A court specially set up to try those responsible for the Rwandan genocide, which claimed nearly a million lives in just under 100 days in 1994, is being formally dissolved. Was it successful in dispensing justice?
In Rwanda in 1994, Hutu extremists, incited by hate speech on local media, started slaughtering minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Within a 100 days between 800,000 and 1 million people were systematically hunted down and murdered. The rest of the world looked on in horror, but did nothing.
It was one of the worst crimes ever committed. After it was over, the international community decided that it had to respond and show that international justice was not an unattainable vision.
At the beginning of 1995, the UN Security Council passed a resolution setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), based in Arusha, Tanzania. It was an experiment in international justice that lasted 21 years. The tribunal formally comes to an end when it closes on December 31, 2015.
Milestone for international justice
Boubacar Diallo, ICTR prosecutor since 2003, views the tribunal's work in a positive light. "We have processed an extraordinary large number of cases," he told DW. The tribunal had succeeded in bringing military officials, local politicians, journalists and administrators who participated in the genocide to court.
"The ICTR has also helped to draw up legislation which is now used as the basis for other courts elsewhere. These courts can now press ahead with the hugely important task of fighting impunity," he added.
In 1998, the ICTR became the first international criminal court to hand down a conviction for genocide. Around 80 percent of the main suspects in the Rwandan genocide were arrested and put on trial. 93 were charged, 61 found guilty and 14 acquitted. Most observers agree that the ICTR has - to a large extent - done the job that was assigned to it.
Geraldine Mattioli Zeltner, from the group Human Rights Watch, told DW the ICTR had made an important contribution to the prosecution of crimes against humanity within an international context. The ICTR was a milestone on the road to the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Nine defendants, however, could not be brought to trial in Arusha. These cases have not been forgotten. They will be pursued by another judicial body under auspices of the United Nations, Diallo said.
Criticism of tribunal
The ICTR has not only been showered with praise, but has also had its critics. In particular, they complain that the activities of Tutsi rebel leaders, who are now high-ranking public figures in Rwanda, have not been investigated at all in the last 20 years. Yet the ICTR was empowered to dispense justice for crimes committed by Tutsis as well as Hutus, Mattioli Zeltner said.
"The tribunal did not try one single case of crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF was an armed group led by Paul Kagame, now Rwandan president, that stopped the genocide in 1994 and has been in power in Rwanda since that date. It was within the mandate of the tribunal to also judge these crimes."
Another criticism leveled against the ICTR is that it was extremely expensive to run. Over 21 years, it cost the international community $2 billion (1.8 billion euros). At one time, it employed as many as 1,200 people and faced repeated allegations of inefficiency, lack of professionalism and corruption.
Investigations into atrocities and the prosecution of those criminally responsible for them will continue after the ICTR closes on 31.12.2015. Trials - mainly of civilians - are still going on in Rwanda.
Mattioli-Zeltner said it is essential that those who played a part in the genocide but are still at large should continue to be brought to justice. Suspects fled Rwanda after the genocide in 1994 and trials have since been held in third countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Finland and Canada
"It is very important that people in those countries continue to be very vigilant," she said.
One such trial ended in Frankfurt on Tuesday (29.12.2015) with a life sentence for Onesphore Rwabukombe whom the court found had "willingly and knowingly, prepared, organized, ordered and carried out" and a massacre on the grounds of a church in Rwanda in April 1994.