A small item in the news about the arrest in Rwanda of the leading defense lawyer for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Peter Erlinder, has big implications for the international rule of law.
Why is it that international lawyers are the last to realize that the law, at the international level, is determined by politics? There may come a day when that will not be so, but the decade-long show trials for the Rwandan genocide in Arusha demonstrate how the law is held hostage to the power plays of international politics and its dominant narratives.
Ostensibly, on the State level, Erlinder has been arrested on charges of violating Rwanda’s “genocide ideology” law, which makes a crime of “despising, degrading, or creating confusion aiming at negating the genocide which occurred.”
In other words, if you dispute the prevailing narrative about what happened in Rwanda in 1994, you go to prison. As Michelle Garnett McKenzie, an attorney with Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, says, “this law is used as a cudgel to keep Rwandans quiet.” There have also been allegations of secret killings, torture, and disappearances of political dissidents in Rwanda.
Ostensibly, on the personal level, Erlinder was in Rwanda to work on the case of Victoire Ingabire, a leading Hutu opposition figure who claims that crimes were committed against Hutus as well as Tutsis during the genocide, but only Hutus are being prosecuted and punished in Rwanda and Arusha.
The real reasons lie below the surface. Amongst other things, Erlinder accuses Paul Kagame, the standing president of Rwanda, of knowingly triggering and callously orchestrating the 1994 Rwandan genocide, with the complicity of the Pentagon and the UN.
Erlinder actually tried to personally serve Kagame with an arrest warrant in the United States in late April, when Kagame was giving a commencement address in Oklahoma, alleging he had ordered the political assassinations that triggered the genocide. This was “part of Kagame’s war plan to seize power,” according to Erlinder.
Apparently Erlinder, who hails from Minnesota, believed he was immune from arrest and prosecution because he’s a prominent international defense attorney for ICTR. He may understand international law, such as it is, but he certainly doesn’t understand international politics, where political power rules, not the law.
Erlinder has been very effective as a defense attorney in the Rwanda Tribunals, obtaining not guilty verdicts for four top Rwandan military officers accused of genocide.
But Erlinder’s attempt to serve a murder warrant in the United States on President Kagame, who has been showered with international honors and tributes since he rose to power, and then immediately travelling to Rwanda to work on his case there, was the height of folly.
The international legal community has rallied around Erlinder. J. Brian Atwood, a leading lawyer in the Clinton Administration, still supports him, despite saying that Erlinder “manufactured quotes from me and accused the entire Clinton Administration of covering-up the alleged misconduct of Rwanda's sitting President.”
“He's aggressive and one can question his methods, but he's doing his job as a defense lawyer…I just think the Rwandan government is making a huge mistake and doesn't understand our, or international, systems of jurisprudence. It's just wrong to hold defense lawyers,” Atwood told the Associated Press.
And there we have it. Kagame “doesn’t understand our, or international, systems of jurisprudence.” I would wager that Paul Kagame, who was called the “Napoleon of Africa” even prior to the takeover of Rwanda by his Tutsi RPF forces, which stopped the genocide, understands so-called international law very well.
Kagame knows that the ‘rule of law’ is an empty phrase when push comes to shove, and that lawyers that stand on the law, where international relations are concerned, build their houses on sand.
Sadly Erlinder, who has been on anti-depressants for some time, attempted suicide two weeks ago, while in prison in Rwanda. According to the physician attending him, he is in a “remorse state,” and is ready to retract his statements in writing and never return to Rwanda.
While the massacres were still going on in ‘94, but as Kagame’s successes on the battlefield grew, he told Romeo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, “if an intervention force is sent to Rwanda, we will fight it. Let us solve the problem of the Rwandans.”
That gives an intimation of Kagame’s plan all along, but more importantly, it demonstrates once again the fecklessness of the UN Security Council when it comes to its highest mandate: preventing and halting genocide.
Though Erlinder comes close to being what Israelis call a “Holocaust denier” with regard to the Rwandan Holocaust, the world may never know the truth about Kagame’s involvement in events leading up to the slaughter of a million people in Rwanda.
One thing is clear however. As long as national sovereignty is the ruling principle, there will be no international rule of law. And nationally, the rule of law will remain precarious at best.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.