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03 May 2004

Genocide Convention Now Extends to Systematic Rape, Prosper Says

Ambassador at large tells AU law students of Rwandan experience

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Pierre-Richard Prosper, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, who honed his skills as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), takes great pride in having helped expand the definition of genocide to include organized violence against women, such as rape, a legal precedent that continues to have relevance in ethnic-based conflicts today.

Prosper recently shared his experiences as a young prosecutor at the U.N.-sponsored trials of Rwandan genocidaires in Arusha in the mid-1990s with students at American University's Washington College of Law. He spoke just days after leading the U.S. delegation to Kigali to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the mass murder of 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus that began in April 1994.

"My experience in the Rwandan tribunal was one that changed my life," the State Department official told the told law students. It had an impact, he said, on how he came to view genocide in general. In 1996, when he traveled to Arusha, the Yugoslav tribunal as well as the Rwandan tribunal had just been established, and "a lot of legal precedent that we could have used simply did not exist."

Prosper said he quickly learned that "when you're dealing with genocide," one needs "case samples," and beyond the Nuremberg trials of World War Two "legal precedent just didn't exist." There was a common understanding of genocide, "the killing of large numbers of people," but in the Rwandan context it went far beyond that, he said. Studying the Rwandan cases, Prosper said, "I came to understand that it [genocide] meant a whole lot more than just killing. Other acts like sexual violence and mutilation had to be considered" by the prosecution.

The women witnesses in Arusha who were victims of mass rape were so traumatized it was as though they had been made "less than human," Prosper said. "When we [prosecutors] looked at this we felt there was a part of the population [Tutsi women] that had been [purposely] destroyed even though they were still alive; for all practical purposes destroyed, because they could no longer contribute to humanity.

"So we began to look at the genocide convention ... and came to realize that it clearly envisioned acts which fall short of death" but also "cause serious bodily harm" to persons on a massive scale. The systematic rape of Tutsi women fit that category, the lawyer said, because it was aimed at eliminating their normal contribution to society.

"This was basically what we argued to the court" in Arusha, and the court found rape to be a part of the act of genocide, Prosper told the students. However, "it is important to note they did not say that rape by itself can be genocide. You have to look at it in the totality of circumstances," and the judges were satisfied that sexual violence in Rwanda was organized and used as a weapon against a particular group -- the Tutsis.

Part of that unanimity has unraveled somewhat recently over the issue of accountability and the venue of international criminal tribunals, the U.S. official told his audience. "We believe the best policy is to promote and push for domestic prosecution" of crimes against humanity rather than the practice of having the trials in a central location like The Hague. "This is a belief I firmly hold based on my experiences" with international criminal cases, he said.

"I've seen it in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Cambodia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq. People want justice to be as close as possible. They want to feel it. They want a sense of being part of it. They want a sense of ownership. If you have someone else do it," people can always say the verdict was imposed on them if they dispute the outcome.

Prosper added: "These tribunals are the right thing to do, but they need to do a better job in reaching out to the community to make them feel a part of the process. Taking responsibility is critical, and we don't want countries abdicating their responsibility to administer justice because it's politically difficult and they would rather not do it.

"We feel that if you really want the rule of law to grow, a country has to begin to make fundamental decisions" about applying it at home instead of "relying on one institution in the Netherlands [The Hague]" to do it.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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