Survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi have urged the United Nations not to renew the contract of American judge Theodor Meron when it comes up for renewal in June.
They point to his controversial decisions at the helm of a UN court mandated to try masterminds of the Genocide against the Tutsi.
The 88-year old judge is the President of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), which took over the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Previously, he headed the Appeals Chamber for both the ICTR and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia.
During his tenure both at the ICTR and MICT, Meron has made controversial decisions – some unilaterally – that have been seen an outright attack to the memory of Genocide and major impendent to recovery process for survivors.
Such decisions include acquittal – on appeal – of several high-profile Genocide suspects, including former ministers in the genocidal government; reducing sentences for some convicts; and granting early release to several other convicts on flimsy grounds.
During an event last week organised to commemorate former employees of the UN who were killed during the Genocide, Egide Nkuranga, the vice president of Ibuka, the umbrella for Genocide survivors, said the push for the non-renewal of Meron’s contract should be backed by everyone with survivors’ interests at heart.
“Among UN staff members is a man who scares us so much…An eighty-eight old man is asking for a third term as President of the MICT,” Nkuranga said. “This should not be granted.”
Among the most contested decisions by Meron include the reversal of the life sentence that had been rendered by the ICTR Trial Chamber to avowed Genocide mastermind, Col Théoneste Bagosora, to 35 years, and acquitting – again on appeal – several former cabinet ministers.
In 2016, Meron granted early release to Ferdinand Nahimana, the co-founder of hate outlet, Radio Television des Mille Collines (RTLM), on what he called “good conduct” despite the convict never having atoned for his role in a genocide that claimed the lives of more than a million people.
“We are afraid that he might also release Bagosora and the rest. And the scary thing is that he’s releasing architects of the Genocide and reducing sentences of others,” said Nkuranga.
Laurent Nkongori, an expert in public international law, told The New Times that judge Meron should be barred from any other UN job.
“I think the concern should also go through Rwanda diplomatic channels. This is a matter that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the National Human Righst Commission, civil society organisations should all take up,” he said.
His decisions must be protested strongly, he added.
“Rwanda should now go in the streets and show the world how Judge Meron has promoted impunity,” he said.
He also called on the UN Security Council to amend the law on how genocide convicts are granted early release.
The President of MICT is the head of the Mechanism and the most senior judge of the Chambers, the judicial division of the Mechanism, and is appointed by the UN Secretary-General on the consultation with the President of the Security Council and the Judges of the Mechanism.
Different international scholars who have for the past two decades closely followed the work of the UN tribunal and the UN systems in general say Meron seem to have courted controversy since his appointment to the court in 2012.
Linda Melvern, a UK-based investigative journalist who has written a book about the UN and another two about the circumstances of the Genocide against the Tutsi, also questioned the release of Nahimana, saying this remains one of the most controversial decisions by the judge.
“Meron glosses over the fact that Nahimana has yet to acknowledge his crimes and continues to deny his own responsibility in the 1994 Genocide of the Tutsi. The failure of Nahimana to cooperate with the court and help the Prosecutor find justice for the victims Meron considers a “neutral factor”, said Melvern.
She added: “Meron does not seem to have questioned the claim of Nahimana to “work for peace and reconciliation in Rwanda”, an offer forthcoming in an application for early release written by his three lawyers.”
As a way forward, the seasoned journalist says that the fate of Rwandan génocidaires is today exclusively in the hands of the President of the Mechanism, Judge Meron and this extraordinary situation, with his reappointment under discussion, should be taken into account.
Andrew Wallis, a researcher who specialises in central and east Africa whose work has covered Rwanda extensively, says that if not for his controversial decision, the UN Security Council should look at his advanced age as an impediment for contract extension.
He lists some of the failures of the UN court on Meron’s watch, including failure to arrest several suspected ringleaders of the genocide (including Félicien Kabuga, Augustin Bizimana and Protais Mpiranya).
“The tribunal has allowed UN detention facilities to become more like a rest home than a prison (and) has failed to demand that France hands back two suspects – the priest Wenceslas Munyeshyaka and former prefect Laurent Bucyabaruta – to be tried in Arusha,” says Wallis, who is the author of a book titled; Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of the Role of France in the Rwandan Genocide.
The two cases were over a decade ago referred to France by the ICTR under its completion strategy but France has done nothing to bring them to book.
“Meron will always put the perpetrator first and the victim second. With genocide architect Théoneste Bagosora, among others, nearing the two thirds point of his sentence, it is vital that the Mechanism does not keep rubber-stamping such early releases.”
It is high time a new, younger and less politically involved president is appointed to MICT, he adds.