You can run but you can’t hide? Rwabukombe and universal jurisdiction

As the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) officially closed its doors on the 31st of December 2015, one thing still remained certain, the lives of the victims and affected communities of the Rwandan genocide will never be the same. The ICTR may have delivered justice to the best of its abilities but understandably could not prosecute each and every perpetrator, especially those that fled and sought refuge in other countries. However, due to the fact that international crimes like genocide, affect the entire international community, international law obliges states to prosecute perpetrators of international crimes no matter where those crimes were committed through the application of universal jurisdiction. A German court in Frankfurt recently did a service to international criminal justice by prosecuting and sentencing Onesphore Rwabukombe, a former Rwandan mayor for his participation in the Rwandan genocide. Mr Rwabukombe, a Hutu, was sentenced to life in prison for his participation in an attack on a church which had been housing Tutsi refugees during the 1994 genocide. Rwabukombe had relocated to Germany where he had been living under asylum since 2002.

The limelight in terms of international criminal law cases is usually stolen by more newsworthy cases before the International Criminal Court or the respective tribunals and often times, not enough credit is given to domestic courts for their contribution towards fighting impunity. Rwabukombe’s case is significant, not only as an addition to yet another victory for international criminal justice but also as an example of the complementary role that domestic courts play in the fight against impunity. Additionally, the case illustrates the importance of universal jurisdiction towards the enforcement of international criminal law in situations where the perpetrator tries to avoid accountability. The case reiterates that the ends of international criminal justice can be met if more states lived up to their international legal obligations by prosecuting perpetrators of international crimes instead of placing high expectations on international courts and then complaining when they deem the said courts inefficient.

Furthermore, the case brings to mind a number of pertinent questions regarding the accountability of crimes committed on the African continent. Given Germany´s colonial history in some African countries and particularly in Rwanda between the 19th and 20th century, one might be left wondering, who should have been at the forefront of prosecuting Rwabukombe? More generally, who should be at the forefront of prosecutions for crimes committed in Africa? It should be noted that Rwandan officials were the ones that initially transmitted the international arrest warrant to German officials but after his arrest, Germany declined to extradite Rwabukombe on the basis that he would not be afforded a fair trial in Rwanda. This was actually not the first time German courts have tried and sentenced individuals for crimes committed in Africa. In fact, other European based courts have also prosecuted numerous high ranking officials of African origin for the commission of international crimes in Africa. Continue reading

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