Africa Rights Watch

What Have We Learned From the Rwandan Genocide?

The legacy of Rwanda’s genocide has some compelling messages about the impact of hate speech and why words matter.

By: Cora True-Frost

A memorial to the thousands who were killed in and around the Catholic church during the 1994 genocide is seen outside a church in Ntarama, Rwanda on Friday. Photo Courtesy of The Associated Press.

THIS FIRST WEEK OF April marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a three-month long massacre during which Hutu militants killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus after the Hutu president was killed. The international community responded to the atrocities late, and then sought accountability after the genocide by establishing the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) to try those most responsible.

It is important that we remember the horror of the genocide and reflect on the mistakes made, in order to work toward a more peaceful future. One of the main takeaways from the ICTR’s atrocity trials is that words matter.

The world of the Rwandan genocide may to most people seem far removed from the United States. It does not to me. I am a law professor who grew up an Army brat, often abroad. I graduated high school in Nuremberg in the former West Germany – the site of the famous Nuremberg Tribunal held in the wake of the Holocaust. I know that words matter. Always mindful of the horrors of the Holocaust and the ways that democratic majorities can scapegoat and dehumanize minorities, my professional focus has been in constitutional and international law.

The law, and particularly international criminal trials, should teach us about past mistakes. The legacy of Rwanda’s genocide has some compelling messages for American people about the power of our words, and the danger of hate speech. Few of us are immune to the polarizing media coverage. Our leaders and media pundits use generalizations about cultures and fear-mongering to drive home support for policy in a very profound and impactful way. Creating hate as opposed to understanding will lead to repeat mistakes. This week in particular, we should heed the legacy of Rwanda’s genocide, reminding our nation of what can happen when we don’t identify and speak about the impact that fear has on our united psyche.

We Americans know words matter. We famously have strong free-speech protections. We are outliers in the international community for refusing to penalize hate speech. However, even those of us with the strongest commitments to free speech understand that speech can be dangerous and even constitute incitement.

Indeed, many terrorist prosecutions turn on speech acts. The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda recognized the power of speech to lead to violence when it upheld the convictions of key figures in the genocide: Hassan Ngeze, former editor of the Kangura newspaper; Ferdinand Nahimana, an historian and founder of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM); and Jean-Bosco Baryagwiza, a Rwandan diplomat and executive committee chairman of RTLM. The print and broadcast media fomented and disseminated statements of broad hatred of the Tutsi ethnic group through aggressive and demeaning rhetoric, even labeling the opposition as “inyenzi” (cockroaches) and calling for their extermination.

Today, our leaders’ rhetoric is running too close to past mistakes. Words matter. America’s highest leaders’ refer to undocumented migrants alternately as “rapists,” “bad guys” or “criminals” who “infest” our country. We Americans must demand change in that practice, and heed the lesson of the Rwandan tribunal: that there is often a thin line between hate speech and hate crime.

Professor Susan Benesch’s work on dangerous speech can be helpful in discerning that line. We can regard with extra vigilance: speech by powerful speakers who have a high degree of influence over their audience; situations in which an audience has grievances and fears; speech that either explicitly or implicitly calls for violence; contexts that include past acts of violence, including a lack of efforts to confront or solve these acts of violence; and means of dissemination that may be the primary or sole news source for the relevant audience.

In our country, reported hate crimes have risen three years consecutively, including a 17 percent rise from 2017 to 2018, according to the FBI. Indeed, the FBI director cites white nationalism and violent extremism as threats to the U.S., even as our president says he “does not really see white nationalism as a threat.” Our increasingly polarized media leaves a chasm of understanding between us Americans.

To honor the lives unnecessarily lost in the Rwandan genocide, we Americans can, while embracing our culture of free speech and free media, ensure that we treat all people, whatever their nationality, as human beings deserving of respect.

C. Cora True-Frost is an associate professor at the Syracuse University College of Law and director of Impunity Watch.

African Court Dismisses Unemployment Case Against Rwanda

By: Hannah Gabbard
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

ARUSHA, Tanzania – On May 11, 2018, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) dismissed Chrysanthe Rutabingwa’s claim against the government of Rwanda as invalid.

Spectators at the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights. Photo Courtesy of AfCHPR on Twitter.

In 2001, Rutabingwa was fired from his position as an Audit and Evaluations Expert at the Ministry of Finance for allegedly disclosing confidential documents. Rutabingwa claimed that his dismissal was unfair and unconstitutional. In particular, Rutabingwa claimed that the Republic of Rwanda, for failing to solve Rutabingwa’s unemployment, violated his right to equality and equal protection, right to be heard, right of access to public services, right to work in equitable conditions and right to equal pay, and right to enjoy favorable work conditions.

