Why Rwanda Matters: The Trial of Fabien Neretse

As Trump’s retreat from Syria was fueling the mankind’s next potential act of ethnic cleansing and Germany bringing closure to a near century-long hunt for justice with, what could be, the final Holocaust trial, the pursuit of justice for another, almost forgotten atrocity, begins in Brussels. On Monday, November 5, judicial proceedings began for a high-ranking former Rwandan official, Fabien Neretse, who after decades, is standing in judgment for the crime of genocide stemming from the 1994 barbarism in the African nation of Rwanda which resulted in the manslaughter of nearly one-million lives.

Though this is Belgium’s fifth case to prosecute those responsible for the Rwanda genocide, it’s a judicial watershed regarding the 1994 atrocity as it is the first to include genocide as an actual criminal offence. Pursuant to a 1993 law, universal jurisdiction for the prosecution of genocide, regardless of where it occurred, lies with Belgium. The crime of genocide specifically alleges the attempt to exterminate an entire population of human lives, and the case against Neretse, now 71, centres around 13 murders committed between April and July in 1994 in his pursuit to accomplish that macabre goal.

Claire Beckers is one of several Belgiums killed during the four-month-long massacre which claimed hundreds-of-thousands of lives. Beckers, along with her Rwandan husband, and their 18-year old daughter, were killed in the initial wave of murders following the April 6, 1994 assassination of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana.

Claire’s family was part of a group of friends who were killed as they fled for safety to a UN compound after the carnage began. The only survivors of the group’s mass murder were two children, then aged 11 and 15. After the hate-saturated brutality which necessitated them to leave their homes and flee for their lives; as adults, they will face the man responsible for terminating their escape for sanctuary on that April night a quarter of a century ago. They are both scheduled as witnesses in the trial.

The case against Neretse, who maintains his innocence and was Claire’s neighbour, intends to establish the fact that he was the individual who informed the nearby Hutu murder squads of the group’s whereabouts, thus he is responsible for their murders. Neretse himself, the case alleges, ran his Hutu death squad whose murders included a prominent but moderate Hutu politician, Joseph Mpendwanzi. His son, Jacques Rwegenza, now a resident of Belgium will also testify at the trial.

Though Neretse did not appear in the courtroom during the first few days of the proceedings, Claire’s relatives, along with those for many others who have been lost to history, were. Martine Beckers, Claire’s sister, was in attendance to witness the proceedings which she was instrumental in putting into motion. It was Martine who lodged an official complaint against Neretse for the murders of her sister, brother-in-law, and niece which resulted in prosecutors identifying him as the individual who, essentially, sent the death squad to engage and murder the group.

The events which led up to the April 9, 1994 murders of Claire’s family and their friends are streaked with far more guilt than that which lies on the hands of Neretse however. Prior to Claire exposing her family and friends to potential death by going out into the night without any means of protection, she first made all the proper attempts at saving them. Claire called both the Belgium Embassy and the United Nations requesting evacuation. They were all denied assistance and left to fend for themselves.

Thus, Claire, her family, and friends decided to navigate the 500 meters to the safety of the UN compound on their own. They never made it farther than their vehicle. As the group of 13 was loading into the only vehicle they had that spring evening, the Hutu death squad appeared. The death squad led the group into a garden at the rear of the house and gunned them down. The two children survived by acting as if they were dead.

Neretse’s attorney, Jean-Pierre Jacques, believes that the case against Neretse, and specifically the genocide charge, is a difficult case to prove. There is some validity to that assertion. The fact that the crime is decades-old renders material and physical evidence nearly non-existent. Thus, the case hinges upon witness testimony, though many of the pertinent witnesses are dead. However, the witness list includes well over a hundred individuals, spanning from Belgium to a Rwandan prison.

Proving the case against Neretse regarding the group’s murder is one thing, proving that he attempted to exterminate the entire Tutsi population, which the genocide charge requires, is a completely different legal challenge.

The Convention criminalizing genocide establishes both a psychological and tangible element to the crime. The prosecution must establish that Neretse possessed the deliberate “intent to destroy” specifically, the Tutsi population in Rwanda, along with evidence that his intention manifested in actual means and methods through which to accomplish that goal. The law extends to those who fostered and nurtured the conditions for the genocide to occur.

The crime of genocide originates from the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a result of the Nazi Holocaust and was signed in Paris. Ironically, Neretse was found and arrested in France in 2011. Though the purpose of the 1948 Convention was that genocide would ‘never happen again’, according to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy there have been 18 acts of genocide between the signing of the Convention and 1994.

The 1994 genocide was the second act of genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda. The first occurred in 1962-63 following the end of Belgium’s colonial rule over the country. Though that incident is officially called the Rwandan Revolution, it was little more than likes of the 1994 genocide; a Hutu purge of the Tutsi people.

Significance of the Rwanda genocide

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is a landmark in both humanity and international governance for various reasons. It represents the most heinous and quickest act of genocide in our history. In only four months, from April to July 1994, nearly one million people were viciously murdered with nothing more than machetes or simplistic methods of mass murder, such as forcing Tutsi people into a house which the Hutu then burned to the ground.

While the Convention which criminalized genocide was signed in 1948, the first conviction for genocide was not until 50 years later regarding Rwanda. On 2 September 1998, Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor in Rwanda, following a trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) became the first person in history to be convicted of genocide.

Rwanda also marks the failure of the Free World to identify and acknowledge that the rights of the people outweigh the authority of any government and or the sovereignty of any nation. The 1994 genocide was not a spontaneous act but was a planned and coordinated engagement that had historical foundations in the 1962-63 revolution.

The commander of the UN force in Rwanda (UNAMIR), Romeo Dallaire, uncovered the impending atrocity in January 1994 and reported it to the United Nations. In Dallaire’s own words: “Nobody was interested.” During the course of the genocide, the CIA not only sat back and watched the entire atrocity unfold from the US Embassy in Uganda, but on April 15, as the genocide was underway, the US argued for a full UN removal from Rwanda “as soon as possible” stating “there is insufficient justification to retain a UN Peacekeeping presence in Rwanda”.

The US along with the international community made the conscious decision to characterize the events in Rwanda as a civil war and not as genocide, thus it was an internal domestic issue. The US stated in April 1994: “The Rwandan armed parties must bear full responsibility for the tragic situation, and continued violence and instability, in their country.”

The international community’s systemic failure to prevent and or stop the Rwandan genocide, as well as the ethnic cleansing carried out in the Balkans by Serbia at the same time, were clear convictions that established that world governments believed “humanitarian intervention [wa]s, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty,”.

As a direct result of Rwanda and the Serbian atrocities, in 2005 the United Nations adopted the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, R2P. The R2P doctrine, it is hoped, will support and strengthen the principles of the 1948 Convention by, in theory, and a limited set of circumstances, eliminate the barrier of sovereignty which had been invoked as an excuse to allow the genocide in Rwanda and the Serbian engagement of ethnic cleansing to occur.

Whether international governance will ever have the genuine determination to eliminate genocide has yet to be realized. Likewise, whether the global population will ever take the necessary actions to manifest the same is also unknown. To date, only a fraction of the more than 100,000 individuals believed to be responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide have been brought to justice. The international parties, which bear equal responsibility, will never be. The ICTR terminated in December 2015. Many believe that Fabien Neretse not only symbolizes the slow process of justice for those in Rwanda but also the endemic problem of those like him, living freely as fugitives from justice on European soil.