Nyiramasuhuko: The Mother Who Awarded Rape For Murder

The wheels of international criminal justice may be slow, but turn they will, and as Pauline Nyiramasuhuko's case would come to illustrate, they can generate important judicial outcomes.
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As he reflected on the Rwandan Genocide, a disillusioned Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former Secretary General of the United Nations stated the following during a 2004 Frontline interview: "[f]or us, genocide was the gas chamber -- what happened in Germany. We were not able to realize that with the machete you can create a genocide!" Indeed, genocide was committed in Rwanda. In 1994, in no more than a 100 days, close to a million Rwandans -- mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- perished. The slaughter was finally halted in July 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took over the capital, Kigali. Doing the math more vividly brings to light the horror that unfolded in Rwanda: during the genocide, some 10,000 Rwandans were murdered each day and not by the high-tech machination of the gas chambers but mainly, by the unforgiving thrust of the machete and other traditional weapons indiscriminately penetrating body and limb. The speed of the slaughter was unfathomable and its viciousness, ineffable.

What transpired in Rwanda in 1994 turned logic on its head, muted morality and tainted our times with the blood of the innocent in one of modern history's most violent mass murders. And yet it happened as the world watched by the sidelines and argued over the semantics of what constitutes genocide. In the brutish reality of international affairs, evidently Rwanda was not a priority in the eyes of the international community. In the words of Kofi Annan, "the whole world failed Rwanda," and as it did, the vice of tribalism manifested itself unchecked with the force and terror of biblical proportions.

The sheer will of 'man' to annihilate fellow man, to commit mass rapes, to mutilate and murder the young, the old, men and women, without a moment's remorse or vacillation is beyond rational comprehension. This bewilderment is only magnified when the perpetrators of such odious crimes are ostensibly the least likely of candidates: one's own neighbours, family friends, school mates, the local priest, the town's mayor, or worse, a middle-aged mother named Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. A woman whose nefarious vengefulness coupled with a most shocking violation of her fiduciary duty as Rwanda's Minister for Family Welfare and Women's Development led to some of the darkest pages of the Rwandan Genocide.

In late June of this year, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) rendered a significant and long awaited judgment against Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. A mother of four, a grandmother and a former Minister, Nyiramasuhuko was sentenced by the tribunal to life in prison for genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, rape, persecution, murder and other inhumane acts committed in Rwanda's southern Butare region, her home district. She was found guilty of seven of the eleven genocide charges brought against her. "She ordered rape at the Butare prefecture office. She had superior responsibility on the Interahamwe [militia, which she ordered] to commit the rapes at the Butare prefecture," stated the presiding judge, William Hussein H. Sekule, as he read out the judgment.

The trial of Nyiramasuhuko and her five co-accused -- infamously, the "Butare six" -- had taken 10 long years to arrive at a verdict. Reportedly, a total of 189 witnesses were called by the prosecution and the defence in the case and some 13,000 pages of evidentiary material were tendered into evidence. The marathon proceedings generated an impressive volume of transcripts, reaching over 125,000 pages. The unique complexity of the case, in particular, the number of witnesses called and the lengthy testimonies that followed earned the case the title of the tribunal's largest and longest-running trial.

The wheels of international criminal justice may be slow, but turn they will, and as Nyiramasuhuko's case would come to illustrate, they can generate important judicial outcomes, and in so doing, bring necessary vindication to the victims of mass atrocities.

In the world of international criminal law, the ICTR has been very much a pioneer in incorporating rape and sexual abuse as prosecutable crimes in the discipline's jurisprudence. In a celebrated 1998 judgement (Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu, ICTR-96-4), a panel of ICTR judges in interpreting and applying the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, held that sexual assault (including rape) can constitute genocide when done as a means to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The tribunal found that in Rwanda:

Sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction, specifically targeting Tutsi women and specifically contributing to [...] the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole. The rape of Tutsi women was systematic and was perpetrated against all Tutsi women and solely against them [...] Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group -- destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself [...] [I]t appears clearly to the Chamber that the acts of rape and sexual violence, as other acts of serious bodily and mental harm committed against the Tutsi, reflected the determination to make Tutsi women suffer and to mutilate them even before killing them, the intent being to destroy the Tutsi group while inflicting acute suffering on its members in the process.

Case after case, it became manifestly clear to the tribunal that rape was systematically used as a weapon in Rwanda.

Since time immemorial, rape was considered a trophy to be won in war. The ICTR exposed this antediluvian custom for what it really is: a crime. The Nyiramasuhuko decision rendered on 24 June 2011 builds on this earlier ground-breaking jurisprudence but with some unique differences. The Nyiramasuhuko verdict represents the first time that a woman has been found guilty of genocide and rape as a crime against humanity and war crimes by an international tribunal.

The Nyiramasuhuko case and its horrendous facts have demonstrated that rape as a tool of war is not gender specific and can be employed with severe cruelty by men and women alike; indeed, that women can be ruthless agents of egregious violations of human rights on a par with their male counterparts.

More importantly however, this latest ICTR ruling serves as added legal reinforcement of the prohibition against sexual violence in armed conflict (one hopes, it equally conveys a general message to national authorities and jurisdictions that sexual violence must be investigated, prosecuted and deterred through a robust legal response; a response that is, alas, far too often lacking in many parts of the world).

