On this day in the year 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) started its first trial for the crimes of genocide in the country. The ICTR tried and prosecuted the instigators and their followers of a crime that took the lives of about 8 lakh people in a span of 3 months.
History of Rwandan Genocide
Earlier, 85% of Rwandans belonged to the Hutu tribe, but the Tutsi minority had long dominated the country. In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighboring countries. A group of Tutsi exiles started a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On the night of April 6,1994, a plane carrying then President Juvenal Habyarimana, and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – was shot down leading to the death of everyone on board. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and immediately started a well-organised campaign of slaughter as revenge.
Among the first victims of the genocide were the moderate Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her 10 Belgian bodyguards who were killed. Subsequently, an interim government of extremist Hutu power leaders from the military high command stepped into power. Lists of government opponents were handed out to militias by those in power, who went out and killed them along with all of their families. Neighbours killed neighbours and also some husbands even killed their Tutsi wives with fear that they would be killed if they refused.
At the time, ID cards had people’s ethnic group on them, so militias set up roadblocks and slaughtered the Tutsis often with machetes which most Rwandans kept around the house. Thousands of Tutsi women were kidnapped and kept as sex slaves. The Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcasted hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches” meaning ‘kill the Tutsis’. The names of those to be killed were being read out on radio.
Members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered as many as 8,00,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Started by Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country with shocking speed and brutality, as ordinary citizens were being incited by local officials and the Hutu government to take up arms against their neighbors.
Establishment of ICTR
At that time, the UN and Belgium had forces in Rwanda, but the UN mission was not given a mandate to stop the killing. But, in October 1994, ICTR, located in Tanzania, was established as an extension of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, the first international tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46. This was the first court with the mandate to prosecute the crime of genocide. The tribunal had jurisdiction to try crimes against humanity and violations of Common Article Three and Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions which deals with internal conflicts.
In 1995, the ICTR began indicting and trying a number of higher-ranking people for their roles in the Rwandan genocide. The process was made more difficult because the whereabouts of many suspects were unknown due to time delay. The trials continued over the next decade and a half and continued till 2008 with the conviction of three former senior Rwandan defense and military officials for organizing the genocide.
A total of 93 people were indicted by ICTR and after lengthy trials dozens of senior officials in the former regime were convicted of genocide – all of them were Hutus. Two-thirds of them were sentenced, and more than 3,000 witnesses appeared in the ICTR court to give their personal accounts of crimes against humanity.
- 5,800 days of proceedings
- 93 people indicted
- 61 sentenced
- 14 acquitted
- More than 3,000 witness accounts
- Cost around $2bn
The first trial at ICTR
Jean-Paul Akayesu was a former teacher and Republican Democratic Movement (MDR) politician from Rwanda. He was the mayor of commune during the genocide: many Tutsis were killed, and others were subject to violence on Akayesu’s instructions. Akayesu not only refrained from putting a stop to the killings, but personally supervised the murder of various Tutsis. He also gave a death list to Hutus and ordered house-to-house searches to locate the Tutsis.
ICTR convicted Akayesu in their very first trial and set an important precedent. The [Trial] Chamber of ICTR found that, in most cases, the rapes of Tutsi women in Taba, were accompanied with the intent to kill those women. After an intense and precisely targeted campaign of a number of international non-governmental organizations (INGO’s), which aimed at raising awareness of gendered violence at the ICTR, the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu established the legal precedent that genocidal rape falls within the ambit of the act of genocide. The presiding judge Navanethem Pillay said in a statement after the verdict: “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong message that rape is no longer a trophy of war.“
The genocide came to an end when the RPF resumed fighting, and civil war raged alongside the genocide. By early July of 1994, RPF forces had gained control over most of the country. In response, more than 2 million people, nearly all Hutus fled from Rwanda, crowding into refugee camps in the Congo and other neighboring countries.
After its victory, the RPF thoughtfully established a coalition government with a Hutu President and a Tutsi Vice President and defense minister. Political groups that played key parts in the genocide were outlawed and a new Constitution was adopted in 2003 eliminated reference to ethnicity. Almost two million people were tried in local courts for their roles in the genocide and the ring-leaders were tried at ICTR. It is now declared illegal to talk about ethnicity in Rwanda.
Rwandan genocide sent shockwaves throughout the globe and led to the setting up the world’s first international court to try genocide. With the first trial concluding on this very day, quarter of a century ago, it stays a grim reminder of one of the most gruesome hate crimes the world has ever seen.