Rutabingwa appealed to AfCHPR on November 10, 2014 against the Republic of Rwanda. He sought reimbursement of salaries dating back to 2001, government provided housing, reinstatement of public service employment, and $1,000,000 U.S. dollars for damages and humiliation.

In Rwanda, Rutabingwa filed in a court of first instance. Following their judgement, the High Court dismissed Rutabingwa’s claim. Rutabingwa never appealed to Rwanda’s highest court, the Supreme Court. AfCHPR dismissed Rutabingwa’s case for failing to exhaust local remedies in Rwanda before appealing to AfCHPR in Tanzania.

AfCHPR has ruled on four cases against the Rwandan government. As Rwanda’s withdrawal from the declaration that provides the court with jurisdiction took effect in 2017, AfCHPR can only proceed with cases filed prior to 2017.

For further information, please see:

African Union – Chrysanthe Rutabingwa vs. Republic of Rwanda Order – 11 May 2018

African Union – Chrysanthe Rutabingwa vs. Republic of Rwanda Judgement – 11 May 2018

The East African – Rwanda government wins longstanding court feud with sacked employee – 16 May 2018

Central African Republic Concludes Peace Negotiations With Rebel Groups

By: Hannah Gabbard
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

BANGUI, Central African Republic – On February 2nd, the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups signed a peace deal to end the conflict that began in 2013.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix and African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui. Photo Courtesy of MINUSCA.

In 2013, Muslim Seleka rebel groups seized Central African Republic capital Bangui. Rebel groups and the government began fighting over control of lands with valuable resources such as gold and diamonds. Since 2013, the fighting targeted civilians, health facilities, schools, religious centers, and camps for internally displaced peoples. Thousands have been killed in the fighting in addition to the one million internally displaced and over one half million who have fled Central African Republic.

A UN report previously identified a high risk for genocide in the Central African Republic. As a result of the conflict, two Central African citizens have been sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to stand trial for war crimes. The ICC prosecutor has alleged crimes committed by both Muslim Seleka and Christian anti-balaka forces. These crimes include both war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The peace negotiations were organized by the UN and the African Union directed African Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that more than 63 percent of the country will require humanitarian assistance. UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix called on UN member states to assist with the implementation of the peace agreement.

For further information, please see:

BBC – Central African Republic agrees peace deal with rebel groups – 2 February 2019

New York Times – Central African Republic Armed Groups Reach Peace Deal – 2 February 2019

UN News – UN calls for support to implement Central Africa’s newly minted peace agreement – 2 February 2019

UN News – ‘Everyone must be on board’ for peace in Central African Republic: UN’s Lacroix – 10 January 2019


After Force, The Code Blue Peacekeeping

By: Lucíola Gomides Dutra

Impunity Watch Reporter, Special Feature


The UN Charter outlaws all uses of force against the territorial integrity or the political independence of a state, unless authorized by the UN Security Council or justified by self-defense.2In addition, although controversial, the principle of self-determination can be also recognized as a third exception to that prohibition.3

The objective of such provisions is to create a system in which force is the last resource and the UN will work toward a world of peace for all. Nonetheless, the UN Security Council may authorize measures involving the intervention of armed UN Peacekeeping operations, responsible for helping “countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.”4

In this context, unlike the calm that follows any storm, peacekeeping agents seem to be committing criminal acts to the detriment of the population they are supposed to protect, undermining faith in UN operations, especially considering that the UN is not properly investigating and punishing the perpetrators.5

The Central African Republic’s situation is a good illustration of this issue, as urgent measures to avoid impunity to sexual abusers within the UN are necessary.



Since 2012, the Central African Republic has been wrecked by the bloody armed conflict between the government, rebels from Séléka and from Anti-Balaka coalitions, causing civilians to suffer enormously. In this context, armed groups have used rape and sexual slavery as a tactic of war. Therefore, woman and girls have been made sexual slaves for long periods of time, after watching their husbands and fathers be murdered.6

To deal with this situation, the African Union Peace and Security Council authorized the deployment of African-led International Support Mission in the country (MISCA), which later was succeeded by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central Africa (MINUSCA),7in accordance with the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2149/2014.8

The Resolution reiterates that all perpetrators must be held accountable for their jus cogenscrimes, and points out that they can even be submitted to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction.9In fact, the Office of the Prosecutor for the ICC opened an investigation in May 2007 and stated that based on preliminary analysis, civilians were killed and raped, among other crimes, in the context of an armed conflict between the government and rebel forces in CAR. However, the investigations are still pending for war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging) and crimes against humanity (murder and rape).10

Nonetheless, in an ideal world, the mission of the UN Peacekeeping operation is mainly engaged in assisting disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, among other actions in support for the restoration of State authority, promoting human rights and economic recovery.11But UN Peacekeepers can be disguised perpetrators, protected under a blue helmet and an official veil of impunity.



