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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 10: "Your Justice is Too Slow": Will the ICTR Fail Rwanda's Rape Victims?

15 Feb 2006

  • Author(s): Binaifer Nowrojee


Throughout the Rwandan genocide, widespread sexual violence, directed predominantly against Tutsi women, occurred in every prefecture. Yet on the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in 2004, the ICTR had handed down only 21 sentences - 18 convictions and three acquittals - and an overwhelming 90 per cent of those judgements contained no rape convictions. No rape charges were even brought by the Prosecutor’s Office in 70 per cent of adjudicated cases. If the trend continues, states Binaifer Nowrojee, full and fair justice for women victims of the Rwandan genocide appears increasingly unlikely before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The record of the ICTR Prosecutor’s Office in investigating and prosecuting sexual violence crimes, she says, is “dismal”. She found indications of a lack of political will at the senior management level to integrate sexual violence crimes into a consistently followed prosecution strategy. Prosecutions have been hampered by inadequate investigations, the use of inappropriate investigative methodologies, and a lack of staff training. Some cases have moved forward without rape charges, sometimes even when the prosecutor is in possession of strong evidence. Trial team leaders continue to have differing, and even contradictory, interpretations of legal responsibility for the violence against women and opinions on what legal approaches to adopt in the courtroom.

Nowrojee interviewed Rwandan rape survivors, including some who testified as witnesses before the ICTR. They are deeply disappointed and frustrated with the international justice process. Rwandan women articulate what they see as the failure of the ICTR, which not only denies them justice, but exacerbates the suffering they continue to experience. In the courtroom, often as a result of joint trials with multiple defendants, rape victims find the environment hostile as they are subjected to repeated and lengthy cross-examinations, coupled with a reluctance on the part of some judges to limit excessive cross-examination. Because of a lack of adequate preparation, some rape victims have felt humiliated and embarrassed on the stand. Following trial, rape victims often find that despite promises of anonymity, they return home to find their identity revealed as rape victims, and are subject to threats and reprisals.

Nowrojee concludes that the ICTR has delivered little justice to the victims of sexual violence. She calls for a concerted effort to learn from the experiences of the Rwandan rape victims to ensure that the United Nations does not continue to short-change victims of sexual violence in war. Looking at international justice through the eyes of rape victims, she says, points to an urgent need to better ensure that international criminal courts neither overlook sexual violence crimes nor allow a judicial process that marginalizes, dehumanizes or demeans rape victims.

Binaifer Nowrojee is a member of the Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations and a lecturer at Harvard Law School, United States.

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