1994 also constituted genocide, as they were committed with the intent to destroy a particular group.
"It's nice to have the case law established that systematic sexual abuse is included within Article 2 of the  genocide convention," says Ruth Wedgwood, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointing out that the convention did not specifically mention rape but left room for interpretation by defining genocide as killing "or causing serious physical or mental harm" with the intent to destroy a group.
Even the statute for an International Criminal Court hammered out in Rome in July did not explicitly discuss sexual abuse in the context of genocide, but listed it under crimes against humanity and war crimes.
"Genocide is such a hot word, a red flag, that we respond to it," says Peter Rosenblum, director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. "So for the women's group it was important to include rape in genocide, because genocide is the highest crime."
For women's advocates, the Rwanda judgment is the fruit of a long campaign to draw attention to the crimes committed against women. The original indictment against Akayesu did not include sexual violence. Then after several women's advocacy groups lobbied chief prosecutor Louise Arbour and submitted an amicus brief to the judges, the prosecution amended its indictment in June 1997.
Rhonda Copelon, a coauthor of the brief, notes that placing sexual violence in the context of genocide drew international attention to women.
However, she adds, it was important that the judgment also discussed rape in terms of crimes against humanity. "If we didn't do something to pull rape out of genocide then what you might end up with at best is that genocidal rape is really serious, but not other rape."