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Justice, or Else

In Rwanda, The Time Has Come for a U.N. Tribunal

By David L. Bosco

Rwanda is the kind of place that takes away all faith in humanity, all hope that the world is making progress toward some higher plane. This year, the world gasped as genocide in its purest form raged through the country. First, the Hutu-dominated government unleashed a frenzy of killing against the minority Tutsis. Then, when the Tutsis launched a rebellion and seized the country, thousands of Hutus fled in fear to border camps. There, thousands more died from cholera and dysentery. By the time the worst had ended, as many as half a million people had died.

The world community had promised to never allow genocide again; it formalized that pledge in the Genocide Convention. It broke its promise again. But really, what could have been done? It's easy to scream for a solution, harder to find one. When the killing was at its height, nothing short of an occupation would have helped. When the camps were teeming with refugees, the nations did mount a massive aid campaign, which started late but eventually saved thousands of lives.

So was Rwanda proof of the limits of international humanity? Clearly it was, as Somalia was before it. The logistical capacities and the political will to put a stop to such abuses do not exists. There is though, a world of difference between accepting limits on what can be done, and accepting what has happened. The former is necessary, the latter unconscionable.

We know how to stamp evil unacceptable, and it is not through more outraged statements. It was done before at a place called Nuremberg. There, the International Military Tribunal assigned guilt for the war and the genocide the Nazis launched. The tribunal system has recently been revived to address the crimes committed in the Yugoslav war, and the United Nations Security Council is considering expanding its jurisdiction to cover Rwanda. It must be done. Through its agony, Rwanda has presented the international community with an unmistakable chance to begin the enforcement of international law and humanity.

The effects of a successful tribunal will be far-reaching. For Rwanda, they will offer a chance to break the cycle of hatred and killings that have characterized the nation since its independence. If thorough, the trials can purge the feelings of vengeance that are, even now, breeding the next round of death. Six thousand Rwandans are already in custody, accused of having been active participants in the killing.

For the world at large, trials will send a message: genocide will not be allowed. It would be naive, of course, to assume that punishment for murderers in Rwanda would deter all others. Nuremberg, after all, did little to end atrocities in the post-war era. But justice in Rwanda would be a step toward making international law binding. The other ongoing tribunal, in Bosnia, is hampered by the inability to apprehend suspects and the opposition of UN negotiators, who want to avoid angering the Bosnian Serbs. Rwanda is the best chance.

What makes immediate action by the Security Council even more imperative is the prospect of what will happen if it doesn't act: Rwanda will begin trials of its own. In ordinary circumstances, this would be an appropriate, maybe even the best way. Rwanda is, after all, a sovereign country; the crimes that have been committed took place within its borders. International tribunals are best suited for disputes between countries, where an impartial body is necessary.

What makes Rwanda so much more volatile is the sharp tribal division that has been at the root of its suffering. The current government has members from both tribes, but it was put in place by the victory of the Rwandad Patriotic Front, a primarily Tutsi group. Trials under its auspices will likely be seen as mere vengeance by the country's Hutus, and more bloodshed is a distinct possibility.

That makes international involvement necessary, and thankfully, the Rwandan government is amenable to this. But time is passing. The need for some retribution is building in the country. Pasteur Bizimungu, the Rwandan president, has warned that further delays could spark violence. "We can't release those persons," he said, "If we release them, there is the risk that there may be acts of revenge." Acts of revenge in Rwanda carry with them the threat of catastrophe.

Mounting a tribunal is a course no small task. Logistical and political support must be forthcoming from the Western nations. The benefits of prompt action will be great, for Rwanda and the world. The costs of delay could be a return to genocide.

David L. Bosco '95 spent the summer researching war crimes tribunals for the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives.

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