Rwanda Genocide Court to Close its Doors After 21 Years

Graves in Rwanda

Arusha, Tanzania (dpa) - Posters hang in the lifts at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTR) for Rwanda reading, "Memorabilia wanted."

It appears that the court in the north Tanzanian city of Arusha has already become history.

At the entrance to the large building, the UN's blue logo has faded to a light grey and the corridors are deserted.

More than 60 high-ranking criminals have been convicted here, those who initiated and incited the genocide. They include military and political leaders, a prime minister and journalists.

But the ICTR doesn't officially become history until December 31, when after 21 years it will close its doors forever, its mission complete.

It will also leave behind some significant achievements in the realm of international justice.

Systematically murdered

File photo of a Rwandan boy covering his face from the stench of dead bodies
A Rwandan boy covers his face from the stench of dead bodies in this July 19, 1994 file photo. April 7, 2015 marks the 21st anniversary of the Rwanda genocide which killed 800,000 people. The three-month killing spree in 1994 by Hutu extremists targeted ethnic Tutsis, but moderate Hutus were also caught in the wave of violence that followed the fatal downing of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. 

To go back to Rwanda in April 1994: The civil war has been over for a year, but the peace is a fragile one.

Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane is shot down - to this day it isn't known who carried out the attack. For radical Hutus it's an excuse to carry out a genocide, slaughtering the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus.

The country descends into chaos, people are mercilessly massacred, the rivers are filled with their corpses and extremists in the media call for more slaughter.

Within just 100 days, between 800 000 and one million people are systematically murdered, according to United Nations estimates.

The UN withdraws its peacekeepers and the rest of the world looks on passively.

At the beginning of 1995, the ICTR is set up in Arusha at the behest of the UN Security Council. Today only one case is still being appealed.

It concerns the former family affairs minister Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the first woman to be convicted in relation to the genocide.

International justice

The court has gone into "residual mechanism" to deal with the case, a kind of transitionary set-up responsible for upholding convictions, witness protection programmes and archives. From the original 1,200 employees only 190 remain.

One of them is Bongani Majola, the court's director. At 63 he's already of pensionable age, "but before I retire, I will finish this task first", he says, looking at the blue UN flag beside him.

He sees the ICTR as an "experiment" in international justice. It has shown the world that international justice is not an unrealistic utopia but an actual possibility.

And he's proud of that: The ICTR is the first international court to convict those responsible for committing genocide.

"Now no court has a problem to interpret what genocide actually means," says Majola.

Rwanda's former prime minister Jean Kambanda also became the first head of government to be convicted of genocide - a milestone.

International investigators

"We have shown: The time in which African leaders can do with their citizens whatever they want is over," adds Majola.

The court was also the first to recognize rape as a means of perpetrating genocide. "But that is not enough," says Majola, who thinks that more perpetrators should have been punished.

Between 100 000 and 250 000 women were sexually abused during the genocide, according to the UN estimates.

The court's work was not easy. How do you prove crimes that took place years earlier? How do you find witnesses? The international investigators were dealing with ordinary Rwandans, and had to deal with their mistrust, as well as language barriers.

Many Rwandans were not familiar with the international justice system and had never been abroad. It was difficult to get them to come to Arusha.

Fourteen people were acquitted. Of those found guilty, some spent just a few months in prison, others were sentenced to life. They are serving their sentences in the UN member states which volunteered to take them - Italy, Sweden and Mali.


In June, ICTR President Judge Vagn Joensen asked the UN Security Council to find a solution to "the very troubling issue of relocating the acquitted and convicted released persons still residing in Arusha". For years they have been living in a secret UN safe house.

When the tribunal shuts its gates, it does not mean that justice for the atrocities committed will not continue.

In Rwanda there are still trials going on, mostly involving civilians.

Just last month, intelligence chief Karenzi Karake was arrested in London on a European Arrest Warrant, accused by Spain of ordering massacres.

In the ICTR hangs a wanted poster for the last nine fugitives. Can they still be found?

"The investigators still work but it is very hard and difficult," says Majola.

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