September 2, 1998 (a Wednesday)

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.

— Article I of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Zen stones

Bodies of murdered Tutsis from Rwanda, pulled from Lake Victoria by Ugandan fishermen. The bodies had traveled more than 200 miles by river from Rwanda.

On this date, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (a court established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 955 on 8 November 1994) found Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of the small Rwandan town of Taba, guilty of 9 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity (Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu, ICTR-96-4), marking the first time that the 1948 law banning genocide was enforced. Because mass killings had occurred in several countries since the law went into effect, the UN received heavy criticism for waiting 50 years before finally enforcing it.

After the Rwandan genocide began on April 7, 1994, Akayesu initially kept his town out of the mass killing, refusing to let militia operate there and protecting the local Tutsi population. But following an April 18 meeting of mayors with interim government leaders (those who planned and orchestrated the genocide), a fundamental change took place in the town and apparently within Akayesu. He seems to have calculated that his political and social future depended on joining the forces carrying out the genocide. Akayesu exchanged his business suit for a military jacket, literally donning violence as his modus operandi: witnesses saw him incite townspeople to join in the killing and turn former safe havens into places of torture, rape, and murder.

Sentencing occurred on October 2, 1998, when Jean-Paul Akayesu was given life imprisonment for his role in the deaths of 2,000 Tutsis who had sought his protection, as well as 80 years in prison for other violations, including rape. Although Akayesu claimed that he was powerless to stop the killings, Judge Laity Kama ruled that the mayor was “individually and criminally responsible for the deaths.” The ruling not only marked the first time a guilty verdict was handed down on the basis of the 1948 Genocide Convention, but also the first time in international law that mass rape was considered an “act of genocide.” This judgement was upheld on appeal.

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