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IB DP History Study Notes

5.1.8 Pursuit of Justice

The cataclysmic events of the Rwandan Genocide left an indelible mark on global history. In response, the world witnessed one of the most robust pursuits of justice through the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)

Founded under the United Nations' mandate in November 1994, the ICTR sought to try individuals responsible for acts of genocide and other egregious violations of international humanitarian law.

  • Objective: The tribunal's primary mission was to prosecute individuals accountable for genocide and other grave breaches of international law in Rwanda during 1994.
  • Location: The tribunal had its premises in Arusha, Tanzania, ensuring a neutral location outside the conflict zone.
  • Composition: Composed of 16 permanent judges and a maximum of nine ad litem judges, drawn from various nationalities to maintain impartiality.


  • Indictments: From a total of 93 indictments, the tribunal dealt with cases involving senior political leaders, military chiefs, and media proprietors.
  • Process: Adhering to the adversarial system, the tribunal maintained distinct roles for prosecution and defence, with a neutral panel of judges overseeing the proceedings.
  • Challenges: Among the numerous hurdles faced by the ICTR, the gathering of tangible evidence post-conflict, ensuring witness protection, and dealing with convoluted legal definitions stood out.

Key Cases and Verdicts

The tribunal was instrumental in handling landmark cases, shedding light on the profound intricacies of the genocide.

  • Jean Kambanda: The only Prime Minister in global history to plead guilty for his role in a genocide, Kambanda was sentenced to life imprisonment. His case was emblematic as it signified the reach of international law, even unto the highest echelons of power.
  • Media Trial: One cannot underestimate the power of propaganda. Ferdinand Nahimana, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, and Hassan Ngeze leveraged their media positions to disseminate hate and galvanise violence against Tutsis. Their convictions underscored the perilous role media can play in atrocities.
  • Akayesu Case: The trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor, was groundbreaking. Not only was he the first individual to be convicted of genocide by an international tribunal, but this was also the first instance where rape was legally acknowledged as a means of perpetrating genocide.
  • Military Trials: Senior military figures like Colonel Théoneste Bagosora were indicted for their roles. Bagosora, in particular, was seen as a significant orchestrator behind the genocide and was sentenced to life imprisonment (later reduced to 35 years on appeal).

Significance of Verdicts

Beyond individual accountability, the tribunal's verdicts held broader implications for international justice and Rwandan societal reconciliation.

  • Setting Precedents: The ICTR's rulings on cases like Akayesu solidified the legal frameworks around genocide, including its mechanisms like sexual violence.
  • Reconciliation: The tribunal’s aim wasn’t solely punitive. By addressing grave crimes, it hoped to provide a foundation for healing and rebuilding a fractured Rwandan society.

Impact on International Law and Justice

The tribunal's legacy in shaping international jurisprudence and justice mechanisms is formidable.

  • Definition of Genocide: Prior to the ICTR, the legal definition of genocide was somewhat nebulous. The tribunal played a critical role in firming up this definition and the attached accountability mechanisms.
  • Addressing Sexual Violence: The recognition of rape as a tool of war and genocide by the ICTR was groundbreaking. It paved the way for subsequent international courts to treat sexual violence with the gravity it deserves.
  • Influence on Subsequent Tribunals: Drawing lessons from the ICTR's challenges and successes, newer international criminal tribunals, notably the International Criminal Court (ICC), have bettered their procedures and reach.
  • Universal Jurisdiction: The ICTR fortified the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. This doctrine asserts that some crimes, like genocide, are so grievous that any state can claim legal jurisdiction over the perpetrator, regardless of where the crime occurred.

Note: While universal jurisdiction has been celebrated for widening the net of justice, it has also faced criticism, mainly on grounds of potential politicisation and misuse.

The international response to the Rwandan Genocide, encapsulated in the ICTR's establishment and actions, underscores the global community's commitment to confronting the darkest chapters of history. The tribunal’s intricate journey offers valuable insights for future endeavours in international law and justice.


