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The will to defeat genocide

Twenty years since the start of the Rwandan genocide, the memory of this horrific event continues to shock humanity’s shared conscience and fortifies our commitment to fight impunity for this most heinous crime. Along with the atrocities witnessed during the Holocaust and in Srebrenica, the Rwandan genocide is part of a process of collective recognition that the crime of genocide cannot and must not go unpunished.

These abhorrent episodes highlight the importance of Raphael Lemkin’s pioneering work and indefatigable efforts,* which led to the adoption of the Genocide Convention and the codification of a pledge to humanity to both deter génocidaires and hold them accountable for their criminality.

The legacy of the genocide in Rwanda is built not only on the nearly 1 million lives lost and betrayed by the inaction of the international community, but also on its impact on the development of international humanitarian law, atrocity prevention and justice for victims. This anniversary is an occasion to remember those lives and to examine critically the lessons of this tragedy.

The horrors of the Rwandan genocide ultimately compelled the international community to contemplate how to give greater effect to the Genocide Convention, reaffirming the worldwide consensus that crimes of this nature and magnitude should not go unpunished. The genocide was the most dramatic illustration of the dangers of political vacillation and the consequences of inaction. Today, taking action to prevent genocide is not a policy option, but rather an international legal obligation to enforce a peremptory norm.

In 1994, the United Nations Security Council established the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as a direct response to the Rwandan genocide. However, the wider lessons learnt from the political hesitation that allowed the genocide to occur laid the foundations for the establishment of a permanent international penal tribunal, as originally envisaged in the Genocide Convention and eventually crystallized in the form of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The definition for the crime of genocide contained in the Genocide Convention was adopted verbatim into Article 6 of the Rome Statute, which endows the ICC with the ability to adjudicate incidents of this grave crime. The court brings into force the obligations of states to defeat genocide and to promote the investigation and prosecution of alleged perpetrators. The Rwanda tribunal and the ICC represent a new era of accountability, in which there shall be no refuge for génocidaires and no sanctuary for those who violate the sanctity of life and humankind.

The case law of the Rwanda tribunal is instructive in many areas of international criminal law, particularly genocide. For example, the Rwandan genocide involved unspeakable violence against women. Great strides have been made in legally defining how rape and other acts of sexual violence can be used as weapons of war and charged as crimes. On 2 September 1998, the tribunal delivered a ground-breaking decision in the Akayesu case, which, for the first time in history, explicitly recognized rape as an instrument of genocide when used as a means to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

The Rwanda tribunal has made significant progress in terms of fighting impunity for genocide and seeking justice for victims. As a permanent judicial mechanism, the ICC has inherited this legacy and carries enormous potential. For the ICC — as with all such international judicial institutions — state cooperation is the indispensable requirement for its success. Though a rich and comprehensive body of international humanitarian and criminal law is now in place, as are independent, international institutions with the jurisdiction to apply such laws, the enforcement arm is key to ensuring the full, timely and systematic implementation of the rule of law.

If judicial decisions are not executed; if suspects are not apprehended to face justice in the courtroom; if sufficient resources are not made available; if all efforts are not exerted to protect victims and witnesses; and if requests for other types of cooperation are not fully adhered to, then justice will neither be truly done, nor seen to be done. As for the ICC, its States Parties must remain vigilant to uphold the fundamental values that are enshrined in the Rome Statute and serve as robust custodians of the treaty’s object and purpose. As a general rule, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s certainly true for the emerging system of international criminal justice in which state cooperation serves as its indispensable lifeline.

As we remember the horrors that unfolded in Rwanda and honour its victims, we renew our unyielding commitment to prevent mass atrocities and the hope of ‘never again’. We are reminded that preventing genocide is an undertaking and a challenge shared by humanity as a whole. The ICC will certainly do its part.

By Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and former Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Republic of the Gambia.

* Raphael Lemkin is best known for his work against genocide, a word he coined in 1944 and defined as ‘the destruction of a national or an ethnic group’.


Photo: ©REUTERS/Luc Gnago



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