Last week, the Appeals Chamber of the International Court Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) reduced colonel Bagosora’s sentence. His conviction was maintained for genocide and crime against humanity for his direct partaking in the various killings at (among other) Kabeza, the Kibagabaga Mosque, the Saint Josephite Centre, the Karama hill, the Kibagabaga Catholic Church, the Gikondo Parish ; his position as superior in other killings was also taken into consideration. However, his clearing of any responsibility in three other killings earned him 35 years imprisonment instead of the previous life term sentence. Two out of five judges dissented.
But the most outrageous ICTR failure to date has been Bagasora’s and his co-accused acquittals for the charge of conspiracy to commit genocide by the Chamber of first instance in 2008. Nevertheless, contrary to what genocide deniers proclaimed, the Chamber did find evidence for the planning of the 1994 genocide but rejected it on highly disputable grounds.
The Chamber dismissed a number of indicting elements citing lack of evidence including key ones like the statement made by Bagosora in 1993. Returning to Kigali after a crucial round of negotiations in Arusha, Bagosora was reported saying that he was going back “to prepare the apocalypse”. This statement caused a stir at the time and made the front page of number of Rwandan newspapers. In another case, it was alleged that Bagosora had an important meeting attended by a large number of people but the prosecution produced only one witness etc…All this shows the poor performance held by the Prosecution in this important case.
Then came the most grievous part of the ruling when the Chamber dismissed chunks of evidence because they could have two interpretations: preparing for genocide or for a ‘genuine’ political and military struggle. The Chamber particularly referred to two key evidentiary materials: one related to the arming and training of civilian militiamen and the other related to the system of “civil defense” where the administration mobilized the population to carry out the killings. These were the two main tools of the genocide that gave it spectacular scale and speed. In its ruling, the Chamber says that it “found that Bagosora, Nsengiyumva and Kabiligi were involved in some of these efforts in varying degrees. In particular, the outlines of the core of the proposed civil defense system were recorded as notes in Bagosora’s agenda, during meetings at the Ministry of Defense in early 1993, after the RPF resumed hostilities and advanced towards Kigali. (…) However, in the context of the ongoing war with the RPF, this evid
ence does not invariably show that the purpose of arming and training these civilians or the preparation of lists was to kill Tutsi civilians. After the death of President Habyarimana, these tools were clearly put to use to facilitate killings. When viewed against the backdrop of the targeted killings and massive slaughter perpetrated by civilian and military assailants between April and July 1994 as well as earlier cycles of violence, it is understandable why for many this evidence takes on new meaning and shows a prior conspiracy to commit genocide. Indeed, these preparations are completely consistent with a plan to commit genocide. However, they are also consistent with preparations for a political or military power struggle. The Chamber recalls that, when confronted with circumstantial evidence, it may only convict where it is the only reasonable inference. It cannot be excluded that the extended campaign of violence directed against Tutsis, as such, became an added or an altered component of these preparations”.
Thus, the Chamber dismissed damning evidence of conspiracy to commit genocide against the most prominent Rwandan ‘genocidaire’ because the events it referred to could also have been part of ‘genuine political and military struggle’. Applying this reasoning to Bagosora is ridiculous and the Chamber had ample evidence to rule differently.
In modern-time-genocides, you cannot dissociate a political intent from a genocidal one when it relates to the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such. For the past thirty years, specialists have been building a strong case to show that these groups were very often targeted for political reasons. Leo Kuper, a leading genocide scholar, summarizes this debate well when he says that “the strengths of political factors and the intractable interweaving of political considerations in so many genocides against racial, ethnic and religious groups, demonstrate the impossibility of separating the racial, ethnic and religious from the political (…)”. Indeed, more than mere political struggles, the twentieth century’s most radical and emblematic genocides, like the one in Rwanda, happened in the midst of a bitter war. The genocide of the Armenians in 1915 occurred within the political context of the First World War and the confrontation between the Ottoman Empire
and Russia; while the Holocaust took place in parallel to the Second World War.
The best way of explaining how political dimensions of genocide work is to look at them through the eyes of genocide perpetrators. A military or a political battle becomes genocidal when the ruling party controlling the state identifies an entire identity group as its enemy rather than dealing with those actually involved in opposing it. The political and the genocidal agendum thus become intertwined and it is important to realize that this does not make the issuing genocide a byproduct of the political/military struggle. As early as end of 1992, the Hutu extremist propaganda never differentiated the Tutsi population from the RPF, on the contrary it insisted on their equivalence. The ideological framework of the war was spelled out by a lead MRND ideologue in November 1992, Leon Mugesera. In a famous public speech, he established this equivalence by saying that even Tutsi infants should not be spared and explaining that now they were back because of that crucial mistake made in the 1959 revolution’. This line of argument equating all the Tutsi to the RPF became more and more prominent as time went by. It was a defining political argument for the Hutu Power coalition in which Colonel Bagosora was a central figure. Regarding the Interahamwe militias whose equipment did not include firearms but mostly machetes, they never got involved in military combats from 1991 to almost the end the genocide but prior to April 1994, they did kill hundreds Tutsi peasants that were not involved in politics. Furthermore, the RPF had few Tutsi active political supporters who could have been targeted for their political activities in the part of the country controlled by the government. When the Chamber says that these militias which used to chant ‘we will kill you all’ may not have been created to kill Tutsi civilians it is just a loathsome fallacy.
The clearing of Bagosora’s guilt on the account of conspiring to commit genocide has less to do with what happened before and during the genocide than with what was happening in 2008. This judgment was pronounced in the midst of a revisionist campaign launched two years earlier by the French judge Brugière asserting that it was the RPF that shot Habyarimana’s plane and provoked the genocide. A thesis defended by Bagosora and his co-accused presenting the genocide as a collateral damage of a legitimate, genuine, political and military course of action against ‘state enemies’. A thesis the Chamber has shamefully endorsed.
The Author is an advisor in the Office of the President of Rwanda.