Antonio Rui Ribeiro
Researching the genocide twenty years on
In the process of researching the topic for a film to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, which then led to the making of Justice Seekers, I came across one other story, complex and hugely fascinating: A man who together with ten others lives stateless, in no man’s land.
Since his arrest in Cameroon in 1999, Justin Mugenzi has been held at a UN detention facility in Arusha Tanzania for fourteen years. This was how long it took for the UN funded International Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to try him and convict him to 30 years in prison in 2011. He was released in February 2013 following a successful appeal and now lives under UN protection in a safe house in Arusha with other former members of the 1994 establishment. Unable to be reunited with his family in Brussels following his visa’s refusal and afraid to return to his native Rwanda, he now fears he will be forgotten.
Justin Mugenzi was the founder of an opposition party, the Parti Liberal and later became Minister of Trade and Industry of the interim Hutu government, hastily put in place following the shooting down of Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994, an act that triggered the genocide.
Through Mugenzi’s character, a former school teacher who found his way into politics and rare archive footage, we offer an unseen perspective of his role on the run-up to the genocide and the dark days that followed. Although he has been acquitted and is a free man, his and the other men’s existence is considered politically toxic for many member state countries whose governments have confided to the registrar of the tribunal that they have already taken their fair share of the burden.
The ICTR is on the verge of closing its doors as it approaches its 20th anniversary in November 2014. According to ICTR spokesperson Roland Amoussouga, the tribunal has cost 1.6 billion dollars as of 31st December 2011, having processed a total of 75 cases. Currently in the process of downsizing its large structure in Arusha Tanzania and transferring its powers to the MICT (Mechanism of the International Crimes Tribunal), the tribunal finds itself amidst a legal paradox: Funded by the UN with the approval of the Security Council’s member state countries, the ICTR finds that those very same countries have now turned their backs on the tribunal’s efforts to relocate the acquitted men to the countries where their exiled families live. The right to respect for family life is guaranteed by international conventions; in particular by the European Convention on Human Rights, the revised European Social Charter, the European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
This has led the ICTR later in 2013 to renew its attempts to relocate them, but this time to Ghana, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire, where a moral stance towards the Rwandan genocide is far less problematic. All men living in the Arusha safe house refused such an ‘offer’.
A lot is at stake for the ICTR, which expects to have completed all pending judgments before the end of 2014 as part of the residual mechanism. In their latest report (15 May 2014), the president of the ICTR Judge Vagn Joensen wrote: “Without the enhanced cooperation of Member States in certain areas, it will be extremely difficult for the Tribunal to successfully complete its mandate. In addition to focusing on ongoing cases, cooperation also included requests for assistance in the relocation of acquitted and released persons still residing in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. In spite of the two Security Council resolutions in which the Council called upon Member States to assist, none have offered such assistance since the resolutions were passed. The fact that article 28 of the statute of the Tribunal does not obligate Member States to cooperate in matters of relocation has not assisted the Tribunal. (…) Since the previous report and consistent with the strategic plan, the President and the Registrar have made concerted efforts to relocate the acquitted and released persons outside the United Republic of Tanzania, but with very little success. The President met with representatives from various European countries during meetings in New York and Europe, while the Registrar visited four countries in Africa and the Chair of the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa to present the idea of relocation.”
But closing its doors also brings other challenges for the tribunal. A much disputed asset are the archives generated through the court proceedings, which currently stand at 2,621 linear metres (2.6 Kms) of records being appraised for digital transfer by 31 December 2014. For that purpose, the tribunal has appointed a US-based consulting firm, Information First, which they claim has expertise in this area. The materials currently available in the archives are in some cases deemed as highly sensitive, as they present challenging accounts as to what actually went on before, during and after the period of 100-days established as the duration of the 1994 genocide.
But other more unsettling questions still remain unanswered today; questions about the reliability of key pieces of evidence used to underpin the tribunal’s entire legal framework and the prism of events used in the trials, the suppression of a number of internal reports, which in one instance in 2003 led to the sacking of Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. This has caused a wave of dissent by a number of leading academics raising fundamental questions as to whether the tribunal was politically influenced by its most powerful backers.
No Man’s Land juxtaposes the personal driven narrative of Justin Mugenzi and his family in Belgium as they attempt to be reunited and the legal paradox currently experienced by the tribunal. We started filming Justin since September 2013, following his acquittal and have since, through a number of trips to Tanzania, met other men living in the safe house.
Thanks to the support of World View we were able to travel to Arusha and are now seeking further funds to take the film to the next level.
After a period of time establishing connections and meeting key players in our story, we have gained unprecedented access within the UN, Rwanda’s government and the ICTR. Complemented with insightful interviews by key players in the creation of such legal mechanisms, the UN, Human Rights organisations and experts, our film offers a unique perspective on the challenges faced by the international community in addressing complex humanitarian issues, whilst shining a light on the far more unsettling issue of political interference.
