Friday’s historic decision in the case of Desire Munyaneza – the first person now convicted under Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act – is more than a landmark judgment in both fact and law. It is a moral compass for Canada’s on-going fight against impunity.
In well over 200 pages, and through the examination of witness testimony from 66 individuals, of almost 200 exhibits, and of tens of thousands of pages of jurisprudence, the decision by Quebec Superior Court Justice Andre Denis reveals the unspeakable horror of genocide.
Among the court’s findings: consistently armed and often dressed in military apparel, Munyaneza killed refugees by his own hand; he took refugees from the prefecture to their deaths; he repeatedly raped female refugees; he killed men with a machete; he killed children tied up in sacks.
Justice Denis heard one witness testify about how Munyaneza raped her five times, and he heard how, participating in a murder of four Tutsi, Munyaneza declared “All Tutsi must die.”
This is the nature of the crime we should even shudder to mention. This is what the struggle for justice and accountability must contend with.
The Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act was enacted in Canada in connection with our commitment to international criminal law and the creation of the International Criminal Court.
The basic principle behind the Act – and the ICC – is simple: There can be no safe haven or sanctuary for genocidaires. Those who perpetuate the worst crimes known to humanity cannot be allowed to escape the law.
But while the principle is simple, the practice is complex. The Munyaneza case included testimony heard over three continents.
Expert witnesses were needed to explain to the court, at length, how the accused’s actions fit within the larger genocide enveloping Rwanda.
For their own safety, witnesses were allowed to testify confidentially. For the integrity of the process, the accused’s rights had to be guarded vigorously.
Even after last week’s decision, the ultimate outcome of the Munyaneza case remains to be determined, as an appeal is highly anticipated.
More time will need to pass – more factums will need to be submitted, more hearings will need to be held – before a final decision is rendered.
This is what the struggle for justice and accountability in a society governed by the rule of law looks like. Protecting the integrity of international justice is a commitment that Canada must continue to take seriously.
Munyaneza makes it clear that we have the constitutional and legislative framework to realize our commitment, but the political will to make the struggle against impunity a priority – and to support and finance these prosecutions – is still necessary to give meaning to our laws.
Sorely underfunded, the war crimes division of the Department of Justice needs to be given the resources to properly fulfill its promise.
Canada – which was integral in the founding of the ICC – has the potential to be a world leader in international human rights and the pursuit of justice.
Indeed, the Munyaneza decision will resonate not only throughout Canada, but throughout the international community – and among the Rwandan people – as a sign that justice and accountability will not be denied. In this way, we not only fight impunity within our own borders, but inspire other nations to do the same.
The international community’s foremost responsibility with respect to genocide is to prevent it. But with respect to those already past, the international community still has a role to play in preserving the memory of the genocide, in combating indifference and learning from the lessons of the genocide, and in zealously pursuing accountability for those responsible for the genocide.
In his decision, Justice Denis writes pithily: “The educated son of an important bourgeois family in Butare, Desire Munyaneza was at the forefront of the genocidal movement.”
What makes the horror of the Rwandan genocide so unspeakable is that it was preventable. No one can say that we did not know; we knew, but we did not act so as to stop the genocidal movement while we could. It is now our responsibility – at very least – to fight the impunity that lives on. National Post
Irwin Cotler is special counsel on human rights and international justice to the Liberal party and is the MP for Mount Royal. He is a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada and is a professor of law at McGill University.
David Grossman is special assistant to Mr. Cotler.