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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?

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"One of the most important developments in international law since the Nuremberg trials has been the creation of the ICC," says Mr. Prendergast, head of the Washington-based antigenocide group, the Enough Project. "The next decade will be messy as the ICC's initial suspects and indictees at times elude justice. But over time, as more war criminals are brought into custody, a growing shift toward prevention and deterrence will be inevitable. With prosecutions by the [ICC] tribunals for the Rwandan and Yugoslav genocides, as well as the Sierra Leone Special Court, the tide is definitely shifting in favor of accountability."

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Prendergast argues that post-Rwandan activism is already having an effect in war zones such as Darfur. Whereas the Sudanese regime once denied humanitarian access to civilians in its conflict with Southern Sudanese separatists – killing up to 2 million – Sudanese actions in Darfur have killed "only" 300,000, thus far. "Hundreds of thousands of Darfurians are very likely alive today because of the strength of the antigenocide activist movement," argues Prendergast.

Yet even proponents of international justice say that progress is slow. ICC prosecutors, say some, have been too eager to apply the legal term "genocide" to the conflict in Darfur, and powerful nations have been reluctant to follow through on their own commitments to respond. And while the world sends ever-larger peacekeeping missions to places such as Darfur and Congo (a nation with no effective government), the peacekeepers themselves are poorly equipped and often told by their own governments to keep their heads down and come home alive.

"After 15 years, the word genocide is being used more and more, but if you take it case by case, I don't think the international community is following up on its commitment to stop genocide from happening," says Guillaume Lacaille, a former political officer with the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC) and now a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.

"In principle, we are eager to send in peacekeeping missions. In reality, very few countries in the developed world are in a position to offer troops. Even with the MONUC, which is the first mission of such a size [17,000 soldiers and police], they are unable to meet any of their obligations, such as citizen protection, training of army troops."

He sighs. "We are reaching the point," he says, "where the peacekeeping tool is going to be broken."

Recollections of a peacekeeper

Compared with the six-year-long slow burn of conflict in Sudan's Darfur region – which has claimed some 300,000 lives, mainly civilians – the Rwandan genocide was a wildfire driven by a prevailing political winds. Moving from house to house, village to village, it took attackers 100 days to kill 800,000 people – an astounding rate of 8,000 people a day, 333 an hour, five per minute.

Phil Lancaster was a peacekeeper in Rwanda at the time, part of a tiny Canadian-led UN observation mission meant to monitor the nascent peace process between the government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front of Paul Kagame.

Lancaster's commander, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, made repeated requests for the UN Security Council to send him more troops and give him a stronger mandate to intervene to protect civilians. Like Dallaire, Mr. Lancaster felt a sickening helplessness as he watched the death toll rise – and Washington and the UN issue endless appeals for an end to the killing. But unlike General Dallaire, Lancaster does not believe that more and more troops and stronger mandates are necessarily the way to stop a genocide.

"I think we've gone a long way back since Rwanda," says Lancaster. "The ICC [the International Criminal Court] is a fine idea, a world court. It has the potential to lend force to direct arguments with leaders that misbehave."