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World: Rwandan Genocide Conviction Changes Landscape On War Crimes

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 2 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In a landmark ruling Tribunal for Rwanda has handed down (Sept. 2) the first conviction for genocide ever imposed by an international court.

The conviction is against a Rwandan town mayor, and stems from the killing of thousands of people in his district during the ethnic violence in Rwanda in 1994. But the successful prosecution sets a signal for war crimes suspects everywhere, including the former Yugoslavia.

The Tribunal, sitting at Arusha, Tanzania, convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu, a member of the Hutu tribe and the former mayor of Taba, of inciting the massacre of at least 2,000 people. He was also convicted of various counts of crimes against humanity, torture and rape.

The offenses were committed during a three-month period in the Central African nation when extremists from the Hutu majority massacred at least 500,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus.

Akayesu pleaded innocent to the charges and is entitled to appeal. The maximum sentence he can receive is life imprisonment. The verdict is the first of any sort delivered by the U.N. Rwanda Tribunal, which was set up nearly four years ago. Even more significantly, it is the first judgment by an international panel on genocide, which was established as a crime in a 1948 U.N. treaty.

As such, the action will have an impact on all present and future situations where war crimes are committed or likely to occur. Christopher Hall, legal advisor to the London-based rights organization Amnesty International, says:

"This sends a very important signal that the international community is finally taking this crime seriously, and it will be an auspicious beginning of a new era in which crimes of genocide are treated as crimes and not simply as political events".

Hall says that the planning for the Rwandan genocide, just like the actions of the Nazi Germans, implicated the highest levels of government. He says this landmark conviction sends a message to people holding official rank that, no matter who they are, they are criminals if they order such crimes to be committed.

As such, he says, the verdict will inspire the work of the other U.N. tribunal investigating war crimes, the Hague-based panel dealing with the former Yugoslavia. He says:

"I think it simply reinforces the excellent work that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has been doing, and I think it will inspire them to redouble their efforts in terms of investigation and prosecution of persons charged with these crimes".

The tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has so far indicted a total of seven persons for genocide, including Bosnian Serb wartime political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, both of whom are still at liberty. Only one of the seven is in custody, and so far he has not gone on trial. Another suspect who was being held in custody died of a heart attack shortly before he was due to go on trial. Another of the seven was killed while resisting arrest.

The Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals were established by the United Nations in 1993 and 1994. They are the first such panels called into existence since the war crimes tribunals set up after World War Two to try former German and Japanese leaders in Nuremberg and Tokyo. At that time, the defendants were tried on a variety of charges, as the crime of genocide was not defined legally until 1948. The Chief Prosecutor at the Rwanda trial, Pierre Prosper is quoted as saying (by Reuters on Sept. 2) that in the past scholars had written about genocide and debated it, but that this verdict would be the landmark jurisdiction on the subject. He said the international community is finally living up to its obligations under the Genocide Convention of 1948.

(RFE/RL Kitty McKinsey has contributed to this story)