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It is 10 years this past week since the conflict and genocide began in Rwanda. One would have expected that in the intervening decade, those responsible for one of the worst human rights tragedies in modern times would all have been brought to justice. A few weeks ago, Rwanda’s prosecutor general announced that thousands of Rwandans accused of taking part in the 1994 killings would be released from prison if they admitted their guilt and asked for forgiveness. This is an inexcusable outcome for what could have been a human rights turning point. Within hours of the death of the Rwandan president that started the war, the Hutus began the systematic murder of as many Tutsi men, women and children as guns could shoot and machetes could cut. In three months, 800,000 Rwandans were killed, and tens of thousands became refugees and prisoners. Years later, some optimism emerged from the horror. An international war crimes tribunal was established and programs to rebuild the country’s judiciary began trying the thousands of people involved in human rights violations. Rwanda became a priority for then U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Jose Ayala Lasso. World leaders now are convening in Kigali, Rwanda, to commemorate the tragedy and take stock of the country’s, and the world’s, response to it. Yet a report card on the decade would show at least one glaring failure: It appears that the vast majority of those who planned, directed and carried out the massacres will never be brought to justice. The international tribunal was not designed to bring cases against more than a handful of the leaders of the slaughter (similar to the approach taken at Nuremberg). Trials of high-level offenders are important, but not if they are the only judicial response to mass murder. The subordinates who carried out the bloody orders must also be held responsible; they made the massacres possible. Lacking a strong infrastructure In September 1994, there were literally tens of thousands of Hutus and their collaborators in Rwandan jails. The high commissioner’s idea was to rebuild a justice system quickly, temporarily import judges and attorneys to hear cases, and create the longer-lasting mechanisms for law enforcement, but these ideas did not materialize. While millions of dollars were raised for the international tribunal, far less was raised for creating the new infrastructure necessary for massive numbers of trials. Indeed, the judicial system lacks such basic supplies as ink and paper for printers. The causes and remedies of the Rwandan tragedy are complex. Economic development, equal opportunity and fair elections are parts of a lasting solution. But justice against wrongdoers is an essential ingredient. If 90% of those responsible for murdering 800,000 people escape real punishment, what deterrent is there for future barbarians to resist genocidal orders? In addition to a now-permanent International War Crimes Tribunal, there has to be the same commitment to funding education systems in countries that have taught hate for too long, an adequate crisis-intervention fund created for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to use, and an internationally sanctioned standby force of judges and lawyers who can help a country recovering from conflict to do more than jail the accused until they die in prison or are released in a general amnesty. It’s been said that a person who kills a single human being is hunted until brought to trial and a serial killer who murders a handful of people is subject to national television specials until caught, but people who carry out the extermination of thousands of their enemies on ethnic or racial grounds are required to confess to a truth commission before they are set free to resume their lives. When newly discovered evidence recently surfaced as to who killed the president (thus starting the war), a Rwandan presidential spokesman said: “We should be helping the people who are still alive, not worrying about something that happened in the past.” In an effective human rights campaign, both are needed. We cannot take care of the living without also making sense of, and paying tribute to, the nearly 1 million people who died. It may be that for many, releasing thousands from jail with a “confession and apology” is enough, but it is not likely to interrupt the cycle of retribution. A lasting solution must include making the institution of, and respect for, a justice system an everyday event, not something considered only when there are too many bodies to bury and too many prisoners to try. Abbe David Lowell, a partner in the Washington office of New York-based Chadbourne & Parke and a law professor, served as special counselor to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights during 1994-96; post-war Rwanda was one of his priorities.

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