• Helen Innes

How the Trial of Rwandan Genocide Financier Challenges the International Criminal Justice System

On 17 May 2020, after 26 years in hiding under a US$5 million (just under £4 million) global arrest warrant, Félicen Kabuga was arrested on the outskirts of Paris by French officials. A notorious Hutu financier during the Rwandan genocide, and co-founder of the Fonds de Défense Nationale (FDN), Kabuga actively imported and distributed hundreds of thousands of machetes used during the genocide, while simultaneously providing funds to the interim Rwandan government. The 1994 genocide resulted in the deaths of nearly a million Tutsi, the minority group in a Hutu majority, as well as two million Hutu refugees.


French officials arrested Kabuga with charges connected to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was established in 1994, and ceased operations in 2015. Since its conception, the tribunal has witnessed 55 cases and indicted 93 individuals, with cases now heard by the International Residual Mechanisms for Criminal Trials (IRMCT), based in The Hague and Arusha, and under the discretion of the United Nations Security Council. Currently, the IRMCT, a facet of the international criminal justice system, does not bring new indictments and specifically deals with ongoing cases and warrants.


Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority responded to the arrest on Twitter, saying, “Rwanda will continue to collaborate with the IRMCT to ensure that justice is delivered”. The Authority then went on to add that, “For international justice, Kabuga’s arrest demonstrates that we can succeed when we have the international community’s support”, consequently thanking France for the arrest and inspiring the conviction of further genocide criminals.


It is also important to note that, as a whole, the international criminal justice system does not have a police force. Instead, it relies solely on states to arrest wanted individuals with Kabuga being one of nine individuals still at large. In this case, Kabuga was pursued by a French office known to specifically investigate violators of international criminal law. The reasons for this sudden interest in a non-active 26-year-old case are muddled, with many raising suspicion that Kabuga was once protected by an older generation that allowed him to hide in several countries.


However, since Kabuga’s arrest, questions regarding international criminal law, specifically on where to conduct the trial, have puzzled both Rwanda and the UN. In the case of Rwanda, trials of previous genocide criminals under the former International Criminal Tribunal often resulted in corrupt convictions, which continue to plague the Rwandan justice system today. On the other hand, the UN’s IRMCT, with bases in France and Tanzania, has faced criticism stemming from being “slow and expensive” and replicating “colonial power relations”, to becoming “overtly political”. Not to mention, Kabuga’s age, at roughly 84 years old, poses difficulties for both Rwanda and the IRMCT, as it means that the time for a trial is dwindling.


As the questionable location of the trial plagues the international justice system, it is important to note the UN’s relationship with Rwanda. The UN has previously called for accountability in international crime through a notion of “transitional justice,” a policy in which liberal ethics are valued above authoritarian rule in all states.


Despite this, Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President, openly rejects this relatively new UN policy in the lens of the Rwandan genocide. Kagame implies that the genocide resulted in a clear-cut result: the perpetrators were only Hutus and the victims were only Tutsis, blatantly ignoring the assaults of moderate Hutu’s and the crimes committed by Tutsis. With subsequent pleas on either side of the genocide to address this middle line, Kagame has violently brought about the “silencing [of] political opponents”. As a result, the ICTR has fallen victim to Kagame, as evidenced by its refusal to cooperate with the investigation of Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which rose to power after the genocide.


The current political climate in Rwanda is therefore widely deemed unfit to hold a trial, with opposition leaders often imprisoned or assassinated by Kagame. In addition, an international institution such as the IRMCT holds indicters to a higher degree of law. Serge Brammertz, Chief Prosecutor at the UN mechanism, cited the weak “accountability process in Rwanda” and the “‘unwavering commitment of the United Nations Security Council’” in bringing about international justice. For these reasons, according to Brammertz, the IRMCT should try Kabuga.


However, some scholars weighing in on the debate have argued for Kabuga to be tried in Rwanda, the country of his crimes. One such scholar, Phil Clark, a political scientist at SOAS University of London with a specialism in conflict issues in Africa, argues that, “Prosecuting Kabuga in Kigali [Rwanda] will have a similar impact to the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem”, referring to the 1960s trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. In his words, “Such trials are most powerful when they are … [in] communities directly affected by the crimes … rather than in international courtrooms thousands of kilometers away.” As with Eichmann’s case, an international courtroom is unable to capture the terror that is unique to Rwanda’s victims. Kabuga should be tried in the courtroom of the very country he tried to tear apart.


International law, already a vague avenue, has once again become engulfed by the simple question of “who knows best?”. Either the financier’s country judges him for his involvement in their mass genocide, or the international community barges in to apply traditional legal practices to another country’s unique history. However, the most productive times in history have been brought from the inside of the fractured country, and in this case, can do so under the watchful eyes of the very people who were personally affected by Kabuga’s role in their own mass genocide.