The rape and sexual abuse committed by rebels are conduct listed in the Rome Statute as crimes against humanity, allowing prosecutions to occur, eventually, at the ICC, since the CAR is a State party. However, the population will ultimately feel helpless if prosecutions do not occur for actions taken by those with a responsibility to defend the population’s rights, as in the case of some UN Peacekeepers.12

This problem of sexual exploitation and abuse promoted by Peacekeepers was nothing new to the UN even prior to 2014. The Report on the activities of the Office of Internal Oversight Services precisely stated that “it remains a significant area of concern,” with the greatest number of such offenses being committed by uniformed personnel in the seven UN Peacekeeping missions analyzed in that occasion, in 2013.13

Even so, from 2014 to 2015, the matter was kept secret by UN officials, generating not only impunity but also encouraging new crimes. Because of the cover-up, by 2015, the number of known child victims submitted to forced oral and anal sex acts had grown from nine to twenty-one. Therefore, not only those Peacekeepers who committed the crimes directly, but also the UN staffers and officials that were unduly silent should be investigated and held responsible for their wrongdoing, administratively and criminally. The omission’s seriousness is perfectly illustrated by the fact that one boy, who in 2014 was a witness telling UN interviewers that he had seen the oral and anal rape of his friends by Peacekeeping agents had, by 2015, become a victim of oral and anal rape himself.14

As if it was not enough, the crimes continued to happen as MINUSCA had just received new allegations of sexual abuse of at least three minors by Mauritanian Peacekeepers in southern CAR. This time, the UN claims that it immediately sent a multidisciplinary team to the scene to establish the needs of the alleged victims, to identify the perpetrators and to collect the necessary evidence. Furthermore, MINUSCA’s press release also affirmed that the alleged victims received medical and psychosocial support from two partner institutions of the United Nations System.15

But those steps are the easier ones to take compared to effectively investigating and punishing the wrongdoers, administratively and criminally, giving victims all the support that they need in order to have real access to justice and full reparations.



The Code Blue Campaign seeks to end impunity for sexual abuse by UN personnel in Peacekeeping operations, arguing that the UN should not continue to be the police and the judge to itself.16

First of all, there is a shield against punishment if one improperly takes advantage of the institute of immunity,17conceived initially to allow the members of the Organization to perform their functions adequately, without improper exposure to legal liability and interference by whoever wishes to obstruct their work.18

Despite of the possibility of deviation, according to the UN, “there is no immunity for sexual abuse,”19 implying that no waiver would be necessary. Conversely, as a practical matter, nothing happens until the UN assesses and decides, case by case, whether functional immunity applies.20

Although immunity, in the terms referred to above, can be an obstacle for eventual sanctions to apply when it comes to domestic laws, it is important to remember that Article 27 of the Rome Statute affirms that it applies equally to all persons, without distinction based on official capacity. Furthermore, the Statute is clear when it states that this official capacity shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person.21In other words, as long as the conditions to the exercise of jurisdiction are present as well, immunity should not represent an obstacle for accountability regarding the crimes against humanity committed by Peacekeepers.

When focusing on domestic laws’ accountability, the Code Blue Campaign defends the creation of anindependent Special Court Mechanism in peacekeeping countries where the UN has unilaterally determined that the existing law enforcement and judicial systems are not capable of carrying out criminal investigations or trials with acceptable standards. Actually, such an excuse could be used to make sure peacekeepers avoid trial. However, with the change proposed, there will be no more UN non-military, non-uniformed personnelcircumventing the local government in order to escape the legal consequences of their misconduct. 22

It is interesting to see that the campaign also points out a difference of treatment among UN personnel. On one hand, the current system makes it so that UN peacekeeping’s uniformed personnel operating under the jurisdiction of their Troop or Police Contributing Countries may face prison back in their own countries if accused of sexual assault or rape. On the other hand, UN civilian personnel accused of exactly the same crimes, if the local government’s justice system gets circumvented, face only the possibility of losing their jobs.23But the act of one is as reprovable as the act of the other. In addition, even for the uniformed personnel, there is no such thing as a guarantee of a trial in the perpetrator’s country of origin.

