In this article in a recent issue of Boston Review, I gave a bird’s-eye view of how painfully lengthy and long-drawn-out the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) have been.
I recalled that Rebecca West, reporting on the Nuremberg Trials as they entered their eleventh month, wrote that, “the courtroom was a citadel of boredom. Every person within its walk was in the grip of extreme tedium.” But Nuremberg, I suggested had nothing on the ICTR! For at Nuremberg, the entire trial, covering all 22 defendants, took only ten months and ten days.
Well, ICTR has recently (June 17th) completed the trial of its 21st defendant, Sylvestre Gacumbitsi. ICTR has been in existence for 9 years and 7 months (= 115 months).
In three of those cases, the defendants copped a plea bargain. For the 18 contested cases, the average length of each trial was 29.1 months. (Yawn, yawn!)
By the way, that’s counting only the time taken by the trial of first instance. Most or all of those convicted by the court in Arusha, Tanzania then pursue their appeals to the joint ICTR/ICTY Appeals court, sited in The Hague.
The court’s incredible foot-dragging is actually even worse than that:
… because most of these individuals have already spent many months in the UN’s detention unit in Arusha, before their trials even open.
For example, for the 21 people whose Arusha trials have finished now, the average wait each of them had to endure before his trial opened was 26.1 months. Then, there are the 20 individuals whose trials are still underway. Each of them had to wait, on average, 53.4 months before he (or in one case, she) saw the trial begin… and let me tell you, many of those people’s trials have been draaaaaagging on quite a bit now.
And then, there are the 22 individuals whose trials haven’t even started yet. A 23rd person awaiting trial, Anglican Bishop Samuel Musabyimana, died while still awaiting the start of his trial. That happened in January last year. He was 46 years old. I think he had some kind of a heart attack and then died in a hospital near the detention facility.
There is a lot to be said for judicial processes being organized in a timely manner. Firstly, the memories of witnesses become rusty and confused with the passage of time. (And these trials are all heavily dependent on witness testimony.)
Secondly, some of these defendants have been, and will continue to be, found not guilty… So you keep a person in prison for many months awaiting his trial then force him to undergo a lengthy trial, and he is “not guilty” after all that? What have you done to his rights by doing that? (Consider the case of André Ntagerura, who in February this year was found “not guilty” on all six of the counts he’d been charged with… after he had spent 44 months in UN custody awaiting trial and a further 41 months undergoing the trial itself… oh, and a previous 10 months in jail in Cameroon, before ICTR extradited him from there.)
A third reason for timeliness in all judicial proceedings–but perhaps especially in a case such as that of post-genocide Rwanda–is that everyone concerned, including especially the survivors of the earlier violence, really needs to have the opportunity to move on with their lives as best they can. Endlessly having to relive and relive the details of those traumatic events really keeps everyone trapped in the violence and the polarization.
The Nuremberg Trials had massive procedural problems, I know. And human-rights purists have also criticized South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for its many flaws from that viewpoint.
So those other two mechanisms that were being used to try to deal effectively with the legacies of recent atrocious violence were both, yes, at one level pretty flawed.
But what they both had that was extremely valuable, I think, was that they both had a pretty short “term”. In the case of Nuremberg, it was less than 12 months right through from opening the court’s proceedings to carrying out the hangings that were imposed on 12 of those convicted. (Goerring cheated the hangman by killing himself first.) At the TRC, the South African parliament had given the commission a fixed, three-year term before it produced its final report. The amnesty hearings dragged on some time past that; but the main public work of the TRC was finished by October 1998.
So, I guess that’s why many people consider the “justice delayed is justice denied”… Whatever the case on that, I know from my own observation of ICTR last year that its proceedings are mind-numbingly lengthy and repetitive.