Commemorating “one of the darkest chapters in human history,” United Nations officials paid tribute this morning to the 800,000 men, women and children – overwhelmingly Tutsi, moderate Hutu and Twa – that were systematically killed 20 years ago in Rwanda, and urged the international community to work together and remain vigilant to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.
“The blood spilled for 100 days. Twenty years later, the tears still flow,” said Ban Ki-Moon, in an address during a commemoration ceremony in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, at which the UN chief expressed his solidarity with all Rwandans as they continue their “journey of healing.”
The event took place in Kigali’s National Stadium Amahoro (“peace”) where, in 1994, thousands of Rwandans found refuge, barely escaping the murder and rape that stalked the country. Mr. Ban has been to Rwanda several times as UN Secretary-General, and has met survivors, listened to their stories and visited the Gisozi Memorial.
Regretting the international community’s silence at the time, he declared that much more could and should have been done, adding that peacekeeping troops were withdrawn when they were most needed.
“The world has yet to fully overcome its divisions, its indifference, its moral blind spots,” deplored Mr. Ban, citing the atrocities that occurred in Srebrenica in 1995, and the current conflicts in Syria and the Central African Republic.
The Secretary-General underlined that “there is a truth to the human condition that is as alarming today as it was 20 years ago; the fragility of our civility. The bonds that hold us together can swiftly disappear.”
“At the same time, there is progress that gives hope,” he continued, noting that under the “responsibility to protect” principle “States can no longer claim that atrocity crimes are only a domestic matter.” Citing the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) as an example, Mr. Ban added that the expansion of international criminal justice has made “leaders and warlords alike face the growing likelihood of prosecution for their crimes.”
In preventing such crimes from happening in the future, he highlighted the importance of remaining vigilant: “Since genocide takes planning, human rights violations must be seen as early warning signals of conflict and mass atrocities.”
“We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’, again and again,” he said.
“When you see people at risk of atrocity crimes, do not wait for instructions from afar.
Speak up, even if it may offend. Act. Our first duty must always be to protect people – to protect human beings in need and distress,” Mr. Ban stressed, a message that he has shared with all UN representatives around the world, including in South Sudan where “many thousands of people are alive today thanks to this open gates approach.”
“No country, no matter how tolerant on the surface, is immune from targeting the so-called other. No corner of the world, no matter how advanced, is free from opportunists who manipulate identity for political gain.”
The Secretary-General went on to pay tribute to the people of Rwanda, for “[showing] the world another essential truth: the power of the human spirit.”
“The resilience of the survivors almost defies belief,” he said at the Kigali event, echoing a different statement released earlier today in which he admired the Rwandans ability to “unite and show that reconciliation is possible even after a monumental tragedy.”
“I encourage Rwanda to continue deepening democracy and protecting human rights so that Rwanda’s future is one of freedom, dignity, security and opportunity for all,” he concluded, urging “the wider Great Lakes region to expand upon your efforts to strengthen prevention and cooperation towards regional stability and harmony.”
Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwanda Genocide (07 April)
The President of the UN General Assembly, John Ashe, encouraged all “Member States, civil society and other stakeholders to honour the memory of those who were needlessly and mercilessly killed solely because of their ethnic identity,” adding that “we must continue to support those who survived this tragedy and still suffer from its effects.”
For her part, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized the importance of bringing perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice. “Impunity adds insult to the grave injury, physical and emotional, suffered by the victims,” she said, noting that “shortly after the genocide, the new Government of Rwanda itself prioritised justice and accountability, not least by asking the Security Council to establish an international tribunal. They recognised that justice and accountability are indispensable for long-term stability.”
The ICTR was asked by the Security Council to wrap up its cases by the tentative target date of December of this year. Bongani Majola, Registrar of the ICTR, recently held a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York, where he said that most of the Tribunal’s work has been accomplished, with only five appeals involving 11 accused remaining. The Tribunal expects to close on the 30th of September of 2015.
The ICTR will also spend the remainder of its time finishing up some administrative work such as the preparation of the ICTR archive that is to be delivered to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT).
The residual mechanism, as the MICT is informally known, was created in 2010 by the Security Council to take over the residual functions of the ICTR and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former-Yugoslavia (ICTY), such as long-term sentence enforcement and witness protection.
The Tribunal originally indicted 93 suspects, though only 76 were tried (seven indictments were withdrawn, and 10 were referred to national jurisdictions), with 62 convictions and 14 acquittals.
Mr. Majola noted that the ICTR encountered many challenges in the course of its 20 years of existence, citing the lack of enforcement mechanisms such as a police force and the lack of authority over any territory whatsoever as the biggest difficulties.
“Getting the accused persons and witnesses was particularly difficult because they were scattered all over the world, in many countries, and some were in hiding,” stated Mr. Majola, adding that a lot depended on the good will of national authorities in tracking, detaining and handing the accused over to the Tribunal. Out of the 62 people convicted, three couldn’t be found and/or arrested and their cases will be handed over to the residual mechanism.
Despite all these challenges, Mr. Majola stressed, the ICTR had major achievements, the main one being that it was able to execute its mandate successfully. “We were able to prosecute the leadership, and many of them were punished and sentenced to long term imprisonment.
Those include Prime Minister Jean Kambanda who led the interim government during the genocide, and who is now serving a life sentence.” Among the leadership brought to justice, Mr. Majola also cited the directors the radio and television service in Rwanda at the time because of the “propaganda they were broadcasting saying that the Tutsis needed to be eliminated.”
Noting that the genocide had eliminated Rwanda’s police and judiciary authorities, Mr. Majola highlighted that “if the tribunal hadn’t been established, many of these people would not have been brought to justice because after the genocide Rwanda didn’t have the judicial capacity, nor did it have the capacity to go and look for them in all corners of the world which the Tribunal was able to do, and to bring them back, and to try them, and to punish them.”
More importantly, stressed Mr. Majola, the Tribunal’s greatest accomplishment may be that it created a precedent on international criminal justice and created an international jurisprudence: “The ICTR and the ICTY have actually given confidence that it is possible to have criminal justice at an international level,” he said insisting that both institutions “also have contributed to the message that impunity is not going to be tolerated.”