U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the convictions and sentencing of Jean-Paul Akayesu and Jean Kambanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda made history as the first international criminal court to convict and sentence individuals charged with crimes of genocide.

Summary of Event

The roots of the 1994 Rwandan genocide can be traced back to a centuries-old relationship between the minority Tutsi, who were cattle herdsmen, and the majority Hutu farmers of East Africa’s Great Lakes region. During the colonial era, Belgium chose to treat the Tutsi as the ruling class, but in Rwanda, unlike in neighboring Burundi, the more numerous Hutu managed to gain control of the government at independence. Civil war produced tens of thousands of Tutsi refugees who fled into neighboring countries, and anti-Tutsi policies were adopted by successive Rwandan governments. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda Rwandan genocide Genocide;Rwanda Hutus Tutsis United Nations;international courts Racial and ethnic conflict;Rwanda [kw]U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide (Sept., 1998) [kw]Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide, U.N. (Sept., 1998) [kw]Rwandans of Genocide, U.N. Tribunal Convicts (Sept., 1998) [kw]Genocide, U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of (Sept., 1998) International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda Rwandan genocide Genocide;Rwanda Hutus Tutsis United Nations;international courts Racial and ethnic conflict;Rwanda [g]Africa;Sept., 1998: U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide[10130] [g]Tanzania;Sept., 1998: U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide[10130] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Sept., 1998: U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide[10130] [c]United Nations;Sept., 1998: U.N. Tribunal Convicts Rwandans of Genocide[10130] Kama, Laïty Akayesu, Jean-Paul Kambanda, Jean Habyarimana, Juvénal Kagame, Paul

The exiled Tutsi community in Uganda became active in that country’s civil war and served in the guerrilla army that eventually took power there. Paul Kagame and other Tutsi refugees then decided to invade their homeland and reclaim power from Juvénal Habyarimana, who eventually consented to a negotiated settlement. However, Hutu extremists opposed Habyarimana’s reforms and his negotiations with the hated Tutsi. When Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash, these extremist elements seized control of the government and began to implement the genocide, which eventually took the lives of between 500,000 and 800,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, but also Hutu sympathizers.

Especially active in the implementation of the genocide was the Interahamwe militia, Interahamwe militia which consisted of young Hutu extremists bent on extermination of the Tutsi. Rwandan hate radio fanned both Hutu fears and hatred of the Tutsi, especially Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which was assisted by Radio Rwanda, Radio Rwanda the government-controlled radio system. The world stood by passively as the carnage increased, and so the Tutsi armies began a determined offensive that by the summer of 1994 toppled the Hutu, sending most of them into the neighboring countries of Tanzania and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo).

As the scale of the genocide gradually became known, the United Nations Security Council decided in November, 1994, to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) along the lines previously established for the tribunal that examined war crimes in Yugoslavia. These two bodies were the first international war crimes tribunals established since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II. Rwanda, not content to rely on such an international body, vowed to seek justice for the perpetrators of genocide in its national courts, which could, unlike the ICTR, seek the death penalty for those most responsible for criminal acts of genocide.

U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan examines the remains of Rwanda massacre victims during his May, 1998, tour of Africa. Annan was head of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Rwanda during the massacres four years earlier.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Both the Rwandan government and the ICTR began arresting suspects in the mid-1990’s, but the Rwandan government was far more aggressive, arresting tens of thousands of suspects and proceeding rapidly toward trials. In January, 1997, the Rwandan courts handed down death sentences to two Hutus accused of killings, and by the end of 1997 more than 200 of the 120,000 Hutus charged with responsibility for the slaughter had been sentenced to death or imprisonment. Acquittals were rare. On April 24, 1998, 33 persons convicted of genocide were executed by firing squad.

Action in the ICTR, which was headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania, was slower in part because of the logistical and practical aspects of indicting and extraditing those accused of genocide and the time-consuming process of gathering evidence and hearing from Rwandan witnesses in a court sitting outside of Rwanda. The ICTR was also hampered by mismanagement and charges of corruption in the early phases of its work.

In October, 1995, Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor in charge of Taba commune during the period of genocide in 1994, was arrested and detained in Zambia. In February, 1996, he was indicted for genocide and for crimes against humanity (extermination) because in his capacity as the chief of police and justice in Taba, he had ordered and directly participated in beatings and killings of Tutsis, had incited others to murder, and had failed to prevent or punish murders. He was also charged with murder, torture, cruel treatment, rape, and other inhumane acts upon personal dignity. He pleaded innocent to all charges, claiming that the Interahamwe militia had taken over in Taba, outnumbering his police force ten to one, thus denuding him of effective authority.

The court acknowledged that Akayesu had attempted to help Tutsis up to mid-April, 1994, but noted that after that time the evidence gathered and testimony heard by the court demonstrated that he was deeply implicated in the killing of Tutsis. On September 2, 1998, the ICTR, Judge Laïty Kama presiding, handed down its first guilty verdict, finding Akayesu guilty of genocide. The verdict marked the first time that rape was defined as a genocidal act. A month later, Akayesu was sentenced to life in prison, and his subsequent appeals were denied.

