The Clinton Administration took the lead in opposing international action. Its policy was a calculated political decision. Shocked by unexpected American military casualties in Somalia and a humiliating withdrawal, Washington insisted that a cease-fire in Rwanda, clearly impossible to attain quickly, had to precede humanitarian aid. Perhaps the most important single reason for American inaction is still not admitted. Impoverished and perennially troubled little Rwanda had no strategic, political or economic significance. All it had were the mutilated victims of the most horrendous orgy of mass killings in modern times – David Heaps, consultant for the Ford Foundation in Africa from 1960 to 1971.

The verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was a long time in the making. It took a trial of six and a half years to judge on a genocide which lasted only three months. When Judge Erik Mose announced the findings of the Tribunal there was little there to surprise any except perhaps his lawyer Raphael Constant, for whom the judgement was ‘a disappointment.’ For the relatives of the thousands murdered by the top genocidaire and his allies it was justice. ‘Let him think about what he did for the rest of his life’, the words of Jean Pierre Sagahutu who lost his parents and seven siblings. He survived because he took refuge in a septic tank throughout the genocide. Jean Paul Rurangwa, who lost a father and two sisters said ‘the fact that he was sentenced to the biggest punishment the court can give is a relief.’ Aloys Mutabingwa, the Rwandan representative to the ICTR, said ‘justice has been delivered. We are satisfied … the essential thing is that their role in the genocide was established. The court ruled that Bagosora had the authority over the killers. It is the most important thing.”

Important because as the prosecutor at the tribunal, Barbara Mulvern, stated it ‘finally puts to rest the claims by some people ... who still deny there was a genocide or deny that it was planned. No one can claim that any more.’

Theoneste Bagosora was convicted of ‘genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.’ He was the cabinet director in the Hutu government’s cabinet defence committee and a senior member of the fascist Hutu Power movement. He was the senior military figure in the country during the three blood-soaked months. The former church choir boy was sentenced to life as were two co-defendants while another was acquitted. At the ICTR hearing General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of a token presence of UN ‘peacekeepers’ described Bagosora as the ‘kingpin’ and ‘the leading body’ behind the genocide. At times Dallaire had met with Bagosora while on duty in Rwanda. The idea for the title of his memoirs Shake Hands with the Devil was rooted in one such meeting.

In a hundred day period 14 years ago from April 6 to July 17 the world’s most intense genocide took place while the world, induced into a state of inertia by the USA and UN, stood by and did nothing. Bill Clinton in 1998 apologised: ‘We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred.’ Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General said ten years after the event that ‘the international community is guilty of sins of omission.’ He was head of the UN peace keeping forces at the time and is perhaps more than anybody guilty of failing to keep the peace. After Bagosora mutilated and murdered 10 Belgian soldiers, UN troops were pulled out leaving the entire Tutsi population to the mercy of their attackers. As the Guardian’s Chris McGreal put it:
A shocked world was wondering how, without lifting a finger to help the victims, it had allowed 800,000 Tutsis to be butchered in just 100 days, in one of the most extensive mobilisations of a population against its fellow citizens ever seen.

Theoneste Bagosora was born in August 1941 in Gisenyi prefecture, in the west of Rwanda. It was a region populated by many of the Hutu ruling class. The son of a school teacher he attended a Catholic school where he was unlikely to have been detached from the attractions of genocide through any reading of the Bible. He undertook a diploma in advanced military studies in France and also attended military academies in Belgium. While he had retired from the army in 1993 he retained his portfolio as defence minister. He was a rabid racist who according to author Linda Melvern would take to spitting at Tutsis in the officers’ mess. He had promoted hatred with a particular vitriol and was quite open before, during and after the 100 days in 1994 about the need to wipe out the Tutsis. Although acquitted of conspiring to commit genocide he was convicted of involvement in the killings of 10 Belgian Paratroopers, whose torture, mutilation and killing by the men under his command, he observed, the deaths of the Rwandan prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was reportedly raped with a Fanta bottle before being killed, and the murder of the president of the constitutional court, Justice Joseph Kavaruganda. He was further judged responsible for the well organised killings by soldiers throughout Kigali and Gisenyi. He had helped establish the Interhamwe whose sole purpose was mass murder. It was the cutting edge of the genocide.

Although the prosecutor Barbara Mulvaney put it, ‘he was the man in control, hands down, no dispute’, using the lack of conviction to conspire, Bagosora intends to appeal on the grounds that his actions were based on war time conditions and not the result of any pre-planning.

But the evidence of pre-planning is all too easy to find. Romeo Dallaire details in his book how he persistently alerted his superiors at the UN about plans he had uncovered to mount genocide. The court itself stated that it ‘certainly accepts that there are indications which may be construed as evidence of a plan to commit genocide’. It also found that once the genocide started Bagosora was the chief military figure in the country. The court cited an incident prior to the killings when Bagosora had stormed out of 1993 peace talks in Tanzania saying he was returning to Rwanda to ‘prepare the apocalypse.’ Which is probably the last honest thing he ever said. Since his Cameroon detention in 1996 he has disputed all involvement in the maelstrom he was responsible for launching throughout the country: ‘Me, I don't believe that genocide took place.’

For Chris McGreal, Bagosora could be described as the Heinrich Himmler of Rwanda for whom no mitigation is warranted:

When the killing was over, the organisers attempted to portray the mass murder as a spontaneous bloodletting born of fear and anger that no one could stop. What amounts to genocide denial is still being espoused by apologists for the Hutu extremist regime that oversaw the killing and by some defence lawyers in and out of the courtroom, who have sought to blame the victims for their own murder by delving into a history of oppression by Tutsis before most of the victims were born. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has buried that obscene version of history by convicting Bagosora of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – and, in the process, establishing that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 was neither accidental nor spontaneous. The trial laid bare the extent of the planning for the genocide and the mobilisation of the state to implement it. It provides the most complete record of the planning of the killing going back to four years before the mass slaughter began. And Bagosora was at the centre of what the prosecution called "preparing the apocalypse".

The catalyst for the genocide was the shooting down of a plane carrying the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, in April 1994. Immediately mass murder stalked the streets. It was on the return leg from Tanzania where President Habyarimana had worked on a peace agreement which in McGreal’s words, if implemented,‘would have seen the RPF in government and its forces integrated with the Rwandan military.’ Although a French judge has since accused Paul Kagame the current Tutsi president of Rwanda of having ordered the plane shot down, in the view of the prosecutor at Bagosora’s trial:

My personal opinion as a prosecutor is that the preponderance of evidence is that the men in our courtroom are the men who shot down the plane. They surrounded the site. They wouldn't let the UN in, they wouldn't let foreign observers in, they took the shell casings. They had much more to gain … Habyarimana was flying back to implement the deal … If that plane had landed, Bagosora would have personally lost his house, his job, his position. That's on a very personal level. But he would also have had to demobilise his forces in the army and integrate them with the RPF and they felt Habyarimana had capitulated, and Bagosora wanted to stop him. It was the catalyst to start the killing. Bagosora needed a big event to mobilise people, to spark the bloodlust and put the killing machine into place. Habyarimana was seen by the people as 'papa'. That's why they shot down his plane.

What the Tribunal verdict sentence does, as argued by Reed Brody, a specialist in international justice for Human Rights Watch, is to send out a message to other world leaders: ‘it says watch out. Justice can catch up with you. The authors of genocide can and will be punished by the international community.’


  1. pretty much a disgraceful verdict here. It can be likened to absolving Himmler in large part


  2. Just watched This World: Rwanda's Untold Story

    Raises some serious questions about the role of Kagame. While we may have known or suspected much of it already it brings things into sharper focus