Rwanda was first to prosecute mass rape as war crime

A new documentary takes an in-depth look at the difficulties of prosecuting mass rape in international courts. “The Uncondemned,” in theaters this month, reviews the landmark case in Rwanda that changed how mass rape could be prosecuted as an act of genocide. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano spoke with filmmaker Michele Mitchell and has more on the case.

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  • By:

    Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green


    In the spring and summer of 1994, an ethnic cleansing campaign in Rwanda left 800-thousand people dead, even while United Nations peacekeepers were on the ground and the rest of the world did virtually nothing to stop it.

    Toward the end of a civil war, Rwanda's government, then run by its ethnic majority, the Hutus, systematically murdered 70 percent of the country's ethnic minority, the Tutsis.

    As the toll of the carnage became clear, human rights groups successfully pressured the United Nations to convene the first ever international tribunal for genocide in history.

    Between 1998 and 2012, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted 62 individuals for the genocide and other serious war crimes.

    Part of the story rarely told involves the brutal mass rapes of an estimated 250-thousand women, men and children during the genocide and the world's first prosecution of rape as a war crime.

    A new documentary — "The Uncondemned" — sheds light on this atrocity and the struggle to bring justice for the rape survivors…

    Journalist Michele Mitchell directed "The Uncondemned"….which refers to the perpetrators of mass rape not held accountable until the landmark prosecution. The film revisits the events and the case that would change international law.


    Why is this an important story to tell today in 2016?


    Rape has been a crime of war since 1919. But it took almost 80 years for rape to be prosecuted for the first time. And the reasons why they finally prosecuted continue on to this day. And those include it happens in every conflict around the world, with all religions, and it's almost never taken as seriously as other crimes of war. It's a vital story now because as we are sitting here and talking, we know that it's going on in Syria, in Iraq, by ISIS. We know that Boko Haram is doing it. South Sudan, I could name any number of places where this is happening as we're having this conversation.


    Are there complexities about sexual violence in times of war that you think are often misunderstood?


    One thing that I have consistently heard over the last three years as we were making this film is that, 'oh, well, rape is just something that happens in war; it's always happened. The act of sexual violence will rip apart a family and a community, and by virtue of that, a society, for several generations. And it's not just the shame that happens. A lot of times you are physically incapacitated after that incredibly violent act.


    "The Uncondemned" focuses on the case brought against a mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for ordering mass murders and rapes that occurred in his township, Taba.

    Mitchell interviewed rape survivors as well as the prosecutors and aid workers who took up their cause.


    They would say, 'we begged to be killed after the rapes,' you know, 'please kill us.' a lot of the Hutu militias would say, 'no, we are going to leave you alive so that you will die of sadness,' and that's with these women said: 'we are dying of sadness.'


    An American-led legal team convinced a panel of U.N. judges that Akayesu had used mass rape as a form of torture.

    Pierre Prosper, then a Los Angeles assistant district attorney, was one of the prosecutors.


    Can you talk about that moment when you realized that prosecuting rape was essential to Akayesu's case?


    It really became critical for us in the Akayesu case when one witness told us about an event where women were being taken back to the back of the city hall, and systemically distributed and violated, and that Akayesu was there. It became clear to us that this was really part of the scheme, part of the genocide, part of the torture, part of the destruction of the fabric of the society. So it was a designed plan to diminish a population.


    With no legal precedents, the under-resourced and underfunded legal team had the difficult job of making the case that mass rapes are just as detrimental as murders during genocide.

    Once the trial began in 1997, there were high expectations…


    We had the pressure coming out of the west, whether it be New York, the United Nations, or western governments looking at us and saying are you going to win? Because they needed us to win in order to send a message to the international community that there will be accountability for genocide.


    As the film recounts, Prosper and the legal team convinced three Rwandan survivors to step forward and testify against Akayesu in court, sharing that many women in their town were forced to endure multiple acts of sexual violence commissioned by him.

    Victoire Mukambanda was one of them.


    I wanted to tell the story of what Akayesu did so that his crimes would become notorious in the eyes of the entire world.


    I remember putting witnesses on the stand, and you leave at the end of the day just emotionally drained, and you say to yourself I have just now heard the worst that I've ever heard in my life. The next day, the next witness comes on, and they you say no, no, today is the worst, and it was like that throughout the entire process.


    How did Akayesu's conviction and the concept of rape as a war crime, how did it change the game?


    It did a couple of very important things. It set the precedent. The whole reason why we can prosecute rape as a crime against humanity, crime of war and a crime of genocide is because of the Akayesu verdict. And the other thing it did, which was really interesting, is that it took gender out of it. And that's incredibly important, because men are raped in conflict as well.

    After a 20 month trial in Arusha, Tanzania, the Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal sentenced Akayesu to life in prison. In the years after his precedent-setting case, international tribunals showed greater resolve in recognizing wartime rapes, such as in the tribunals that held Serbs accountable for their treatment of Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia. More recently, crimes of mass rape were prosecuted by tribunals following atrocities in Sierra Leone and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But prosper believes even today, the global community could be more responsive in conflicts like South Sudan.


    I think we've lost a bit of our footing, and I actually think that what happened is once the permanent international criminal court was created, people looked at that as, 'oh, we've arrived.' and the politicians around the world said, 'we've done our job, there's this court, we need now focus on these issues.' It creates this gap, a gap of inaction. So i think the international community needs to wake up, governments need to wake up, and realize that their responsibility continues.


    A responsibility that international reporting keeps in the spotlight.


    Because the men and women of the press corps who covered what happened in Bosnia and also Rwanda and covered the sexual violence and wrote about it and put it on television and kept it in the public eye, that created interest on the part of the public, who then wrote letters to the tribunals saying, 'we want you to prosecute this. We're going to be watching.' It goes all the way around to the fact that the public got involved and demanded that their leaders take this seriously, do something. So if it worked then, it can work now.

  • Editor’s Note:

    The transcript on this page has been updated to accurately reflect the story that was broadcast on Dec. 4.

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