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Legacy of Rwanda's genocide: more assertive international justice

Out of 800,000 deaths emerged a new system of justice and more peacekeepers. But will either prove effective or enduring?

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / April 7, 2009

Photographs of people killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide were hung on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, in April 2004. The nation is marking the 15th commemoration of the genocide, which left 800,000 people dead.

Radu Sigheti/Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa; and Kigali, Rwanda

Like the Holocaust of Jews and others during World War II – the scale and shame of the world's inaction during the Rwandan genocide still staggers the mind.

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Fifteen years ago today, men and women picked up machetes and murdered their neighbors by the hundreds of thousands. And the world watched. The 100-day massacre has since inspired books and Hollywood movies, and left a mark on the global conscience, prompting international campaigns for intervention, such as in Darfur.

But perhaps Rwanda's most enduring legacy is found in the arena of international justice and peacekeeping. In The Hague and other venues, judges, prosecutors, investigators, and activists have begun to bring warlords and despots to justice. And organizations, such as the United Nations and the African Union, have asserted themselves more. They've sent blue-helmeted battalions of peacekeepers into active war zones, such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with stronger mandates to protect civilians.

Historic turning point?

Is international justice and peacekeeping having a deterrent effect on modern despots? That's hard to tell. But many observers still see the Rwandan genocide as a kind of turning point in human history, a chance to change the world.

"We have to be modest and realistic in terms of our expectations of results achieved," says Richard Dicker, who heads the international justice program at Human Rights Watch in New York. "But what we have seen, with the example of the arrest of [former Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic, with the arrest of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor ... is a growing, though still fragile, trend toward ending the impunity associated with the commission of crimes against humanity."

War crimes still may occur in war zones, such as Afghanistan, but there are indications that a new standard is developing at the most grass-roots level.

Reports have surfaced of Afghan warlords instructing their militia members on what they can, and cannot do, in order to adhere to the Geneva Convention, Mr. Dicker says. Similarly, the DRC has adopted laws that ban the enlistment of child soldiers. And the arrest and pending prosecution of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga in January 2009 sends a signal "that this practice [of using children as soldiers] is a crime under international law, for which there could be prosecution."

For John Prendergast, the Rwandan genocide broke the apathy of the 1990s, and gave momentum for an international antigenocide movement, which has forced political leaders, UN agencies, and now the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action before genocide reaches the horrific levels of Rwanda.