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Diplomats should learn from Rwanda

Peter Leslie

I recently saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, and it left me feeling physically sick as well as very angry.

I was sick because the scenes of violence brought back vivid memories of my childhood in Calcutta. I was there when rioting mobs of Muslims and Hindus killed thousands indiscriminately. I was only a child, but I still remember the corpses, left to be devoured by vultures right in the center of the city, and I will never forget it.

Rwanda also made me angry because the international community did so little to prevent the massacre of some 800,000 Rwandans, and has done so little since to bring the war criminals to justice.

In 1994 French President Francois Mitterand said of Rwanda, “In such countries as this, genocide is not too important.”

But it wasn’t just the French which let the genocide happen: The position of the US administration at that time was that no genocide was taking place in Rwanda and therefore there was no reason to act.

Later, President Clinton apologized to the Rwandan people, saying: “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror … We didn’t do anything to stop the genocide, but we didn’t know a horrific nightmare was happening.”

Perhaps there have been apologies, of sorts, but I am still angry.

Here’s why: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was set up to bring justice to Rwandan war criminals, has become a ridiculous farce. The Tribunal is operating at the cost of $130 million per year, and judging indicted war criminals at a snail’s pace.

The Rwandan massacres occurred in 1994, but the first trial at ICTR only started in January 1997, 8 months after the arrival of the first accused. As of March 2005 only 17 judgments, involving 23 accused, have been handed down. Take the case of Joseph Nzirorera, President of the Rwandan National Assembly. Arrested in June 1998, his first appearance before the ICTR was in April 1999 but his trial only started in November 2003. The present status of his case, according to ICTR web site, is “Trial to re-start. Date not fixed.”

However, the Tribunal is congratulating itself that it is on track to finish the trials by end 2008 – some 14 years after the events in question!

So what does this record of the ICTR mean for the newly-established International Criminal Court (ICC), a court formally opposed by the United States?

First, look at how the ICC money is to be spent – and, remember that, as of now, the ICC has no trials in progress. This year’s budget is for over $75 million and that provides for a staff that will build up to a total of 489. Apparently the ICC reckons that it will need 147 people in the “Office of the Prosecutor”; 41 judges and others in the “Judiciary”; and 294 in the “Registry.”

This is a new organization, for heaven’s sakes, so how much paper is to be produced to justify a 294-person “Registry” to look after it? It sounds like UN bureaucracy as usual. ICC Judges will each earn over $200,000 a year; and a judge who has completed a full nine-year term will get a retirement pension of $100,000 a year for the rest of his/her life. Note that these salaries are higher than those of the Justices of the US Supreme Court. So, what are all these highly-paid people doing to earn their inflated salaries?

At the end of March, a UN Security Council resolution referred the situation in Darfur, Sudan, to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan commended “the Council for using its authority … to provide an appropriate mechanism to lift the veil of impunity that has allowed human rights crimes in Darfur to continue unchecked.”

He congratulated all members for overcoming their differences to allow the Council to act to ensure that those responsible for atrocities in Darfur are held to account.

But the war crimes in Darfur are continuing, with an estimated death toll of over 400,000.

The Washington-based Coalition For International Justice, along with experts from Northwestern and Toronto Universities, estimate that 140,000 people have been killed by Sudanese government forces and their proxy militia (known as Janjaweed). Another 250,000 civilians have died from either disease, starvation or exposure. The UN says that more than two million of the estimated six million Sudanese people have fled their homes. The death toll from malnutrition and disease is estimated to be more than 500 per day.

Will the referral of these crimes to the ICC have any deterrent effect on the criminals? If the ICC does not get down to work quickly and establish a track record of efficient and prompt investigations of alleged crimes and subsequent indictment and speedy trial and conviction of the criminals, it will turn out to be just one more of the tribunals set up under UN auspices – an enormous waste of time and money that breeds contempt for the rule of international law.

The victims in Rwanda are still waiting for justice. How long will the people in Darfur have to wait?

” Peter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on international issues are on the website of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears periodically in The Vail Trail.


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