Rwandan lessons for Iraqi trials

Carla del Ponte is the tough, flaxen-haired Swiss attorney who is now chief prosecutor for the two international courts set up a decade ago to try the worst rights abusers in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She's best known for having brought former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to trial in The Hague.

Now, with the prospect that senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime may be brought to trial, the work of Ms. Del Ponte and her colleagues provides helpful precedent.

I found her in this resort town near Mt. Kilimanjaro earlier this month, surveying the the prosecution in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). In a reflective mood, she admitted that the work of both courts has been painfully slow. "But we work with the system we have."

I asked Del Ponte - and other ranking court officials - whether they think the ICTR is fulfilling the UN Security Council's resolution mandating that the court "contribute to the process of national reconciliation" in Rwanda.

"Reconciliation is difficult to achieve," Del Ponte said. "Partly, that's because we are located here in Tanzania, not in Rwanda. There would be more of a reconciliatory effect if ICTR were moved to Rwanda." She and other court officials indicated clearly that building reconciliation in Rwanda must wait until after ICTR has finished its work - not likely to happen soon. The court's timetable has it wrapping up its work in 2008, with appeals continuing through 2010 - 16 years after the genocide.

ICTR has three strangely elongated courtrooms and a support staff of hundreds, all shoe-horned into an international conference center here. In the courtrooms, lawyers in black gowns strut before judges resplendent in red satin, while the accused sit way off to one side, often oddly forgotten in all the drama.

Elsewhere in the boxy, 1970-style conference complex sits Martin Ngoga, the Rwandan representative to the court. Rwanda has always had several significant differences of opinion with ICTR - over the death penalty (which ICTR does not have), over jurisdiction, and other issues. He says Rwanda's main complaint is over the lack of protection and services ICTR provides for prosecution witnesses, who are often survivors of the 1994 genocide, and very poor.

But he said Rwanda is also worried that Del Ponte's ongoing "special" investigations will bring prosecutions against people close to the Rwandan government, for war crimes or crimes against humanity that they may possibly have committed in 1994.

These are complex issues. But the situation at the court also raises two much broader questions. In cases like Rwanda's, should the "international community" simply overrule the wishes of the relevant national government - especially when that government claims it represents the interests of survivors of a genocide? Second, should the work of building reconciliation and peace inside Rwanda have to wait until after ICTR completes its painstakingly slow work?

ICTR's prosecutors consciously model their approach after the prosecution of leading Nazis at Nuremberg. They've chosen to indict leaders from a number of different fields - the former Rwandan government, the military, big business, and media leaders - to show just how many sectors were involved in planning, inciting, and executing the genocide. The trials have been enormous, costly, and slow. In its eight years, ICTR has delivered judgments and prison sentences for 10 people, including former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda. The UN has spent more than $1 billion to achieve these modest results.

Now, as ICTR starts trying more of its remaining 40-some cases, its budget is slated to rise to $177 million annually, and staffing is expected to increase to more than 870.

The trials have also been criticized - primarily by defense attorneys - as delivering a form of "victor's justice" that disadvantages Rwanda's Hutus in favor of the Tutsis, who were the objects of the 1994 genocide and who now dominate Rwanda's government.

It may be true, as one judge told me, that the fact that both Hutus and Tutsis criticize ICTR means the court is doing, "just about the right thing." But for many Rwandans, the court remains at best irrelevant, and at worst a bottomless pit that sucks up international aid money that could be far better spent.

One Rwandan business executive who works in Arusha argued that the UN should divert some of the funds that now go to ICTR to social programs inside Rwanda. "Imagine what we could do in Rwanda with that kind of money," he said. "It would certainly have a lot more effect on people's lives, and on building long-term peace, than all the airy-fairy things the court is doing. The court is making a lot of international lawyers and support staff very wealthy. But it's doing nothing for Rwandans."

People concerned with rebuilding societies that, like Iraq or Rwanda, have been subjected to atrocious violence should listen to these voices of experience.

A decade ago, I thought that the establishment of international courts like ICTR could contribute helpfully to the long-term healing of such societies. Now, having visited both the ICTR and Rwanda itself in the past year, I'm not nearly so sure of that.

Perhaps, after all, real political reconciliation should come first.

Helena Cobban is traveling in Africa to research a book on violence and its legacies.

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