The ICTR collaborated with numerous regional and international entities to ensure its effective operation. Given its mandate under the United Nations, the tribunal worked closely with various UN bodies for logistical and operational support. The ICTR also engaged with NGOs, especially for tasks related to witness support, gathering evidence, and post-trial assistance. The tribunal coordinated with individual nations for the arrest and extradition of suspects and relied on the international community's collective commitment to apprehend key figures hiding overseas. These collaborations were vital in navigating the challenges posed by operating an international court in a post-conflict setting.

Yes, the ICTR faced various criticisms during its tenure. One of the primary critiques was its expense; the tribunal was seen by some as a costly endeavour with a limited number of convictions. Others criticised the ICTR for being removed from the Rwandan populace, given its location in Arusha, Tanzania, arguing that this geographical separation limited its impact on Rwandan societal reconciliation. There were also concerns about the lengthy duration of trials and perceived inefficiencies in the proceedings. Lastly, some felt that the tribunal was a form of 'victor's justice', given that it predominantly tried Hutu individuals and did not extensively probe crimes committed by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Witness protection was paramount to the successful functioning of the ICTR, given the sensitive nature of testimonies and the potential risks to witnesses. The ICTR implemented a robust Witness and Victims Support Section (WVSS) to safeguard those testifying. This included measures such as the relocation of witnesses to safe countries, the use of pseudonyms, voice distortion, and face-blurring during testimonies. Additionally, the tribunal provided psychological support and counselling to witnesses, acknowledging the traumatic nature of their experiences and the emotional toll of testifying. The ICTR's witness protection framework set significant standards for subsequent international tribunals.

The ICTR had a notable influence on the Rwandan national justice system. While the tribunal handled high-profile cases, Rwanda's domestic courts and the community-based Gacaca system dealt with thousands of lower-level perpetrators. The ICTR provided a legal precedent for these national efforts, especially in terms of defining and prosecuting genocide-related crimes. Moreover, the tribunal offered training and capacity-building initiatives for Rwandan legal professionals, aiming to bolster the national judicial system's competence. The shared endeavour of seeking justice after the genocide created opportunities for mutual learning and cooperation between the ICTR and Rwanda's domestic legal entities.

The selection of defendants for trial at the ICTR was a process that prioritised those holding the highest responsibility for the genocide. Given the vast number of perpetrators, it was impractical to prosecute all involved. Hence, the ICTR focused on the intellectual authors, political leaders, military chiefs, and key figures in the media who played significant roles in orchestrating and inciting mass violence. This strategy aimed to address the core leadership that enabled the genocide while allowing Rwanda's national courts and community-based Gacaca court system to deal with lower-level perpetrators, facilitating a broader, multi-tiered approach to justice.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the significance of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in shaping international jurisprudence regarding genocide.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was instrumental in moulding international jurisprudence on genocide. Prior to the ICTR, the definition of genocide was not firmly established in legal terms, and the tribunal's landmark verdicts, especially the Akayesu case, cemented the understanding of acts like sexual violence as tools of genocide. Furthermore, by prosecuting high-ranking officials, the ICTR set a precedent that individuals, regardless of their position, can be held accountable for grave crimes under international law. Overall, the ICTR's actions have had a profound impact on international law, guiding future courts and tribunals in addressing crimes against humanity.

How did the verdicts of the ICTR contribute to the broader objectives of reconciliation and societal rebuilding in Rwanda?

The verdicts of the ICTR played a dual role in post-genocide Rwanda. On one hand, they sought to provide justice to the victims and their families, addressing the heinous crimes that scarred the nation. By holding influential figures accountable, the tribunal aimed to dismantle the structures that perpetuated ethnic hatred. On the other hand, the tribunal’s actions were emblematic of a broader objective of societal reconciliation. By addressing the root causes and key perpetrators of the genocide, the ICTR aimed to lay a foundation upon which Rwandans could rebuild trust, foster inter-ethnic dialogue, and move towards a cohesive future.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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