International Criminal Court Addressing the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in 2022: Is it Too Late For Justice?

Rwanda 1

According to the International Criminal Court, genocide is an act led with a “specific intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group by killing its members or by other means.” As the “court of last resort,” the ICC is delegated the responsibility of persecuting heinous crimes when no single national court can reach a consensus of justice without international advisories.1 The International Criminal Court was established in 1948 as a permanent body of the United Nations General Assembly in an attempt to better the system of international punishments. Given the encompassing history of genocide with bloody massacres, sexual violations, and persecution methods, the international community has collectively come to a consensus that genocide is a horrendous act, one which must be punished by the fullest extent of the law. It is an act of history which must be avoided on all counts for the preservation of society.

Just this past year, the ICC was called into commission on September 29, 2022 to open a trial on Félicien Kabuga.2 Kabuga, a Rwandan businessman who financed the wide-reaching radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in the 1990s, is facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for helping to instigate the public onslaught of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.2 Leaving upward of 800,000 Rwandans dead, this genocide still has not faced the true extents of justice necessary as suspects involved in these heinous crimes have fled prosecution abroad.

With Kabuga arrested by French authorities in May of 2020, his twenty-three years of escape from police forces have come to an end. Trying his case nearly two decades after the crimes were committed, the international realm is left to wonder—is this international intervention in 2022 truly making up for the lack of intervention in the 1990s? Is the role of this international organization enough? 

Like nearly every war, violent act, or massacre, the 1994 Rwandan genocide was one of complexity and prolonged punishments. From 1918 to 1962, Rwanda was under Belgium rule as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Under this colonial rule, a typical ethnically stratified class system emerged of a Tutsi minority who predominated in urban areas and a Hutu majority who made up the farming working-class. Once Rwanda established independence from Belgium in 1962, ethnically targeted violence grew following a coup in 1973 in which Hutu Major General Juvénal Habyarimana seized power and established a repressive, authoritarian regime. Although many Tutsis eventually fled to Uganda, the caste system prevailed in putting the Hutus and Tutsis against one another. With civil war and invasions persisting throughout this time, Hutu Major Habyarimana eventually agreed to a peace negotiation with the Rwandese Patriotic Front (led by Tutsis) in 1993 on the basis of a power-sharing government.3

However, Habyarimana resisted the implementation of this signed agreement. Soon after, a plane that Habyarimana was in was shot down, leading to his death, the suspect still remaining mysterious. And from here on out, any sense of humanity or mercy was lost to the dust. Hutu militia eagerly blockaded Tutsi villages and without hesitation and began a massacre. Among these deaths were ten Belgian troops, later cited as the prime reason for Belgium peacekeepers withdrawing from Rwanda during this crisis. These troops, positioned in Rwanda after the document of a transitional government was signed, represented the possibility for national unity. With the UN reducing the provided forces, as these mass killings continued to spread, government-sponsored radio stations called on Rwandans to “get to work” at killing their neighbors, using their influential platform as propaganda for murder. With Rwandan armed forced working with the Hutu to conduct these acts of terror of Tutsis and Hutu moderates, millions were forced to flee Rwanda in hopes of survival. All the while, international aid was limited, if existent at all. 4

In May of 1994, the UN Security Council voted to supply more troops to Rwanda tasked with the responsibility of protecting civilians. However, as the United States did not seek Rwanda out as a key foreign ally, they did not take charge in this initiative of providing resources. With no major country starting off by taking the advised action (it is key to remember that the Council cannot enforce their treaties), international policy continued to neglect the genocide. “Acts of genocide may have been committed” says a Security Council resolution; but, nonetheless, still no immediate action was taken.5 Instead, Hutu radicals such as Félicien Kabuga were left with an opening to further the violent dispute. Through Kabuga’s RTLM, racist ideology oppressing the Tutis was promoted, further stimulating the man-against-man mindset held by the divisive society. Finally, in June of 1994, the French intervened. The UN approved French troops who were sent to Rwanda to create “humanitarian zones.” After only 100 days since the start of this massacre, the Rwandan genocide ended with the new government going to international court with the UN Security Council’s international tribunal. 