This is in my view an important film to make, one that highlights our role in dealing with unmeasurable tragedies through international justice but failing to create the needed mechanisms to deal with convictions and acquittals in equal measure. I believe a film that reflects on this fundamental dynamic, can contribute to a greater understanding as to how tragedies such as these are dealt with post-conflict and the role the international community plays in resolving them. If the facts of the past aren’t made clear, they risk being repeated in the future. This risk is not hypothetical, it is very real. Ultimately, the fundamental issue that sits at the heart of this film is our shared humanity with all its flaws. Our role in making decisions, in judging and shaping our history.
Justin Mugenzi’s 15 years experience of the tribunal provides an insiders view to the inner-workings of the ICTR and the interpretation of the facts surrounding what happened in 1994 Rwanda. Through Mugenzi’s viewpoint and the charges laid against him, the film provides the viewer with a chronology to the unfolding cataclysm but with the aim of re-enforcing our understanding of how the ICTR came to be and how its mandate was defined.
The 1994 genocide of Rwanda
Undoubtedly the 1994 Rwandan genocide has made its mark as one of the darkest episodes of the twentieth century when, following the shooting down of president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane over the Kigali skies, for a period of 100 days between April and July 1994, thousands of men women and children mainly Tutsis, but also moderate Hutus, were killed.
The numbers were staggering: somewhere between 500,000 to 800,000 killed, millions displaced in what became according to the UNHCR agency “the largest and fastest refugee exodus in modern times”. How could a country descend into such levels of chaos, widespread mass killings and death in such a fast and, for the West, unexpected way? Specially, when less then a year before, the Arusha peace accords had been signed by the MRND, the ruling party headed by president Habyarimana, the opposition and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who since October 1990 were waging war against the regime?
The scale of what had happened was so inexplicable, that a wave of guilt inundated public consciousness in the West, with politicians clambering to pay their respects and pledging their allegiance to Rwanda’s new government headed by President Paul Kagame. Bill Clinton went further and made a public apology for failing to recognise what had happened as genocide. At the time, UNAMIR the UN peace mission set up with the aim of overseeing the peaceful implementation of the Arusha accords, headed by Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, was according to many, another victim of the UN’s lack of resolve. Many attributed the reluctance of the UN to empower and equip the resource-depleted UNAMIR mission, a direct reflex to what had happened the year before in Somalia, where 18 American soldiers, part of the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II), were killed in Mogadishu in a botched hostage recovery mission, also known as Black Hawk Down.
In terms of Western media, there were quite a few events that diverted the attention of the general public elsewhere, although to a lesser extent in France where Mitterrand’s coalition government was the biggest military supporter of Habyarimana’s government. Those events were the suicide of Kurt Cobain, the broadcast of the first televised murder trial of OJ Simpson, the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first Black South African president and the 1994 Wold Cup.
It is important however to contextualise in a chronology the Rwandan genocide in relation to other events that were happening in and around the country on the run up to April 1994:
- A war of increasing ferocity was raging, following the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) invasion from the north of the country via Uganda from October 1990. This triggered a growing exodus of Hutu refugees towards the capital Kigali, fleeing the killings in the northern region of the country.
- From 1992, the government of Juvenal Habyarimana opened the country to a multi-party system, some say as a way to appease the French who supported the regime with military equipment and training. In the Élysée, Mitterrand’s coalition government was finding it increasingly difficult to justify their support for the dictatorial and oppressive regime of President Habyarimana. Faced with the prospect of losing the war and in need of bolstering military assistance, Habyarimana subsided.
- In August 1993, the Arusha Accords were signed with the aim of ending the three-year war and as a result, a broad-base transitional government (BBTG) was formed. Plagued by infighting between old and new political elites and between the government and the RPF, political assassinations and suspicion amongst politicians jostling for power, the Arusha accords were never implemented.
- Meanwhile, on 21 October 1993 in neighbouring Burundi, there was a coup against the Hutu-led government orchestrated by the Tutsi military elite, resulting in the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye and well over 100,000 killed in the ensuing skirmishes between Tutsis and Hutus. This saw thousands of displaced people, mainly Hutus fleeing into Rwanda with many settling in the already overflowing refugee camps around the city of Kigali. It is estimated that, prior to the start of the 1994 genocide, there were in excess of 2 million Hutu refugees living in those camps.
With the growth of extremist rhetoric used by some political factions directly targeting the Tutsi population and a section of government controlled media actively promoting extremism, sporadic killings of Tutsis became commonplace. The stage was set for an impending catastrophe of immeasurable proportions. All that was required was a flint to set in motion the apocalypse.
My stance towards the character of Justin Mugenzi is purely observational and we are not in any way attempting to diminish the proportions of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Instead, our aim is to, through his personal story, shine a light on the forces that were at play on the ground at the time and the construction of the judicial mechanisms that led to the creation of the ICTR and how it subsequently dealt with the delivery of justice.