International Courts Should Uphold the Rights of the Accused


Last month, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) sentenced four senior officers of the Rwandan army to a cumulative 70 years for their roles in the 1994 genocide. Despite the victorious feeling that many in the international human rights community may derive from this sentencing, the decision has been surrounded by controversy.

The absence of due process in this case and others heard by the ICTR puts the integrity of the international justice system at risk. The lack of due process allows for perpetrators of international crime to be treated with less dignity than their victims — a dangerous precedent to set for the future of international law. If the international community seeks to create and nurture a sustainable and respected system of international justice, then it must uphold due process for all, even those accused of heinous human rights violations, such as rape and genocide.

Many question the harshness — or lack thereof — of ICTR sentences. The harshest conviction of the four officers sentenced — 30 years for Augustin Bizimungu — will take him to the age of 80 (taking his 9 years of time served into account). However, even Bizimungu’s conviction is believed to be soft for someone who, amongst other crimes, supplied weapons and fuel to commit acts of genocide, dehumanized Tutsis by referring to them as cockroaches, and created lists of Tutsis to be killed. These crimes led to his conviction on six counts of genocide, crimes against humanity for murder, extermination and rape and violations of Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions.

Others question the efficiency of a court system that took more than 11 years to pass judgment on these defendants. We could explain these inefficiencies by detailing the history of military court systems and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg which are the predecessors of most modern international court systems. This would certainly help us understand the pattern of detaining those accused of international crime without expediency of process. However, a tedious history lesson will not help us come to a conclusion about whether we value all human rights or simply those of the victims.

Ultimately, I believe that if we value the rights of those accused then both the propriety of sentencing and the efficiency of the system will be improved. There will be a demand for sentencing to be handed down in a more timely manner — making the time served in detainment less of a factor in sentencing. Hopefully this will lead to more appropriate punishments for those who have been convicted of these heinous crimes.

Our generation of anti-genocide fighters has begun to look past conflict and into the reconciliation phase. Rwanda’s gacaca courts allow for neighbors to confront neighbors, for citizens to express their anger, and for communities to hope for healing. If this trend is to continue and justice is seen as a tool to enable reconciliation, then we must also uphold due process for those accused of committing heinous crimes. It is only then that international justice can be seen as a first step to healing rather than the last step of war.

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