Cherie Blair is chair of Omnia Strategy LLP, an international law firm that is on Rwanda’s panel of legal advisers.
During a recent trip to Bangladesh, I met Israt, whose family comes from Burma’s Rakhine state. Last month, the tragedy of the conflict in her country literally came home to Israt, when her family arrived in Bangladesh as refugees fleeing devastation. They had lost their home and, most horrifically of all, two of their children.
The events still unfolding in Burma (also known as Myanmar) are not without precedent. The scale of the attacks, the bloodshed, the alleged use of rape as a weapon of war, the persecutory basis of the atrocities, the inability of international institutions to halt the crisis — these are all components of genocide that have been seen in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and the Yazidi region of Iraq, to name a few. With each new atrocity, the international community’s promise of “never again” rings ever more hollow.
Our capacity to prevent mass killings will only be as robust as our ability to understand, predict and tackle their causes. Talk of universal human rights means little if we do not acknowledge and act on the warning signs of impending massacres. And our disgust at impunity for these horrendous crimes can be measured by the strength and effectiveness of the mechanisms aimed at bringing justice and reconciliation to the victims and survivors.
This week, as we mark World Genocide Commemoration Day, we must ask ourselves whether the international justice system is fit for purpose. Sixty-nine years ago, the United Nations convention on genocide was adopted, declaring that all countries have an obligation to prevent and punish genocide. How then will we respond to the recent events in Burma?
I visited Rwanda with then-first lady Laura Bush in July 2005. Eleven years earlier, 100 days of bloodshed had been unleashed by the Hutu majority, who murdered more than 800,000 Rwandans in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. On the last day of my visit, I was invited to witness a trial of accused génocidaires at a session of a gacaca court, part of a traditional system of community justice.
The Rwandan government resorted to gacaca courts because national courts lacked the capacity to try the 1.2 million Rwandans accused of crimes committed during the genocide. The official court system was in a shambles, not least because the vast majority of judges and prosecutors had been killed or had fled the country. Survivors’ voices were at the heart of the gacaca process, both as witnesses and accusers. Sentences reflected the need to achieve the almost unfathomable: enabling survivors and perpetrators to live together as neighbors once again and to rebuild their fractured country.
At the session I attended, survivors of the genocide — including widows and orphans of those murdered — stood face-to-face with the alleged perpetrators to seek the truth of what had happened to their loved ones. Remembering the victims and establishing what really happened was critically important then, and remains vital now. No one suggests that these courts were perfect, but they clearly played a pivotal role in bringing a sense of unity and reconciliation to a bloodied and divided nation. That the country has not slipped back into conflict, 23 years on, is testament in part to the contribution of the gacaca courts.
Even so, it was clear that domestic trials and gacaca sessions had their limits. In the aftermath of the genocide, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This internationally supported tribunal sought the prosecution of “Category 1” defendants — the alleged architects of the genocide and those accused of the most serious crimes committed in 1994. Efforts to set up a similar mechanism to address the crimes committed in Burma have already begun. The Yazidis, by contrast, are still waiting.
My visit to the gacaca court session in 2005 took place more than a decade after the end of the genocide. As much time has passed again, and yet many suspected génocidaires continue to walk free in parts of the world to which they fled after committing their crimes. While Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have all extradited suspected génocidaires to Rwanda in recent years, progress is slow. In the United Kingdom, the High Court this year blocked the extradition of five suspected genocide ringleaders, meaning that we may see them tried in British courts instead. In France, which has long struggled to come to terms with its own role in the genocide, attempts to extradite or prosecute suspected génocidaires have been thwarted by the state. Even after France volunteered to try cases transferred from the U.N. tribunal, those individuals never faced charges in court.
Justice delayed is truly justice denied. The conspiracy of silence around unresolved cases of genocide is a prime example of international indifference that perpetuates pain and suffering. It gives succor to those who would devalue or destroy human dignity, such as in Burma, and extinguishes hope for a world without genocide. Morally and legally, no country should allow itself to become a haven for perpetrators of this crime of crimes.
“Never again,” the mantra repeated instinctively after every atrocity, means delivering justice for past tragedies. This should be within the capacity of the international community. We can start by applying the lessons we should have learned from Rwanda. Otherwise the roll of victims will only continue to grow.