What arrest for Rwanda genocide means for justice everywhere

Why We Wrote This

In one key aspect of the Rwanda genocide, was justice delayed for too long? Experts in crimes against humanity cite concerns, but also hope the recent arrest of a long-sought suspect could rekindle a lost fervor.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
Rwandans hold candles at a genocide memorial service held at Amahoro stadium in Kigali, Rwanda, April 7, 2019. Félicien Kabuga, one of the most wanted fugitives in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, was arrested in Paris, May 16, 2020.

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A quarter century after the genocide in Rwanda, the former owner of a radio station that broadcast calls to slaughter minority Tutsis was arrested on charges of crimes against humanity. The arrest of Félicien Kabuga outside Paris spawned tributes to patient international criminal investigators and laudatory remarks on the long arm of human rights justice.

Yet even as they celebrate Mr. Kabuga’s arrest, experts in crimes against humanity voice caution. Many aspects of the case, they say, also underscore widespread problems that have sapped international criminal justice of the idealistic enthusiasm it enjoyed following the Nuremberg Trials.

Yet the experts also hold out hope that the arrest, as cases of hate speech and its insidious impact multiply across the globe, may help burnish some of international criminal justice’s lost luster.

“This is a very good time to be talking about the role of media in these kinds of crimes against humanity,” says Kerstin Bree Carlson, at the University of Southern Denmark.

“Here was a very powerful man who owned and directed this radio station that manipulated people to change their thinking and whipped them up to take deadly action,” she says. “We might want to think about how that applies to our world today.”

Among the particularly horrifying features of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 were broadcasts from radio station Mille Collines exhorting the African country’s majority Hutus to take up arms and slaughter the country’s minority Tutsis.

“If we exterminate all the cockroaches, no one will judge us,” a Mille Collines announcer exuded in a singsong voice in one Sunday broadcast, referring to Tutsis, “because we will be the winners.”

Those broadcasts helped whip up a genocidal frenzy that led to the killing of at least 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus over less than 100 days.

Félicien Kabuga, the Rwandan coffee and tea trade millionaire who owned and operated Radio Mille Collines at the time, was arrested this month at his hideout home in a tony Paris suburb on charges of crimes against humanity.

The arrest of the 84-year-old fugitive from international justice, a quarter century after the genocide, spawned a cascade of tributes to the patience of international criminal investigators and the long arm of human rights justice.

“The arrest of Félicien Kabuga ... is a reminder that those responsible for genocide can be brought to account, even 26 years after their crimes,” said Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague. “This arrest demonstrates the impressive results that can be achieved through international law enforcement and judicial cooperation.”

Yet even as they celebrate Mr. Kabuga’s arrest, international experts in crimes against humanity sound a note of caution. Many aspects of the Kabuga case, they say, also underscore widespread problems that have sapped international criminal justice of the idealistic enthusiasm it widely enjoyed following the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials.

Many factors have taken the shine off a relatively young judicial pursuit, they say:

  • The quarter century it took to bring one of the world’s highest-profile human rights suspects to justice.
  • Accusations that the memory of the Rwandan genocide had been politicized.
  • Suspicions that Mr. Kabuga was protected in high places across Europe for many years.
  • The setting in of a plodding international justice bureaucracy.

Yet they also hold out hope that the Kabuga arrest may help burnish some of international criminal justice’s lost luster.

“At one time there was an international tribunal fever, certainly among the champions of international criminal justice, a real sense of hope in the impact that bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice would have,” says John Cerone, a visiting professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts.

“But that fervor has waned,” he adds, pointing to his own list of factors: the long slog and soaring costs of pursuing complex and controversial cases, an onslaught of “bureaucratic inertia” in tribunals such as those addressing Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the mounting politicization of human rights cases.

“It had become a very murky picture, a complex web of interests and motivations,” Professor Cerone says. “But I think the Kabuga arrest could lead to a burst of renewed enthusiasm, especially if it gives victims of such crimes, in Rwanda and elsewhere, a sense that justice is served.”

