Alison Des Forges was Human Rights Watch’s senior advisor in the Africa Division and one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda. In the period leading up to the genocide, she worked tirelessly to alert world powers to the impending crisis in Rwanda. Her efforts did not stop when the genocide ended. She continued painstakingly gathering information on these horrific crimes, which she compiled into what has become one of the main reference books on the Rwandan genocide: “Leave none to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda”, published in 1999. Alison Des Forges campaigned vigorously for justice for the genocide until her sudden death in a plane crash in the US on February 12, 2009. She also documented human rights abuses by the new government of Rwanda after the genocide and advocated for accountability for all abuses, past and present.
(New York) – It is more relevant than ever on the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda to understand the importance of international action to prevent large-scale atrocities and the need for justice in their aftermath.
Human Rights Watch expressed its solidarity with the victims and survivors of the genocide, one of the most terrifying episodes of ethnic violence in modern history, which was carried out at breakneck speed.
“Rwanda and the wider region are still grappling with consequences of the genocide,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Twenty-five years on, the victims and survivors should remain the center of everyone’s thoughts, but we should also take stock of progress and the need to ensure accountability for all those who directed these horrific acts.”
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The crash triggered the start of three months of ethnic killings across Rwanda on an unprecedented scale.
Hutu political and military extremists orchestrated the killing of approximately three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, leaving more than half a million people dead. Many Hutu who attempted to hide or defend Tutsi and those who opposed the genocide were also killed.
In mid-July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a predominantly Tutsi rebel group based in Uganda that had been fighting to overthrow the Rwandan government since 1990, took over the country and ended the genocide. Its troops killed thousands of predominantly Hutu civilians, though the scale and nature of these killings were not comparable to the genocide.
Human Rights Watch documented the genocide and the RPF’s 1994 crimes in detail. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Human Rights Watch Africa division for almost two decades, published the authoritative account of the Rwandan genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and documented the international community’s indifference and failure to act.
“When international leaders did finally voice disapproval, the genocidal authorities listened well enough to change their tactics although not their ultimate goal,” Des Forges said in her account. “Far from cause for satisfaction, this small success only underscores the tragedy: if timid protests produced this result in late April, what might have been the result in mid-April had all the world cried ‘Never again.’”
This realization that the world should not stand by while mass atrocities occur within a sovereign state gave birth to the concept of “responsibility to protect,” a global political commitment to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
After coming to power, the RPF faced the long and arduous process of rebuilding a country that had been almost entirely destroyed and delivering justice to the victims and their families.
Twenty-five years on, a significant number of people responsible for the genocide, including former high-level government officials and other key figures, have been brought to justice.
The United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994 in response to the genocide. The tribunal indicted 93 people, convicted and sentenced 61, and acquitted 14. It made significant contributions to establishing the truth about the organization of the genocide and providing justice to victims. Des Forges appeared as an expert witness in 11 genocide trials at the tribunal.
“The tribunal was an extraordinary step in the international response to serious and widespread human rights violations,” Roth said. “But its legacy was undermined by its failure to prosecute RPF abuses.”
The Rwandan justice system also tried a large number of genocide suspects, both in conventional domestic courts and in local, community-based gacaca courts. The standards of these trials have varied enormously and political interference and pressure resulted in some unfair trials. Other cases have shown greater respect for due process. The gacaca trials ended in 2012.
As it wound down its work between 2011 and 2015, the ICTR transferred several genocide cases to Rwandan courts. To provide for the transfer of those cases, as well as extraditions of genocide suspects from other countries, the Rwandan government undertook reforms to the justice systemaimed at meeting international fair trial standards. But the technical and formal improvements in laws and administrative structure have not been matched by gains in judicial independence and respect for the right to a fair trial.
Human Rights Watch has observed trials in which charges of genocide ideology and inciting insurrection were used to prosecute prominent government critics. Fair trial standards were flouted in many of these sensitive political cases. Despite these concerns, a growing number of countries have extradited suspects to stand trial for genocide-related charges in Rwanda.
National authorities in some of the countries where Rwandan genocide suspects are living, and in some cases acquired citizenship, have conducted investigations that have led to a number of trials before their domestic courts. The principle of “universal jurisdiction” allows national prosecutors to pursue people believed to be responsible for certain grave international crimes such as torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, even though they were committed elsewhere and neither the accused nor the victims are nationals of the country. Trials of Rwandan genocide suspects have taken place in countries including Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.
“An enduring lesson from the genocide is that impunity drives atrocities,” Roth said. “Despite the passage of time, victims deserve to see all those responsible for genocide and other parallel crimes arrested and prosecuted in fair and credible trials.”
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