Since then, Félicien Kabuga has been one of the few suspects who had been on the run for such an extended period of time; nonetheless, he has been brought before the International Criminal Council. So, yes, the court is hoping to prosecute him on the crimes committed in 1994, the crimes he directly encouraged, the crimes many would cast blame on. If this were the case, has the UN done its part? Will the ICC be able to fulfill its role as an effective international organization even when the UN was unable to step in during this crisis decades earlier? 

Well, international organizations (IOs) were created to exist in the space between state sovereignty and legally binding obligations.6 While the International Criminal Court was negotiated by the UN, this IO exists without external ties or mandates from high authorities. In a sense, the ICC exists as an independent body, working independently yet founded on the basis of individual states’ needs. No, the UN intervention during the Rwandan genocide crisis was not a success — “UN peacekeepers stood by.” 7 Now, in 2022, the International Criminal Court is being given another chance to address the Rwandan case. With Kabuga in custody in 2022, questions regarding the delegation of responsibilities to international organizations arise. Would the ICC have been able to prosecute Kabuga sooner had they been able to independently make the arrest rather than rely on countries to make the arrest themselves?

If delegated this task, the ICC could have deployed international police forces in search of Kabuga, perhaps beginning Kabuga’s court far earlier than 2022. A key argument for the limitation on this power is that international arrests by the ICC could potentially fall into the hands of corrupt governments misusing this global reach, perhaps by advising the ICC to deploy resources to arrest a political competition rather than a justly prosecutable criminal. Thus, it would not have been a failure or slack of the ICC itself, but rather such powerful delegations might reflect the potentially dangerous interests of individual state behaviors that may pass without checks. This view is corroborated by political scientists Barnett and Finnemore’s take on IOs as they claim that these organizations may be purposefully designed efficiently as to place limitations on levels of legitimacy. Through Mearsheimer’s view of International Organizations, the assumption exists that IOs themselves have no legitimate power. Instead, he criticizes that IOs are simply a reflection of state behavior which would have happened regardless.8

In the case of the International Criminal Court, the limited delegations and capped legitimacy has slowed Kabuga’s arrest; all the while, the ICC is currently in a position to try such a major case. While members of the international court may feel responsible for this justice, the citizens of Rwanda have continued to feel the most implications of this arrest. Seeing as the Rwandan genocide not only shaped the nation’s role in international politics during the 1900s, but continues to have a grasp on the socioeconomic position of the nation, citizens today have been eager to accept this new development of the ICC. Thus, despite the flawed and inefficient reality of international organizations, it is the mere existence of agents such as the ICC which render realities of justice for global violations of law. In cases like these, international court systems such as the ICC must be revised in efforts for justice to be brought for not only Rwandans, but for the world at large. 


  1. International Criminal Court. About the Court. Last modified 1998. Accessed November 12, 2022.
  2. Aljazeera. “UN tribunal puts Rwanda’s Felicien Kabuga on genocide trial.” September 29, 2022.
  3. Editors, ed. “Rwandan Genocide.” HISTORY. Last modified October 14, 2009. Accessed November 12, 2022.
  4. Willard, Emily, ed. Rwanda: The Failure of the Arusha Peace Accords. Issue brief no. 469. N.p.,  2014.
  5. “Lessons from the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, 25 years after the genocide it failed to stop.” The Conversation. Last modified September 5, 2019. Accessed November 12, 2022. Lessons-from-the-un-peacekeeping-mission-in-rwanda-25-years-after-the-genocide-it-failed-to-stop-122174#:~:text=As%20the%20mass%20killings%20began,murdered%20by%20their%20own%20neighbors.
  6. Hurd, Ian. International Organizations: Politics, Law, Practice. 4th ed. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  7. “Rwanda.” University of Minnesota Driven to Discover. Accessed November 12, 2022.
  8.  John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” Security Studies Winter, 1994-1995, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter, 1994-1995), pp. 5-49, The MIT Press.