Once considered a role model for women in her country -- rising from a poor farming family to become one of a handful of women in Rwanda to study law, then working her way up to assume a ministerial post within the government -- Nyiramasuhuko will instead be remembered as the first woman found guilty of masterminding the extermination of the Tutsis from her home district in Rwanda; the notorious minister whose mandate was to protect women and the family unit in her country, but rather chose to indulge in the "pacification" of her home prefecture of Butare -- the intellectual centre of the country -- of all remnants of the Tutsis; a woman who focused her energy and influence to order the abduction, systematic rape and murder of Tutsi girls, women and men. By most accounts, Nyiramasuhuko was an enthusiast in her following of the interim President, Theodore Sindikubwabo, and as minister, conspired with his government to commit genocide against the Tutsis of Butare. As the facts of the case would reveal, as soon as she landed in Butare, the horrors began on a large scale (Butare up to that point had remained relatively immune to Hutu extremism and was one of the last regions in Rwanda to be devastated by the genocide). The rape, mutilations and massacres commenced under the 'watchful eye' of Nyiramasuhuko, who ordered Hutu militia to rape Tutsi women before cutting their lives short by a rain of bullets, the piercing of spears or the hacking motion of machetes.

In the judgment, the ICTR Chamber summarized the material facts of the case as follows:

[A]round the end of April and around mid-June 1994, Nyiramasuhuko [et al.] went to the Butare préfecture office to abduct hundreds of Tutsis. Many were physically assaulted, raped, abducted, and taken away to various places in Butare, where they were killed. During the course of these repeated attacks on vulnerable civilians, both Nyiramasuhuko and [her co-accused] ordered killings. They also ordered rapes. [...] Nyiramasuhuko aided and abetted rapes and is responsible as a superior for rapes committed by members of the Interahamwe

(The Interahamwe were the extremist Hutu militia and followers of the Hutu Power ideology, whose raison d'être during the genocide was to annihilate their Tutsi countrymen. Interahamwe translates as "those who attack together" in Kinyarwanda).

Nyiramasuhuko was the mother who awarded rape to her militia for efficiently executing her final solution for her home prefecture of Butare. Quite tellingly her son, Arsene Shalom Ntahobali, a university drop-out, was among the co-accused in the case. He had personally kidnapped and raped a number of Tutsi women, killed countless more and oversaw the commission of similar atrocities by the militias he commanded in the prefecture.

"Like mother, like son"; he was also convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the devilish binge that was 1994 Rwanda. The other four co-accused in the case, similarly received heavy sentences, from 25 years to life imprisonment for their respective parts in supporting the mass killings of mostly ethnic Tutsis in Butare from April to July 1994.

I recently asked Silvana Arbia, the Registrar of the International Criminal Court (ICC) what she thought of this ruling. Prior to being elected ICC Registrar in 2008, Mrs. Arbia had served as the Chief of Prosecutions at the ICTR. More importantly for our purposes, from June 2001 until April 2008, she led the prosecution team in the case of the Prosecutor v. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko et al, during which she also conducted the cross-examination of Nyiramasuhuko when the latter took the stand in her own defence. This ICTR judgment, she stated:

is a fundamentally important judicial precedent for the advancement of women's rights as it underpins a growing trend in international law of zero-tolerance for sexual violence. For any person -- women or otherwise -- in influential inner circles of power, this judgment is a clear warning I am sure future generation will learn a lot from. The judgment's significance should be fully appreciated and further studied.

She added:

[I]t ought to be stressed that this ruling would not have been possible if not for the courageous testimony of survivors, including countless rape victims, who provided crucial evidence before the ICTR. Their ordeals merit our deepest compassion, and their sacrifice and contribution towards this judgment, our immense gratitude.

The silenced cannot grieve, but loved ones left behind and thousands of survivors in Rwanda and spread across the globe continue to mourn and agonizingly suffer both in body and mind. The UN estimates that between 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped during the Rwandan genocide. Of this number, many were violently disposed of after being violated tortured and mutilated, while countless others were deliberately inflicted with HIV as a consequence of systematic rapes encouraged by the likes of Nyiramasuhuko whose vile abuse of power facilitated mass-atrocities in the country. Generations were destroyed. Thousands of children in Rwanda today are the offspring of the mass-rapes that plagued the country during the genocide.

I feel somewhat hopeful that the Nyiramasuhuko judgment and other rulings handed down by the ICTR will bring a level of solace to the victims and families of the victims of the Rwandan Genocide; a certain degree of comfort in knowing that justice -- however delayed -- was ultimately served and the mother who awarded rape for murder in Butare, and those who aided and abetted her grand design, have finally been judged.

It will no doubt be decades before Rwanda can truly overcome the scars and the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. Heavy under the weight of their tragic past, Rwandans attempt -- admirably -- to move forward, leaving behind the colossal calamity that befell their central eastern African nation and a destructive colonial legacy which is largely responsible for manufacturing and then propagating "ethnic" divisions, pitting Rwandan (Hutu) against Rwandan (Tutsi). The ICTR's contribution through accountability, penalty and deterrence is not without impact in this healing process.

As we reflect on the Nyiramasuhuko case and its significance, a few weeks prior on the 17th of July, the world celebrated International Criminal Justice Day. This date represents that defining day in July 1998 when a pledge was made in Rome by the international community to never again allow impunity to reign supreme in the contemporary world through the creation of the ICC as history's first permanent international criminal judicial body. As we commemorate this day as a symbol of our common commitment to human rights and desire to end impunity, we must acknowledge that a world order in which accountability is had for the commission of egregious international crimes can only become a reality by popular support for the ICC. To date, 116 states have ratified the Rome Statute, the international treaty that gave birth to the Court. This is a phenomenal achievement, yet more states need to become members of the ICC.

When the ICC finally achieves universality, it is when we have collectively ensured -- without exception or limits of jurisdiction -- that the Pauline Nyiramasuhukos of this world are either deterred from acting out their monstrosity or held accountable for their crimes. Until then, much work lies ahead.

The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the International Criminal Court.

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