U.N. tribunal stumbles forward Genocide: After three years, international prosecutors have yet to conclude a single case against those accused in the slaughter of nearly a million people in Rwanda.

Sun Journal

March 25, 1998|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ARUSHA, Tanzania -- When Canada's Gen. Romeo Dallaire gave his testimony last month, he could not hold back tears.

Wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, Dallaire described scenes of horror and his own powerlessness as Rwandan killers in 1994 unleashed one of the worst mass crimes since World War II -- three months of systematic slaughter that left nearly a million people dead.

For the general, who was the U.N. peacekeeping commander in Rwanda during the genocide, blame lay with the international community for not stopping the killing. If only the United Nations had given him more troops and a mandate to intervene, he said, "hundreds of thousands of lives" could have been saved.

The testimony was some of the most dramatic since the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda was established in this town in northern Tanzania more than three years ago.

It also poked at a question at the heart of the tribunal's existence: How should the world respond to massive crimes against humanity, ones that violate international law designed to discourage such crimes in the first place?

Unwilling to stop the Rwandan genocide while it happened, the United Nations created the war crimes tribunal after the slaughter was over. The idea was to bring to book the masterminds of the genocide and to offer a traumatized nation some sense of justice.

In so doing the tribunal has taken on what the court's Senegalese president, Laity Kama, calls a "historic mission" aimed ultimately at discouraging killers from mass slaughter.

The Rwandan government has about 120,000 genocide suspects locked up, awaiting action by its own overmatched investigators and prosecutors, who have conducted about 350 trials so far. A third of the defendants were sentenced to death, but none of the sentences has been executed.

Twenty-three men accused of being ringleaders, including the former prime minister and defense minister of the Hutu-dominated government that conducted the genocide, were captured in Europe or Africa and extradited to the international tribunal here.

It will be the first international criminal court to interpret the definition of genocide, which was set out in a 1948 convention signed in Geneva. It will, in the words of one court official, "provide the legal lamppost on genocide."

This tribunal, and one for the former Yugoslavia, are the first international war crimes courts to be independently established. Their precedent, Nuremberg, was created by World War II's winners. The Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals were established the United Nations.

As such, the tribunal for Rwanda is seen as a precedent for a first-ever permanent international criminal court, plans for which are being discussed at the United Nations in New York.

A permanent court, Dallaire says, might "prevent and destroy the atmosphere of impunity. . . . A modern instrument of this nature will certainly make people think twice before taking such absolutely catastrophic decisions against their fellow men."

The tribunal here, however, has been beset by a number of administrative problems, ill-considered approaches and logistical headaches. Most seriously, Rwandan government officials and victims of the genocide say, the tribunal has badly failed to deliver justice.

"Rwandans feel this is an experiment being done by the international community, first to clear its conscience and then to have a permanent court of justice," says Rwandan journalist Jean-Jacques Dushimiyimana, who covers the tribunal for the independent press agency Hirondelle.

"They feel it is an experiment being done at the expense of justice for the Rwandan people."

The process certainly has been slow. Despite having spent millions of dollars, the tribunal in more than three years of work has yet to conclude a single case. It has issued 35 indictments.

Time was lost last year when the tribunal took four months of vacation. For a long time the defense did not have offices or phones.

Now about 30 defense lawyers share two rooms. Translations often are poor. In one transcript the words "mass grave" are written repeatedly as "masquerade." Cases are badly publicized.

While acknowledging some of these problems and others, court officials say that the tribunal is changing. Last year U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan replaced the court's administration after mounting charges of corruption and mismanagement. Now, officials and lawyers say, management is improving.

With the appointment of a new lead prosecutor, Canadian Louise Arbour, observers say indictments are more thorough and professional. And last year a second courtroom was built.

James Stewart, a Canadian prosecution lawyer, says that some of the tribunal's problems are understandable.

"It's an ad hoc tribunal," he says. "You can't expect it to fall out of the sky and be ready. We have to build from the ground up. We have lawyers from different legal backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds and different linguistic backgrounds. . . . I think we are being successful."

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