The case of Jean Kambanda marked yet another milestone for the ICTR and for international criminal court decisions. Kambanda served as the interim prime minister of the government of Rwanda from April 8, 1994, to July 17, 1994. As the head of the Council of Ministers, he bore legal authority and responsibility for the formation of national policy and administration of government and of the armed forces. Thus, unlike Akeyesu, whose authority was limited to mayoral duties, Kambanda exercised widespread powers. As prime minister he knew about, failed to oppose, and in fact incited and encouraged the massacre of Tutsis. He gave orders to have the genocide carried out, and he cooperated and collaborated with the Interahamwe to that end. His government armed the militia and attempted to prevent Tutsis from fleeing the massacres. He also actively promoted the RTLM broadcasts that incited the genocide. He was an eyewitness to massacres and did nothing to stop them.

Kambanda pleaded guilty, freely admitting his responsibility for the planning, promotion, and execution of the genocide. He was the first major Hutu figure to admit guilt. Arrested in July, 1997, he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for commission of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, complicity in genocide, and crimes against humanity. He became the first person to be sentenced for the crime of genocide, in his case as the head of a government. His sentencing by the ICTR, Judge Kama presiding, occurred a month before that of Akayesu.

Afterward, the ICTR docket remained busy as several other individuals indicted for various war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide awaited trial. New arrests and indictments also continued to be made for many years.


The actions taken by the ICTR represented the first occasions on which any international tribunal had sentenced individuals for the commission of acts of genocide. They demonstrated a willingness on the part of the international community to bring to justice those individuals responsible for the commission of horrendous and inhumane acts of brutality. They served as a harbinger of international intentions to punish such acts in the future. Afterward, the ICTR continued to pursue several trials against more than sixty suspects and convicted and sentenced several additional individuals. In 1999, a Rwandan military officer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for his role in a 1994 massacre. In the same year, a former governor and a businessman were found guilty of genocide for promising Tutsis safe haven and then leading a brutal massacre in which the victims were shot and hacked to death.

In Rwanda itself, justice was swifter and more deadly. In 1998 alone, Rwandan courts tried 864 people for involvement in the genocide. More than 100,000 individuals were detained inside Rwanda, hundreds were tried and sentenced, and dozens were executed. In the end, however, only a small percentage of the thousands suspected of being guilty of promoting or participating in the genocide were expected to be punished.

Various governments throughout the world indicated that they would not stand by passively and allow perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide to escape justice. The United States, against long-standing practice, extradited Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, Ntakirutimana, Elizaphan who had fled to Texas, for trial by the ICTR. The trial began in September, 2001, and ended with Ntakirutimana’s conviction in February, 2003. He was sentenced to ten years in prison but was released in December, 2006, shortly before his death at age eighty-two in January, 2007.

Even more unprecedented was a trial of four Hutu defendants instituted in Belgium. Charged with complicity to commit genocide, the four defendants pleaded not guilty, but the government of Belgium brought charges under human rights treaties and domestic law on the principle that bringing perpetrators of genocide to justice must be done regardless of borders. After an eight-week trial, the four were found guilty of participating in the Rwandan genocide.

The Belgian prosecutors acted under a 1993 statute that permitted prosecution of any resident of Belgium, regardless of nationality, for crimes against humanity, wherever committed. This legal action was unprecedented in that citizens of one country were for the first time asked to sit in judgment of citizens from another country for crimes alleged to have happened in another country. Normally, governments extradite accused foreign nationals accused of crimes to the country seeking extradition rather than try them for crimes committed abroad. In a related incident, Fulgence Niyonteze, Niyonteze, Fulgence who sought asylum in Switzerland, was tried there for war crimes, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Thus, whether by trial abroad, trial at home in Rwanda, or by extradition to and trial by the ICTR, slowly, a number of individuals culpable of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity were brought to justice.

After the experience of the genocides perpetrated in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the international community moved to establish the International Criminal Court International Criminal Court (ICC) to deal with such cases from around the globe and to obviate the need for the establishment of ad hoc tribunals for particular situations. The Rome Treaty establishing the ICC was opened for ratification in 1998 and was entered into force on April 11, 2002, with the sixtieth ratification. Since that time, many additional countries have ratified the treaty. The ICC mandate remains controversial for some nations, however, and the U.S. government has refused to ratify it, preferring instead to deal with potential war criminals under its own domestic statutes or through ad hoc tribunals established under the authority of the U.N. Security Council. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda Rwandan genocide Genocide;Rwanda Hutus Tutsis United Nations;international courts Racial and ethnic conflict;Rwanda

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adelman, Howard, and Astri Suhrke, eds. The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1999. Collection of essays examines the roots of the genocide in history, regional conflicts, and the wider international environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnett, Michael. Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. Like many other analyses of the Rwandan case, examines the troublesome passivity of the international community in the face of the 1994 genocide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. The United Nations in Rwanda, 1993-1996. New York: U.N. Publications, 1996. Documentary account relates the involvement of the United Nations in the Rwanda civil conflict. Includes summary, time line, and texts of important documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klinghoffer, Arthur Jay. The International Dimension of Genocide in Rwanda. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Examines the failure of the international community, the United Nations, the Organization of African States, and other major powers to intervene promptly and appropriately to arrest the descent of Rwanda into genocide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuperman, Alan J. The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001. Running against conventional wisdom, this analysis suggests that external intervention might not have stopped the genocide very easily.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Balanced and scholarly history of Rwanda places special emphasis on the factors that gave rise to genocide in the 1990’s.

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