Breakthrough decision on Rwanda genocide gives hope to victims

A crucial decision handed down by the appeals chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) earlier this year is set to help bring justice to the victims of the country’s 1994 genocide.

On 16 June this year the appeals chamber issued a judicial notice that there were systematic attacks in Rwanda between 6 April and 17 July 1994 against the Tutsi ethnic group and that these attacks constituted genocide.

The decision is binding on all current and pending cases being heard by the ICTR. It means that the prosecution no longer has to prove that genocide took place for each individual case progressing through the tribunal.

The ICTR was set up by the UN in 1994 to prosecute those believed to be responsible for the genocide. To date around 40 cases have been completed, with many defendants found guilty and imprisoned.

However, there are still 26 cases ongoing with another 12 defendants awaiting trial. The appeal decision will speed up the trial process for cases such as the prosecution of former Rwandan army colonel Theoneste Bagosora, which has been proceeding for almost 400 days. Bagosora’s case, heard in conjunction with the trial of three other military defendants, is one of the most crucial cases at the ICTR because of his rank and profile.

Alex Bevan, an arbitration associate at Shearman & Sterling, said the decision has relieved the tribunal of an “incredibly high burden” of proof.

“It’s something which to a good degree has crippled the tribunal through the past 12 years, because every time they’ve had to prove genocide,” said Bevan.

Shearman acts as special counsel to the ICTR, with Shearman lawyers on one-month secondments to the tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. The firmalso carries out research projects for prosecutors and gives them advocacy training all on a pro bono basis. It is the only law firm to have such a relationship with the ICTR.

Bevan said the appeal chamber decision is likely to apply to other courts if cases are passed on to other jurisdictions once the ICTR winds up its work in 2008.

He added that the work of the ICTR is vitally important for the Rwandan people.

“The public visibility of some kind of justice is crucial to them,” emphasised Bevan.