Farewell to the Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal

Yesterday, after 17 years of operation, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) issued its final trial verdict with the conviction of Augustin Ngirabatware for genocide, incitement to commit genocide and rape as a crime against humanity. The court will continue to hear appeals but the conclusion of the trial phase marks a significant milestone in international criminal justice.

The ICTR has always been treated like the smaller and less loved sibling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia but it still has an impressive record. After its founding in 1995, the tribunal indicted 93 suspects and arrested 83, a nearly 90% arrest rate. Of those brought before the tribunal, 9 pled guilty, 10 were acquitted and 75 were convicted and sentenced. The tribunal also broadened international criminal jurisprudence; among notable legal developments, the ICTR marked the first time defendants were brought to account for the crime of genocide and the conviction of rape as an act of genocide.

However the tribunal’s most infamous case is probably the so-called Media Case which became the first case before an international court to consider the accountability of media and propaganda makers since the conviction and execution of Julius Streicher by the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946. While the Trial Chamber convicted all three defendants of crimes related to genocide in 2003 for their role in running radio stations and magazines that spread hate speech and characterized Tutsis as enemies that needed to be eliminated during the years leading up to the genocide, the Appeals Chamber later overturned several of the convictions related to conspiracy to commit genocide and reduced all three prison sentences. To this day, the case remains controversial as it pits the principles of freedom of expression against mass violence and the issue of incitement. The Media Case was just one of many cases that wrestled with complex issues not dealt with since the Nuremberg Tribunal and established precedence that now provides the basis for International Criminal Court proceedings.

However for all of the accomplishments of the tribunal, its legacy remains mixed. A major complaint is the fact that the tribunal only prosecuted members of the Rwandan government and associated militias but not the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel force that started the civil war in 1990 and is now in power in Rwanda. Likewise, outside actors such as France that financially and militarily supported the Rwandan government were never investigated for their role. While part of this is due to the narrow jurisdiction of the tribunal, it has led to the perception of victor’s justice with a one-sided prosecution of a complex conflict.

Nor has the tribunal stemmed violence in the region. The ongoing conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda’s involvement there is a testament to the inability of tribunal actions to prevent or deter more violence. Cases emerging from that conflict now fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court but so far it does not appear likely that the ICC will improve upon the ICTR’s record in preventing additional fighting.

Despite its limitations, the conclusion of the trial phase of the ICTR marks the first completion of any of the major ad-hoc international criminal tribunals. As more attention shifts to the ICC, it is important to remember the contributions these tribunals have made to international criminal law as well as their weaknesses in order to advance the cause of holding people accountable for the worst crimes.