Global Policy Forum

Infighting Cripples Rwandan Tribunal


In five years the court has spent $209m and dealt with five cases.

Associated Press
August 16, 1999
Arusha - It was set up to chart a new course for international justice after the 1994 slaughter of 500000 people in Rwanda. But nearly five years after the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established, critics and some of the court's supporters say its mission has been thwarted by costly bureaucracy and bitter power struggles. And the clock is ticking. The tribunal's 10-year mandate is half over, and, having spent $209m, it has disposed of five cases among the 38 suspects in custody.

"It is such a tragic story," said Danish deputy prosecutor Lars Plum. Denmark sent Plum to assist the tribunal last year but pulled him out early, publicly criticising the court's management. Where the blame lies is unclear, but everyone points a finger. Judges say the prosecution has a poor strategy. Prosecutors say they are charting a new system of justice. Both contend the registrar, who controls the budget and paperwork, is inept. All say United Nations bureaucracy is debilitating in a court that works in English, French and Kinyarwanda. "This judicial mechanism does not work in a proper way," said Russian Judge Yakov Ostrovsky. Legal assistants and translators with legal backgrounds are lacking, he said. The prosecution is not adapting to developments, allowing delays in one area to delay everything. His calendar "looks like an invitation to go home because there is nothing", Ostrovsky said. A recent appeal on a technicality took eight months because of slow paperwork.

From the beginning, the mandate to dispense justice to Africans in Africa where it would be a model to others was daunting because there were no examples for the court to build on. Putting the court in Arusha, a remote town in Tanzania, made it difficult to attract qualified international staff. And there was no building for the court, no transportation, no telephone lines. Operations improved after Agwu Okali of Nigeria became registrar in 1997 following a critical internal audit of its operations. But many people say Okali is power-hungry and tries to intimidate critics, charges he denies. Non-African members of the 650-strong staff from 80 countries - mostly African - say critics are labelled racist.

Judge Navanthem Pillay, the tribunal's SA president, said she was not aware of specific cases, but was appalled that people "dare not criticise because their jobs are on the line". Okali blamed the tribunal's problems on a "nonperforming" Plum. He contended the Danish prosecutor "sowed discord" and was behind a smear campaign to taint the perception of non-African governments. The registrar denied claims of bias toward non-Africans and said he had made enemies by being a tough manager. "Given the peculiar problems and challenges the tribunal has faced in its first two years and had to overcome, what it needs is a strong, principled, managerial leadership," Okali said. Inevitably, such leadership would affect the interests of individuals, he said.

Non-African colleagues of Plum supported the Dane's contention that he was targeted for "trying to get things running more smoothly". When Swedish Judge Lennart Aspegren accused Okali of incompetence and authoritarian rule last year, the response was swift. Okali's legal adviser and spokesman, Kingsley Moghalu, charged that Aspegren took too much vacation and was not amenable to "a multicultural environment". Aspegren's colleagues remained silent but Ubutabera, a newsletter covering the tribunal, said: "The judge is far from alone in his criticism of the tribunal's bureaucracy, even if his peers now seem to want to avoid publicity."

In the five cases finished over the past year, two suspects pleaded guilty and three were convicted of complicity in the Hutu government-led killings of a half-million Tutus and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. The court also added rape to the definition of genocide. Among those sentenced to life in prison was former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who confessed to genocide and crimes against humanity. Critics say it should not be taking years to bring the cases to trial. "I cannot recognise this as a natural situation," said Ostrovsky. No matter who is to blame for the delays, the tribunal's mandate expires in 2004. "You know the expression 'justice delayed is justice denied'," said Ostrovsky. "If if we are not able to dispense our caseload during (the next) four years, it will be a failure."

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