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ICTR, Rwanda, trial, judicial archives, Jean-Paul Akayesu, Arusha, United Nations, transitional justice, Genocide Convention


The aftermath of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, which left one million victims, has witnessed multiple national and international judicial processes. From executioners to planners, numerous trials have been held since 1996-97 in Rwanda and elsewhere. Among these, and following intense diplomatic debates, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ictr) was the second international criminal court to be created since Nuremberg in November 1994, shortly after the Tribunal for the former-Yugoslavia, both created by the U.N. Security Council.

An immersion into the trial records of the very first case (there have been fifty-five trials over almost twenty years) handled by this international tribunal offered unexpected perspectives on the early developments and the elaboration of a transnational judicial landscape. Arrested in Zambia in 1995 and appearing before an international bench composed of three judges from South-Africa, Senegal and Sweden, the former Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu was convicted of incitement to and of genocide (on the basis of the 1948 Genocide Convention) and crimes against humanity in September 1998, almost four years after the establishment of the Tribunal. The case, although well-known for its groundbreaking legal importance, has not been investigated as a historical event in itself.

During sixty trial days, forty-one witnesses have testified before the Court, settled outside Rwanda in neighboring Tanzania (Arusha), and therefore far away from the victims. The prosecution resorted both to Rwandan testimonies centered on the local experience of genocide (inside the accused ‘commune’ and region) and to expert witnesses, bringing a historical dimension – and therefore wider than the prosecuted facts in this particular case and than the Tribunal’s temporal jurisdiction – into the courtroom, later integrated into the lengthy judgment.

This paper proposes to explore the very particular context in which the trial took place and the reasons why it can be considered as an exceptional and symbolic trial in a context in which international justice was searching its way. It therefore also seeks to question the elaboration of the tribunal’s framework and the day-to-day dynamics of its construction as a legal and political actor.