By Jean-Marie Kamatali
On Sunday, Rwanda will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the genocide that took close to 1 million lives in just 100 days. The international community will also be reminded of its failure to intervene in 1994 to stop a genocide that was preventable, or at least in which more people could have been saved if intervention had happened.
As every year, world leaders will make statements regretting the U.N. failure to intervene in Rwanda and renewing their commitment to prevent genocide and other gross human rights violations around the world.
For the Tutsi survivors who, 19 years later, are still traumatized by what happened to them and still live in fear, these messages are unlikely to bring anything new. It is as if the statements are meant more to appease the conscience of the United Nations and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, to which “we the people of the United Nations” have entrusted the power to decide when to intervene and when not to intervene.
These statements and renewals of “never again” commitments have, anyway, done little to stop genocide and other gross human rights violations in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria. This week, what survivors need to hear is not just why the world has failed to protect them. It is rather why, 19 years later, countries are still failing their duty to investigate, prosecute and punish genocide suspects on their territories.
After the Holocaust in 1945, a number of Nazis took off their uniforms and disappeared into different countries around world. It was easy then because international law was still underdeveloped, international cooperation was limited and countries had no information technology and ways to track them. As a result, Germany today is still seeking some 140,000 people on outstanding arrest warrants. The world should not make the same mistakes it did after the Holocaust. Today, countries are better equipped with international norms and technologies to allow tracking, investigating and prosecuting of genocide suspects.
As Rwanda commemorates genocide for the 19th time, the world will be celebrating the 68th anniversary of the United Nations charter, in which its 193 members have pledged “never again” and have committed to “establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.” Among these treaties are those that have moved the prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes from being an option to being a duty.
The Genocide Convention, for example, unequivocally obliges its now 142 party countries to “provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide.” Similarly, the four Geneva Conventions provide that everyone, among its now 194 member states, “shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts.” Also, the Statute of the International Criminal Court acknowledges that it is the primary responsibility for countries to prosecute those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This obligation is also recognized in customary international law.
Despite this international obligation, hundreds of genocide suspects are still enjoying freedom in a number of European, African and North American countries. Rwandan authorities have put this number as high as the tens of thousands. When the International Criminal Tribunal closes its doors in 2014, about a dozen of its accused will still be at large. Some of these accused include Felicien Kabuga, known to be the financier behind the genocide, and Augustin Bizimungu, the minister of defense during the genocide who played a role in its planning and execution.
Countries need to know that prosecuting or extraditing suspects of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes is a duty, and failure to do so constitutes a serious violation of international law. Until now, Rwanda and other countries that take this duty seriously have given priority to the use of cooperation, persuasion and rewards to convince countries to deal with genocide suspects on their territory. As patience runs out, however, it may not be a surprise if Rwanda or another interested country starts taking cases before the International Criminal Court to force these countries to fulfill their international duty to extradite or prosecute genocide suspects.
So far, countries that have received more indictments from Rwanda include France, Belgium, Uganda, Holland, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. This week, let’s remind these countries and many others of their international law obligation.
Kamatali teaches international human rights law and transitional justice at Ohio Northern University School of Law. He is also former dean of the law school at the National University of Rwanda.