Okech Kendo: Let Arusha tribunal live on to warn all dictators

On the eve of the dusk of its mandate, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has potent lessons for African leaders who would drive their countries down the genocide path.

Many former ministers, businessmen and professionals with murderous tendencies in the Rwanda of 1994, have appeared before the court. Suspects and convicts have had their day in the dock to account for their role in the massacre of about 800,000 people.

The Arusha-based United Nations facility has shown that even the most powerful is not above international law; that in this era of justice without borders, impunity does not pay. Sovereignty cannot shield crimes against humanity.

These potent messages should always be rooted in the African psyche. Securing a permanent mandate for the tribunal can institutionalise the lessons.

The United Nations Security Council established the Arusha facility to prosecute persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law in Rwanda in 1994.

By the end of the year, about 70 suspects will have been tried. The UN Security Council has set December as the do by date for first instance trials in Arusha. It expects appeals to be concluded by December 2010, when the mandate of the tribunal expires.

The indicted so far include Rwanda prime minister at the time, Jean Kambanda, who became the first former head of government to be convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Others are former foreign and defence ministers, and the former chief of general staff of the Rwandan Army. Thirteen of 19 ministers in the interim government at the time have been arrested.

Seventy-two of 90 indicted suspects have been arrested. They include politicians, military commanders, religious and militia leaders and businessmen, who preached Hutu hegemony.

The indicted, some of whom have been charged, convicted or acquitted, organised indiscriminate murders of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the apocalyptic mayhem, 14 years ago. Rwanda marked this anniversary yesterday.

Then Minister for Foreign Affairs Bicamumpaka Jerome was arrested while loitering in Cameroon in 1999. The Minister for Health, Bizimungu Casimir, was arrested while hiding in Kenya in the same year.

Then Minister for Interior and Vice-President Karemera Edouard was arrested while hiding in Togo in 1998. Then Minister for Commerce Mugenzi Justin and Mugiraneza Prosper, former Minister for Civil Service, were arrested in Cameroon in 1999.

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, then Minister of Family Affairs, was arrested in Kenya in 1997. She has been accused of rape, and other human rights abuses, along with her son. She was an accomplice in rapes because she did nothing to stop the violations.

The fugitives could run but they had nowhere to hide, when their pasts caught up with them. This is a lesson for those misbehaving in Kenya today.

Others, including businessman Felicien Kabuga alias Idris Sudi, are still on the run, with millions of dollars on their heads. Money they plundered and power they hogged cannot buy freedom against international justice.

The message from the Arusha tribunal is larger than Rwanda in a continent where warlords and demi-gods often violate the will of the people, with impunity, at least for now.

With misbehaving presidents across Africa, there are potential hotspots of failed leadership. The perpetrators of violence, defilers of democracy, and human rights abusers need this deterrent institution.

Unless Yoweri Museveni forgets his claim to absolute power unto eternity, he would have to deal with popular bubbles of dissent.

Cameroon is another hotspot, thanks to President Paul Biya’s obduracy. Omar al Bashir is a problem for Southern Sudan and Darfur, with China’s shameless complicity.

President Robert Mugabe, the fist and feisty bully of Harare, is misbehaving. He refuses to see there can be another Zimbabwe where everyone has a right to a decent living.

Someone will have to pay for the collapse of Somalia. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who rules with menaces, needs to know it is possible to be in power today and in the dock tomorrow.

Africa still needs the Arusha tribunal, which can be renamed with a new mandate to deter emerging human rights abuses and power-driven atrocities.

The writer is The Standard Managing Editor, Quality and Production

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