Hate speech and the media

Some international criminal justice experts are quick to point out that Mr. Kabuga’s arrest comes at a time when hate speech and its insidious impact have multiplied across the globe.

“This is a very good time to be talking about the role of media in these kinds of crimes against humanity,” says Kerstin Bree Carlson, an associate professor of international criminal law at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.

“Here was a very powerful man who owned and directed this radio station that manipulated people to change their thinking and whipped them up to take deadly action against others in their communities,” she says. “If we look around, we might want to think about how that applies to our world today.”

Others note that at a time when more recent atrocities – from Myanmar to Syria – have too often got caught up in geopolitics and dueling international interests, the Kabuga case offers an almost old-fashioned clarity as to what constitutes a crime against humanity.

“With the rising tides of hate speech we’re seeing generally, the case of Mr. Kabuga can serve as a crystal-clear reminder of how horrendous crimes of the kind committed in Rwanda can start with the dissemination of speech and the manipulation of media,” says Lauren Baillie, an expert in atrocities prevention at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

“The Kabuga case is instructive for a new generation that wasn’t even around when Rwanda happened as to the amount of planning, the money, the movement of weapons, the use of media and hate speech, everything that goes into the commission of these crimes on such a massive scale,” she adds.

“It’s a reminder that genocide doesn’t just happen.”

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Eric Emeraux, head of the Gendarmerie's Central Office for Combating Crimes Against Humanity, Genocides and War Crimes, displays documents with a wanted poster for Félicien Kabuga, the Rwandan genocide fugitive suspect, in Paris, May 19, 2020.

The wealthy Mr. Kabuga is accused of importing hundreds of thousands of machetes to Rwanda to carry out the Tutsi slaughter.

In the days following his arrest, Mr. Kabuga appeared in a Paris court, seated in a wheelchair and declaring through a lawyer that he is too ill to be moved to face a trial. Indeed, judicial authorities are making their cases for Mr. Kabuga to be tried in Tanzania where the successor tribunal for the Rwandan genocide cases still sits, in The Hague, or even in Rwanda.

Costly bureaucracies

Professor Cerone of Tufts University cites victims’ rights – the idea that victims deserve the right to participate in creating the historical record – as an important concept that emerged over recent decades and was solidified in the Rwandan cases.

But he says other aspects of efforts to pursue international criminal justice contributed to a sense of dashed promise. The special tribunals set up by the U.N. Security Council to pursue the perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda became costlier and more of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy the longer they pursued their task, he says. At one point in the early 2000s, just those two tribunals were eating up one-quarter of the U.N.’s operating budget.

Ms. Carlson of the University of Southern Denmark says the disappointments and frustrations illustrated by Rwanda are just one reason she decided to write a book, set to publish later this year, on Africa’s place in lost enthusiasm for international criminal justice.

“We have seen it in Rwanda, and certainly we see it more recently with all the controversy surrounding the [International Criminal Court], where what starts out with an idealistic vision of the universal application of justice becomes highly politicized and muddled in the application,” she says.        

Indeed, the Rwanda tribunal was established by the Security Council in November 1994 with the vision of setting new standards for the application of international justice. But despite its accomplishments, the tribunal also became mired in politics, with Rwandan President Paul Kagame lambasting it for lethargy and inefficiencies, and for straying in its investigations beyond the genocide’s Hutu perpetrators.

Other critics said the tribunal neglected the crimes committed by Mr. Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, or that until recent years French officials had undermined the court’s work in the interest of obscuring aspects of French involvement in Rwanda.   

After years of focusing on the disappointments and shortcomings that have marked the recent decades of international justice, Ms. Carlson says the arrest of a man accused of fomenting genocide a quarter century ago has reminded her of the ideals of universal justice that surged from the horrors of World War II.

“I find Kabuga’s arrest surprising and heartening in many ways,” she says. “I just wrote a whole book about how the project of international criminal justice is failing, and in many ways it is. But we’re also reminded,” she adds, “that universally recognized norms of justice that weren’t even around for most of human history are established and even sometimes advancing.”

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