September 1, 2009, Arusha, Tanzania
I spent a day observing the proceedings for two different cases currently before the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It was fascinating and utterly disturbing to hear the testimonies of the witnesses. However, even just a few hours of observation highlighted the difficulty of implementing justice in such situations.
“What did you do on the 16th of April, 1994?”
Only the most meticulous of diarists could answer such a question thoroughly and accurately. But witnesses’ answers to such questions are largely the basis for these trials. I heard a witness asked this question during his testimony on behalf of a defendant indicted in 2004. Even if the depositions of the witnesses occurred immediately after indictment, witnesses were still required to remember ten years back in time. Additionally, both the prosecution and defense referenced the evidentiary problems surrounding missing documents.
It is impossible to deny the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, and difficult to disagree with the contention that the perpetrators should be held responsible. Knowledge of the perpetrators and the victims is widespread, especially at the local level. But in a court of law “everyone knows it” is not good enough. Given the scope of the atrocities in Rwanda, the temptation to convict on mere shreds of evidence is strong.
But this is a peculiar situation in that in many cases bringing the perpetrator to justice requires ignoring (or thoroughly bending) the rule of law. One is forced to decide the lesser of two evils: acquitting known murderers or degrading the integrity of the legal system.
My take: In order for the proceedings to maintain their integrity or to serve as a model for other communities in need of transitional justice, the tribunal must uphold evidentiary standards and the rules of procedure. This may mean the acquittal of known perpetrators. Though it pains me to believe that some known perpetrators of genocide should be let go, I also optimistically believe that in the long run, adherence to the rule of law and the upholding the integrity of the legal system will speak louder than retribution.