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?

Radu Sigheti/Reuters
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.
Hereward Holland/Reuters
Rwandan President Paul Kagame addressed the crowd at a mass-grave site in Kigali, Rwanda, on Tuesday. A wreath-laying ceremony was held to mark the 15th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

But without a world government to enforce the decisions of that world court, and with many of the major powers, including the United States, refusing to recognize the authority of the ICC, the power of the ICC is compromised.

Darfur tests international justice

The ICC's ability to adjudicate cases involving war crimes by top national leaders is now being put to the test, with the ongoing trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is accused of war crimes both at home and in neighboring Sierra Leone. But critics like Lancaster say the court may have overreached its capacity by issuing an arrest warrant against President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes in the Darfur conflict – an arrest warrant that the ICC has no ability to enforce.

Rather than serving as a deterrent against "leaders who misbehave," the ICC may actually have the unintended effect of pushing leaders like President Bashir and rebel leaders like Lord's Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony, into a corner, where brutality against civilians is the only tool they have left to use.

Even worse, he says, there are times when countries such as the Congo decide to set aside differences with an ICC-indicted war criminal, such as Gen. Bosco Ntganda, and effectively look the other way in return for short-term political cooperation.

Lancaster, who also served in MONUC's disarmament program, says he had a surreal experience a month ago in the Congolese town of Goma, when he saw General Bosco – a man wanted for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the Congolese region of Ituri – entering a restaurant. "He walks in, with escorts, has lunch with a beautiful view of Lake Kivu, and walks out, without a care in the world," he says. "And this is in Goma, where the greatest concentration of [UN] peacekeepers is found, and MONUC says they don't have the mandate to arrest him."

He pauses in exasperation. "There is a direct conflict between the universal utopian application of the human rights agenda on one hand, and realpolitik on the other."

Ready to accept responsibility

For Rwandans themselves, the greatest legacy of the genocide is the 15 years of relative peace that have come during the rule of President Kagame. By African standards, the country has emerged as an economic dynamo: Gross national product surged 11 percent in 2008. But the peace comes at a price of freedom of expression, with most newspapers either state-owned or voicing a pro-Kagame line, and with the ruling RPF party the only political game in town.

Justice at home has been meted out by thousands of traditional "gacaca" (pronounced ga-cha-cha) courts. These have given individual Rwandan victims an opportunity to confront those who participated in the attacks, and offered some time for social healing to start. But progress and the reach of international justice appears slow for many Rwandans: Top alleged perpetrators – including former ministers and the head of the Hutu rebel movement, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – remain at large in Europe, in the jungles of eastern DRC, and in the United States.

Tomorrow: Rwandans take two paths to healing. Ignatius Ssuuna, a reporter for the Center for African Journalists, contributed to this report from Kigali, Rwanda.

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