In the waning days of the Rwandan genocide, scores of ethnic Tutsis took refuge in a provincial government office in the Rwandan town of Butare. And then Pauline Nyiramasuhuko – a Hutu and former minister for family and women affairs – arrived and ordered them all killed.
In a world that had other things on its mind, including a war in Yugoslavia, the crime seemed likely to go unnoticed and unpunished, especially amid the thousands of other similar actions by members of Rwanda’s then Hutu-dominated government of the day that led to the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in April, May, and June of 1994.
But today, an international criminal tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, held Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko accountable for her actions, sentencing her to life imprisonment. Her son Arsene Ntahobali, a former militia leader, and other officials involved in the Butare massacre received the same sentence.
"The chamber convicts Pauline Nyiramasuhuko of conspiracy to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, extermination, rape, persecution and ... violence to life and outrages upon personal dignity," read a ruling by the three judges at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, according to Reuters.
The convictions against Nyiramasuhuko come 10 years after the Rwanda tribunal opened in Arusha, Tanzania. Reading out the judgment, presiding Judge William Sekule described the horror of the crimes that were committed.
"Many were physically assaulted, raped, and taken away to various places in Butare, where they were killed,” Judge Sekule was quoted by Associated Press as saying. “During the course of these repeated attacks on vulnerable civilians, both Nyiramasuhuko and Ntahobali ordered killings. They also ordered rapes. Ntahobali further committed rapes and Nyiramasuhuko aided and abetted rapes."
Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko is the first woman to be convicted of genocide charges before an international tribunal, but she is one of a growing string of world leaders, from Yugoslavia to Sudan and Liberia to Kenya, who face trial for human rights crimes committed against their own people.
Tribunals like this one in Tanzania and the main International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, Netherlands, are a court of last resort for countries whose own legal systems have either broken down or do not have the capacity or will to try individuals for gross violations of human rights.
The ICC's focus on nations with broken legal systems has drawn criticism that it targets poorer African countries. After the ICC charged six prominent Kenyans for orchestrating mass violence after the December 2007 elections, Kenya’s parliament voted to request that its government rescind its signature on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with genocide and other human rights crimes for his role in the massacres of the Darfur region, has also flouted an ICC arrest warrant and urged fellow African nations to rescind the Rome Statute that established the international court. Kenya is among 114 nations that have signed the Rome Statute. Forty-four, including the US and Sudan, have not.
Ramtane Lamamra, an African Union official in charge of peace and security issues, accused ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo of applying “a double standard in pursuing cases against some leaders while ignoring others,” such as the US military’s activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US military’s prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.