On History and Liberty: an Interview with Judge Lennart Aspegren

I initially began writing this piece in the usual way: a slightly dramatic first sentence to captivate the reader, before analysing every conceivable detail of the story. This time it will be different; this time it will be personal. With support from the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Society, I had the honour to interview Judge Lennart Aspegren on his work as a judge for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Image courtesy of Gppande © 2007, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Gppande © 2007, some rights reserved

Rwanda is a difficult topic. The 1994 genocide is often the only thing most people know about the small central African country, and now that over two decades have passed since the tragedy, experts are shifting their focus to current pressing conflicts. But Rwanda’s strife is recent enough not to be relegated to the distant past. Much of the Rwandan population continues to feel its consequences; nearly 1 million people were slaughtered, almost eliminating an entire generation of Tutsis and forcing both Hutus and Tutsis to live through 100 days of fear and massacre. In addition, approximately 67 per cent of women raped during the genocide were infected with HIV/AIDS, feeding into a vicious cycle of mental and physical suffering that has affected subsequent generations. The international and Rwandan communities longed for justice, which Judge Aspegren, his two colleagues, and their legal teams aimed to provide in their judgement of crimes against humanity.

They made history. Not only did they aid in legally resolving one of the most horrifying conflicts of our modern history, but they were also able to amend the UN Genocide Convention to include rape and sexual assaults as constituting parts of genocide. Through legal analysis and executive decisions, sexual violations are now treated with severity, not dismissal. It was unusual to take this issue up – revolutionary, in fact – but numerous aspects of the legal system had to be expanded to deal with a disaster that paralysed an entire nation in modern times. Judge Aspegren speaks of this with both hope and sadness in his voice. Though a heavily emotional topic, it is evident he is hopeful that an event like this will never happen again; but that even if it does, justice will be served due to the efforts these judges after the tragedy of 1994.

The killings affected everyone: those whose family and friends were victims, and those whose sons committed these crimes in a manic uprising of extremism. Most of the people engaged in the actual killings were young men between the ages of twelve and eighteen who formed militias supported by several senior figures in the society. Many of them were incentivised with rewards that played to their ignorance: alcohol, money, and an appeal to their emotional side: anger. “Most of the time a lot of them were drunk. They said they were working and would come home in the evenings to their mothers and fathers after a long day’s ‘work,’” explains Aspegren. Hundreds of thousands actively took part, even fleeing to the Congo and attempting killings of Tutsi children in school buses to eradicate the possibility of those with their lives ahead of them continuing their cultural heritage. It was thus important for the Rwandan population to know that those who had instigated these attacks were being held accountable and put on trial. All trials were communicated via Radio from Arusha, a town in Tanzania where the tribunals took place, to Rwanda whilst a temporary ambassador to Arusha was also appointed in order to inform those at home of the on-going development with regards to justice.

Two principal questions remain relevant today, and are the continued subject of scholarly and political debate: how much did the West know about what was brewing in Rwanda? Could they have prevented it? The conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis has historic roots. Before Western colonisation the two groups had been living together in peace; marriages between them were common. But after Belgium gained control over Rwanda following World War I as part of its holdings in the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, racism and social engineering on the basis of race became increasingly prevalent – largely imported from racial tensions in Europe. Racism in the Rwandan context had small origins, but outsize impact on the country’s history. In this case, the Tutsis had narrower noses – reminiscent of Europeans – and by coincidence they were the ethnic group in power, favoured by the Belgian colonisers. Most people did not know their exact heritage – Hutu, Tutsi, it was all the same: human. But an obligatory ID card was given to every citizen, specifying to which ‘race’ he or she belonged. Tension grew increasingly as the military command was dominated by Hutus (the ethnic majority). The conflict was clear but not for the reasons just outlined.

As Judge Aspegren remarks, “it wasn’t religious, a cultural difference or ethnic struggle – most people did not even know what they were! – the difference from the very start was that the Tutsi were cattle people and the Hutu land owners in agriculture.” Power and wealth in Rwanda were not measured in monetary terms or which financial assets one had; the only value of concern was the number of cows owned.

Freedom is a natural human longing – genocide, a repulsive violation of it. Social tensions do not erupt randomly however, and the Rwandan conflict is one that can be traced far back into history. But Rwanda is starting to stabilise and recover from the tragedy of twenty years ago. Thanks to Judge Aspegren and his colleagues, those at fault have been held accountable. The ability to be just in a situation so dreadful is admirable. The judge is a truly inspirational man who has helped in making future conflicts fair to all parties and thus, the world a more hopeful place. For that, I would like to thank him. Your work, Mr Aspegren, is unparalleled.

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