The Evolving Nature of Universal Jurisdiction in Rwanda Commentary
The Evolving Nature of Universal Jurisdiction in Rwanda
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JURIST Guest Columnist Eric Leonard, the Henkel Family Chair in International Affairs at Shenandoah University, argues that the ongoing pursuit of justice 19 years after the Rwandan genocide is a positive step for international criminal justice that should be praised, not dismissed…

Around this time 19 years ago, two crucial events occurred in the tiny African nation-state of Rwanda. First, Human Rights Watch (HRW) posted a report [PDF] that detailed the continued arming of militias in Rwanda. This document, “Arming Rwanda,” paints a clear picture of the situation on the ground and the possible consequences of illegally importing arms to Rwanda. Second, the UN general overseeing the peacekeeping operation in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, had his request to raid the arms cache denied by the UN. The result, as we are now well-aware, was a rapid decline into one of history’s most horrific genocides. Beginning on April 6, 1994 and continuing for one hundred days after, genocide claimed the lives of at least 800,000 people in Rwanda.

Today, Rwandans still cope with the aftermath of this egregious act. Recently, a Rwandan accused of complicity in the genocide was arrested in France, showing the conflict’s continued effects. This also initiates discussion of how best to judicially cope with such situations, since the response to Rwanda was and remains multifaceted. Such an approach may represent the future of international criminal justice and the culmination in the battle to end impunity.

On a globalized level, the UN Security Council (UNSC) established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994. Having completed 72 cases, with one still in progress, the ICTR has been successful. However, it has not been void of criticism, as nine accused individuals remain at large. As the work of the court comes to a close, I am sure that a more detailed assessment of its work will occur. Presently, it appears that the court’s mandate was fulfilled — albeit in a limited number of cases — and a piece of the “justice puzzle” has been put into place.

Along with these international justice efforts, there was also a robust domestic response. Rwandans took justice into their own hands — a necessity given the sheer magnitude of the crimes and the number of alleged perpetrators. One of the more interesting methods in use are the gacaca courts. These localized forums of justice are more communal and less judicial. Their purpose focuses more on restorative justice than retribution, with an emphasis on healing the community through the proceedings. They are seen as a necessary means of bringing realistic justice in the wake of the 1994 genocide.

A third method of pursuing justice in Rwanda derives from universal jurisdiction: the concept of prosecution by a state that has no direct territorial or personal relation to a case. In other words, the crime being prosecuted under universal jurisdiction is not committed on the territory of the prosecuting state, nor is the perpetrator or victim a national of the state. One such prosecution was the 2001 trial of the “Butare Four” in Belgium. On June 8, 2001, the Assize Court of Brussels found Alphonse Higaniro, Vincent Ntezimana, Sister Gertrude (Consolata Mukangano) and Sister Maria Kisito (Julienne Mukabutera) guilty of crimes committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Although all of the accused were residing in Belgium at the time of their arrest, none of the Butare Four were Belgian citizens, none of the victims were Belgian citizens and none of the crimes were committed on Belgian soil. The trial and prosecution of the Butare Four appears to be a case of pure universal jurisdiction — one of the few in human rights’ legal history.

However, this is just one example of many cases in which universal jurisdiction has been cited as legal justification for prosecuting Rwandan citizens outside of Rwanda and the ICTR. The most recent occurred on February 14, 2013 in Norway, where the Oslo District Court found Sadi Bugingo guilty of complicity in the premeditated killings of at least 2,000 people — most of them Tutsi citizens.

Enter the current case of France and its relationship to the 1994 genocide. The case under discussion involves the arrest and possible extradition of Rwandan citizen Innocent Musabyimana. Such extradition is not unprecedented; other cases pending in French courts indicate that the French government is willing to prosecute Rwandan citizens. However, Musabyimana would be the first Rwandan citizen that France actually prosecutes. Despite these developments, the Collectif des Parties Civiles pour le Rwanda (CPCR), an association that pursues genocide suspects living in France, insists that this marks only a small step in the effort to prosecute genocidaires living in France.

Skepticism aside, these cases encapsulate the many means of achieving global justice and the necessary cooperation in the struggle to end impunity. France’s arrest of these Rwandans, as well as their possible extradition, reinforces both the international nature of the crimes committed and France’s increasing desire to assist Rwanda in its quest for justice. Given the somewhat cold relationship that these two countries have had since the 1994 genocide, this is a very positive diplomatic step. The situation also reveals the ever-evolving nature of addressing human rights violations on an international level, which should not be disregarded. International criminal justice is making strides in a variety of ways, and this should be applauded, rather than constantly criticized.

Eric Leonard is the Henkel Family Chair in International Affairs at Shenandoah University. His primary areas of expertise are global politics, foreign policy, human rights, humanitarian law and political philosophy. He has published several articles and is the author of The Onset of Global Governance: International Relations Theory and the International Criminal Court.

Suggested citation: Eric Leonard, The Evolving Nature of Universal Jurisdiction in Rwanda, JURIST – Hotline, Mar. 28, 2013,

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