Rwanda has made significant steps in the pursuit of justice for victims of the genocide 19 years ago. But many suspected perpetrators living abroad have not been brought to justice and the government does not seem keen to fulfil its pledges to compensate survivors
The recent high profile visit of British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress Angelina Jolie to Gisozi genocide memorial briefly drew the attention of the international media back to Rwanda and to the 19th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide on 7 April. The photographs of the visitors in the memorial's beautiful garden in Kigali provided a striking image as both figures paid tribute not only to those who were lost in 1994 but also to the victims and survivors.
The abiding slogan ‘never again’ is often repeated at events such as these, but part of the commitment to ensuring that such events are never repeated is guaranteeing accountability for the atrocities of the past. To what extent do these words merely comprise useful phrases for formal occasions?
Efforts to address impunity for atrocities committed during the genocide have been multifaceted. In addition to the work of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Rwanda has made efforts towards justice in recent years, particularly in addressing fair trial concerns and legislating for the transfer of suspects back from the ICTR and extradition of suspects residing abroad. It is currently holding a number of genocide trials, including that of Jean Bosco Uwinkindi, and has pursued a policy of issuing extradition requests, which have recently begun to bear fruit with the transfer of Charles Bandora from Norway last month.
Genocide suspects living abroad too are increasingly unable to rely on their adopted countries acting as a safe haven. Quietly, prosecutors across Europe and North America have spent recent years notching up cases against suspected Rwandan perpetrators. These prosecutions are often based on the principles of universal jurisdiction, which provide for the prosecution of the most serious crimes such as genocide and war crimes irrespective of where these crimes were committed and irrespective of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim. To date, suspects have been successfully prosecuted in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands. Others have been arrested in the UK, France, Denmark, Germany and Sweden, while in the United States suspected perpetrators have been prosecuted for visa and immigration fraud in relation to their role in the genocide.
However, impunity for genocide suspects residing abroad is still the norm, a fact only too clearly demonstrated by the low number of prosecutions. In 2009, for example, four suspects were released in the UK as their extradition was denied based on human rights concerns. Four years later all four men remain free despite the amendment of criminal legal rules in 2010 which would allow them to be tried in the UK. Similarly, complaints have been filed against at least 24 suspects living in France, some as long as 18 years ago, yet France has yet to bring a single accused to trial. Suspects reportedly living in other European countries, including Italy and Switzerland, have yet to be investigated by domestic authorities.
These countries have the means and the necessary legal framework to prosecute known suspects who are living freely in their communities. What is needed however is the political will to make use of the existing system of international criminal justice and see these prosecutions through to the end.
Victims also remain frustrated in their attempts to participate in justice processes, despite their right in international law to see perpetrators brought to justice, to participate in criminal justice proceedings and to access reparation to remedy the losses they have suffered.
Very few countries have allowed victims to join universal jurisdiction cases as interested parties, and only a handful of victims - in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands - have been able to read statements about their experiences to the court or participate other than as witnesses.
Attempts by survivors to obtain reparation have been similarly frustrated. Since the end of the genocide in 1994, the vast majority of survivors and indeed victims of international crimes generally in Rwanda, have yet to receive adequate reparation. This has been the case in Rwanda, where repeated promises from the government to establish reparation programmes have never been implemented, and at the ICTR, the statute of which did not include a mandate to make reparation awards. Universal jurisdiction cases have also generally failed to provide access to reparation for persons participating as victims.
The theme for the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide this year is kwigira, which means self-reliance. Survivors and their communities demonstrate daily tremendous self-reliance, initiative and dignity in their efforts to rebuild their lives. As we reflect on efforts made to end impunity in Rwanda and elsewhere since 1994, all actors concerned should consider how justice efforts can best underpin the dignity and independence of survivors. Implementing longstanding promises to deliver reparation would go a long way to demonstrate the government's commitment to ensuring kwigira for survivors of genocide and other victims of international crimes committed in Rwanda in 1994.
* Tara O'Leary is Universal Jurisdiction Coordinator of REDRESS and David Russell is the Director of Survivors Fund