For instance, the fact that some States have military courts to investigate and adjudicate alleged human rights violations committed by members of the military against civilians is problematic. According to the U.N. Human Rights, it precludes the possibility of an independent and impartial investigation, which would require judicial authorities not linked to the command structure of the security forces.24

The second solution presented by the Code Blue Campaign is for the immediate term. It recognizes that there is a UN system-wide crisis, suggesting that the Member States appoint a Temporary Independent Oversight Panel to oversee the Organization’s response to claims of sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, until the final outcome of each case.25

Of course, those would not be the only measures to be taken in order to solve the problem. Other alternatives are also helpful. For instance, the Secretary-General has also committed to supporting increased women’s leadership and gender equality in UN peacekeeping missions, as gender inequality can be connected with the sexual abuse issue.26

The logic behind this ratio is that as men outnumber women, it enhances a sexist culture that considers and treats women as inferior, leading to sexual violence. Then again, to fix gender inequality is itself a great problem. For example, in order to be seen as equal, women in the infantry admitted they felt pressured to not only meet but surpass the standard physical requirements. And even when they did surpass those standards, they had serious doubts as to whether they could ever be accepted as equals by their male peers.27Thus, there are barriers that should not exist, resulting in less women in the armies and making gender equality harder to achieve. Hence, more efficient measures need to be taken while the solution to this problem is being addressed.



Regarding the urgency to take action in order to avoid new rapes and sexual abuses within the UN Peacekeeping missions, the MINUSCA press release28seemed to show a more serious concern of the UN with the issue. In the beginning of 2018, the Secretary-General presented a report about “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse” to the UN General Assembly. Unfortunately, the document merely has vague promises to address these problems with further actions.29It leads to the question: for how many more years will the UN rely on announcements of future policies instead of addressing the exploitation and the abuses with the seriousness the victims deserve?

Meanwhile, the UN Peacekeeping operations were supposed to be guided by the principles of consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defense and in defense of the mandate.30In contrast, reality demonstrates that there is no such thing as consent when there is sexual abuse of fragile woman and children. Nor impartiality when those who are supposed to punish the criminals covers-up the facts for their own benefit. Finally, there is no self-defense, but another aggression in detriment of an already vulnerable population. At least for now, apparently the storm will continue to persist for the people in the CAR.


[i]           2  Jeffrey L. Dunoff, Steven R. Ratner & David Wippman, International law: norms, actors, process: a problem-oriented approach  716 (2015)

[i]           3 Malcolm N. Shaw, International law 554-557 (1991).

[i]           4  United Nations Peacekeeping, United Nations, (last visited Nov 7, 2018).

[i]           5Deutsche Welle, ‘Faith in peacekeeping is being undermined’, (last visited Nov 7, 2018).

[i]           6  Central African Republic: Sexual Violence as Weapon of War, Human Rights Watch (2017), (last visited Nov 7, 2018).

[i]           7  History: Central African Republic conflict, Conciliation Resources (2016), (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           8United Nations Security Council Res 2149 , United Nations (2014), (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           9  Id

[i]           10Situation in the Central African Republic ICC-01/05, International Criminal Court, (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           11Mandates and the legal basis for peacekeeping Peacekeeping, United Nations, (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           12James Hall, African Conflict Monitor In on Africa (2016), (last visited Nov 7, 2018)

[i]           13Report of the OIOS n, A/67/297 (Part II) , Office of Internal Oversight Services (2013), (last visited Nov 7, 2018).

[i]           14Supra note 12

[i]           15MINUSCA takes action on reports of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, MINUSCA (2018), (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           16Code Blue Campaign Solutions, Code Blue, (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           17CONVENTION ON THE PRIVILEGES AND IMMUNITIES OF THE UNITED NATIONS, United Nations (1946), (last visited Nov 7, 2018).

[i]           18Supra note 16

[i]           19Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, United Nations, (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           20Primer: Privileges and Immunities, Code Blue: (last visited Nov 8, 2018).

[i]           21Rome Statute, The International Criminal Court, (last visited Nov 19, 2018).

[i]           22Supra note 16

[i]           23Id

[i]           24OAS, UN Human Rights and IACHR Categorically Reject Bill Expanding Jurisdiction of Military Courts in Brazil OAS (2009), (last visited Nov 19, 2018).

[i]           25Supra note 16

[i]           26 Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, UN Peacekeepers’ Sexual Assault Problem Foreign Affairs (2017), (last visited Nov 19, 2018).

[i]           27Megan H. MacKenzie, Will Letting Women Fight Fix Gender Inequality? Foreign Affairs (2018), (last visited Nov 19, 2018).

[i]           28Supra note 15

[i]           29Report of the Secretary-General n. A/72/751, United Nations (2018), (last visited Nov 7, 2018).

[i]           30Principles of peacekeeping , United Nations, (last visited Nov 8, 2018).