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A UN court hands down the first international conviction for genocide

A United Nations court finds Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of a small town in Rwanda, guilty of nine counts of genocide, marking the first time that the 1948 law banning genocide is enforced. Because mass killings had occurred in several countries since the law went into effect, the UN received heavy criticism for waiting 50 years before finally enforcing it.

The crimes for which Akayesu was held responsible took place during the 1994 mass slaughter of the Tutsi minority population by the Hutu tribespeople. It is estimated that 800,000 Tutsis were killed by roving bands of Hutus armed with machetes. The killers brutally murdered Tutsi men, women, and children, and even moderate Hutus who attempted to protect them. One Red Cross worker told of how he was forced to stand aside while all the patients in his hospital were hacked to death in their beds.

Conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis had been a part of Rwandan life for years. Since the 15th century, the Tutsis dominated the Hutu people as ancient feudal lords. When the Belgians gained power of Rwanda in 1919, they ruled through Tutsi chiefs. However, during a Hutu uprising in 1959, 100,000 Tutsis were massacred, while twice as many were forced to flee the country. In 1962, Rwanda gained independence from Belgium under a Hutu-led government. The killings continued for another decade, until Rwanda was taken over in a military coup led by General Juvenal Habyarimana.

Rwanda enjoyed a period of relative stability under Habyarimana until 1990, when the Rwanda Patriotic Front, a group of Tutsi rebels aided by Uganda, started a civil war against the Rwandan government. The war was temporarily halted when a cease-fire was signed in August 1992. However, after Habyarimana died in an unexplained plane crash in April 1994, the fighting resumed. Hutu government militiamen, blaming the Tutsis for the crash, began a 90-day murdering spree as Tutsi rebels fought back. The killing finally came to an end when the Tutsis gained power in July 1994.

Jean-Paul Akayesu was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the deaths of 2,000 Tutsis who had sought his protection, as well as 80 years in prison for other violations, including rape. Although Akayesu claimed that he was powerless to stop the killings, Judge Laity Kama ruled that the mayor was “individually and criminally responsible for the deaths.” The ruling not only marked the first time a guilty verdict was handed down on the basis of the 1948 Genocide Convention, but also the first time in international law that mass rape was considered an “act of genocide.”

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