'First' for Punishing Genocide Makes Waves in Rwanda, World

Victories last week at Rwanda massacre tribunal begin to set legal precedents.

Last week journalists converged on a little town in Tanzania to take pictures of a prisoner in a bulletproof vest who was about to receive a life sentence.

That prisoner was Jean Kambanda, a former Rwandan prime minister, who pleaded guilty in a United Nations court to his role in the massacres of more than half-a-million ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus by Rwanda's extremist Hutu government in 1994.

But Mr. Kambanda - and Jean-Paul Akayeshu, the former mayor of a Rwandan town convicted of genocide - are not the only ones making history. The court itself, called the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), shares in this "first" and congratulates itself for laying foundations for the new world court that the UN plans to set up in the future.

"Kambanda's sentence is absolutely a historical landmark in international criminal justice," says legal adviser Kingsley Moghalu. "It's a perfect example of the international community's will to confront impunity, .and it provides a basic precedent for the International Criminal Court."

Legal experts expect that procedures in the new court will be similar and therefore trials are likely to take just as long. After more than three years of existence, the Rwanda tribunal and its sister court, the Yugoslavia Tribunal, have each reached only two judgments.

But in addition to these difficulties, the impending world court will also face a more daunting obstacle that the two ad hoc tribunals have not had to deal with: opposition from the world's only superpower.

While an official statement from the United States praises Kambanda's sentencing as "historic for the Rwanda tribunal and the world," the US was one of only seven nations that voted against the treaty establishing a world court at a conference in June.

"They [the US] are in support of a permanent court, but one they can control," says Richard Dicker, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch.

International justice is not easy, as tribunal spokesmen in Arusha point out. They cite the difficulties of conducting a trial in three languages simultaneously, transporting witnesses from distant refugee camps, and arresting suspects all over the globe.

"We are doing what nobody has ever done before, so we have to learn as we go," legal adviser Moghalu says.

"You could argue against it on the grounds that it's so totally cost-inefficient," says a Western diplomat.

But he is in favor of the world court. He says those who commit the worst crime - genocide - "should not get off scot-free."

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