After five years, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced Rwandan army commander and cabinet minister Theoneste Bagosora to life in prison for his role in the Rwandan genocide.
The case was declared a legal victory for people hoping to prevent atrocities with legal prosecution. However, University of Calgary professor Dr. Maureen Hibert warned there is a still long way to go before legal prosecution can successfully prevent genocides and military means and economic sanctions may be required to do so.
The ICTR found Bagosora and two other senior Rwandan army officers guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Rwandan genocide where over 800,000 Tutsi were killed by Hutu militia. Bagosora was also found guilty in the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers at Camp Kigali. The court rejected his defence's argument that there was no genocide at the time and the atrocities were an unfortunate byproduct of the war.
Hibert, who studies the impact of the tribunals on genocide prevention, said the judgment is significant because Bagosora is the most senior government and military official to be successfully convicted.
"It refutes Bagosora's denials that genocide did not occur," said Hibert. "It shows that international criminal tribunals and the UN Genocide Convention can function effectively to end impunity in specific cases in which international human rights violations have already occurred."
Hibert is still skeptical this case will prevent further genocides. She said there is a need for investigation instead of assuming that decision makers are deterred by the law.
"We can't know for certain that prosecutions deter future acts of genocide, but on the other hand, we have genocides still occur during and after successful prosecutions," she said. "The Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials after the Holocaust did not stop Idi Amin in Uganda, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Milosevic and Karadzic in Bosnia, or even Bagosora in Rwanda."
The problem with prosecuting a war criminal, she explained, is there is no international police enforcement mechanism to apprehend people. This was seen in Darfur when the International Criminal Court served a warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
"The successful execution of such a warrant is unlikely in states where the leader of a state is the subject of the indictment and the police and security forces are themselves perpetrators of atrocities," said Hibert.
Hibert suggested diplomacy, development assistance, economic sanctions and moral approbation are all crucial to genocide prevention, but are only useful as long term early prevention strategies.
Pressure needs to be increased on a society vulnerable to genocidal violence to change a government's policies away from exclusion and repression toward more constructive policies of conciliation, she said.