The opening of the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa in Paris on February 4 undoubtedly represents a landmark achievement for a long and hard campaign initiated by a coalition of NGOs to bring justice for the victims of what is considered to be one of the most horrible genocides of the 20th century.
Pascal Simbikangwa, who was arrested by French authorities in 2008 in Mayotte, was considered to be the black-box of the Rwanda genocide. In other words, he would know a wealth of information on key players who planned the genocide and which countries have been complacent. He was the intelligence chief of the Rwandan army during the killings and was part of the inner circle of former President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Simbikangwa was actively involved, therefore, in the campaign against the Tutsi minority led by Habyarimana himself on the eve of the genocide. "Hutu Power" had become the obsession of Habyarimana's regime and was preached across Rwanda at that time.
A brief history of genocide
The assassination of Habyarimana on April 6, 1994 opened the door for violence against the Tutsi minority. Innocent civilians were mercilessly killed by Hutu militiamen regardless of age and sex. The slaughter proceeded so fast that it left around 800,000 casualties among civilians over three months, while rape was used on a large scale as a tool of war. Simbikangwa was reportedly responsible for setting up the famous checkpoints around Kigali to capture and kill all Tutsis who were trying to escape the massacres in the city.
The Paris court has formally accused Pascal Simbikangwa of complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity. It has six weeks to rule on the case and, if convicted, Simbikangwa may face a life sentence. This trial has been made possible by the 2008 and 2010 French laws[Fr] which allow courts on the basis of the universal jurisdictionto rule on cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator.
|Landmark Rwanda genocide trial underway in Paris
Who is trying whom?
Why did it take so long for Simbikangwa to be held accountable for his crimes? Victims and their families had to wait 20 years to see him stand trial.
According to international law, genocide and war crimes are imprescriptible and, therefore, can be prosecuted at any time. However, justice needs to be delivered in reasonable time, especially in cases of ethnic cleansing. In the Rwanda genocide, perpetrators were able to kill quickly on a massive scale and yet they have been tried so slowly.
Who is responsible for this shameful delay in delivering justice? Certainly, some would argue that France has not been diligent enough in arresting those Rwandan officials responsible for the genocide crimes. In the past, France has offered a safe haven for fugitives from Rwanda. In fact, Simbikangwa's trial is taking place before a French court because France rejected[Fr] an extradition request from the Rwandan authorities on the basis of their inability to guarantee a fair trial.
This is not the first time the French justice system has unduly delayed cases related to the Rwanda genocide. In its decision of June 8, 2004, the European Human Rights Court condemned France for excessive delay in Wenceslas Munyeshyaka's case in which the preliminary procedures took nine years to complete before it reached court.
In order for peace to take root, justice must be served in a country that has suffered severe conflict. Justice itself comes only through genuine political reforms and building of democratic institutions where human rights are respected and limitation of powers is guaranteed
These issues have fuelled the debate on what role - if any - France played in the genocide. A controversial report issued by an independent Rwandan commission in 2008 claimed France was aware of preparations for the genocide and helped train the ethnic Hutu militia perpetrators. Habyarimana, who ruled Rwanda as a dictator for two decades, was backed by Paris at the time. While the French military played an advisory role for the Rwandan army under Habyarimana, however, the nature of its role during the genocide was not clear.
If Pascal Simbikangwa volunteers all he knows about France's role in Rwanda and the nature of its support to Habyarimana's regime, the direction of the trial might change completely. Simbikangwa's court case could shift, therefore, into a trial of France itself.
It can also shift into a trial of the international community and its apathy during the Rwandan genocide. Despite the images of death and destruction that were broadcasted out of Rwanda in 1994, the world and international institutions did not act and left Rwandan civilians to face massacre on their own.
The response of the international community was too little and too late. In November 1994, after hundreds of thousands died, the United Nations set up the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR) by Security Council Resolution 955/1994 to try genocide crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Rwanda in that year.
Justice before peace
Undoubtedly, the ICTR prompted the adoption of the Rome Statute on July 17,1998 and prepared the ground for a permanent International Criminal Court. Nevertheless, the UN tribunal did not do enough to deliver justice. The ICTR indicted 93, 65 of them were found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The ICTR was not able to address the cases of thousands of officials and civilians who were directly involved in the massacres.
It is true that international justice cannot replace the justice system of a state in its basic duty of trying criminals who committed massacres on a massive scale, as was the case for Rwandan genocide. However, in the case of genocide, the international community has the moral duty to be involved in holding perpetrators responsible for their acts, if the state failed to deliver justice to its people.
The incapacity of the Rwandan state to maintain the rule of law and democratic institutions was one of the reasons why the genocide happened in the first place. As violence erupted in April 1994, those involved in the murders benefited from the culture of impunity and managed to continue with the massacres for more than three months.
Today Simbikangwa's trial stands witness of two issues. The first is the need to address international responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda. The second is that in order for peace to take root , justice must be served in a country that has suffered severe conflict. Justice itself comes only through genuine political reforms and the building of democratic institutions where human rights are respected and limitation of powers is guaranteed.
Amor Boubakri is Associate Professor at the University of Sfax in Tunisia and was member of the Commission of Political Reforms in Tunisia in 2011.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.