Victims, Rights of

By Lindsey Hilsum 

Hiding in her house in Kigali, hearing the cries of her neighbors as they were being slaughtered, Monica Uwimana did not know where to turn for help. Gangs of youths were moving from house to house with machetes and nail-studded clubs killing Tutsis like her. She called UN employees. They said they could not help. She called a foreign reporter and asked for advice. The journalist had none.

Many Rwandans believe that UN peacekeepers had an obligation to help them. But the UN Security Council withdrew most of the troops at the height of the Rwanda genocide in April 1994 and did not order a new force in until it was too late.

In theory, civilians can turn to a neutral country and try to make it to a foreign embassy. But even if Monica Uwimana could have gotten past the roadblocks, she might have been turned away, for most embassies take in and protect only victims who have a proven link to their country, or whose own country has formally requested that its citizens be protected.

Rwanda was the extreme example of a humanitarian crisis in which the international community and its representatives all but disappeared from the scene when they were most needed. And it encapsulates the predicament for victims of armed conflict, of crimes against humanity, or, as in this instance, of genocide. States have the obligation to pay compensation for violating international conventions and are responsible for the misdeeds of their troops. The Hague Convention of 1907 states: “A belligerent party which violates the provisions of the said Convention shall, if the case demands, be liable to pay compensation. It shall be responsible for all acts committed by persons forming part of its armed forces.” Similar language is found in the first Additional Protocol of 1977. Individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide may in time face criminal charges before institutions like the war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, or the recently formed International Criminal Court. Ultimately in these cases there will be accountability. But at the moment of maximum violence, protection is almost nonexistent.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the first places victims turn. Its mandate is based on the Geneva Conventions: to protect the most vulnerable individuals, be they prisoners of war or civilians who come under attack; to trace the missing and reunite them with their families; to supervise repatriation of prisoners; and to remind all sides in a conflict that they are obliged to uphold the conventions. During the Rwanda genocide, its expatriate and local staff expanded their mandate and sheltered as many as nine thousand Rwandans in the ICRC compound. But the ICRC was overwhelmed. Its representatives collected thousands of wounded civilians and brought them to hospital. That did not spell protection, for on one occasion, soldiers entered the hospital after the foreigners had departed and massacred the patients. On another, Tutsis were dragged out of ICRC vehicles and killed. In parts of Rwanda, local staff of the national Red Cross participated in the killing.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by its mandate, attempts to provide protection for those who flee their country because of conflict. The massive growth in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has led UNHCR to set up operations in an increasing number of countries to handle them. And an ever-growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are attempting to help the victims of armed conflict. But few national or international NGOs operate in the midst of the conflict, unless an outside power guarantees their security. And the conflict in Bosnia shows the limits of such protection, for outside military force was deployed to protect convoys of food and medicine attempting to reach UN-declared “safe areas,” but did almost nothing to safeguard the civilians or, when they came under attack, the safe areas as well.

In the post-Cold War era, aid organizations increasingly are targeted along with the civilians they are protecting. The head of the ICRC mission in Bosnia was targeted and killed in June of 1992, leading the ICRC to withdraw its entire presence from that country temporarily. It was then that Bosnian Serbs began their full-scale ethnic cleansing campaign. In Burundi, three ICRC delegates were ambushed on a main road and murdered in 1996. The same year, in Chechnya, gunmen broke into an ICRC compound and killed six delegates. And in 2003, a suicide bomber attacked the ICRC building in Baghdad, killing two officials and ten bystanders. Attacks on those who try to help victims are the most dramatic evidence of the total disregard for the laws of war that marks contemporary conflict.

Under international law, States are obliged to prevent and, that failing, punish grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and the first Additional Protocol. For reasons of domestic politics, States often prefer to stay out of each others’ conflicts; and the judicial instruments to justify intervention have at best weak enforcement mechanisms. The 1948 Genocide Convention, which requires States parties to “prevent and to punish” genocide, contains no mechanism for determining if a genocide is under way. Article 90 of Additional Protocol I of 1977 set up an International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to investigate charges of war crimes, but it requires the consent of both parties to function and has been in general disuse. The newest attempt is the UN’s recent creation of an International Criminal Court, whose prosecutor is empowered to launch investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity while crimes are underway.

As for compensation, victims have a right under international and domestic law to sue, but after a genocide such as Rwanda’s, there is rarely anyone rich enough left to pay the damages. The victims of the Nazi Holocaust received reparations from successor German governments. But “comfort women,” used as sex slaves by Japanese troops during World War II, have yet to receive State compensation fifty years later, even though the government admitted in 1993 that Japan’s military was responsible for the crime. On April 27, 1998, the Tokyo district court ordered compensation paid to three Korean women, but in March 2006, the Hiroshima High Court overturned this landmark decision. The UN Commission on Human Rights has advocated a set of principles to assist victims of human rights violations. The principles include a family’s right to know the fate of missing people, the right to reparations, the right to criminal justice, and the principle that governments take steps to prevent recurrences. These principles are only recommendations, however.

By luck, chance, and the grace of God, Monica Uwimana survived. Her five children, who had been staying with grandparents in the countryside, were murdered. She has little faith in international law.

Related posts:

  1. Refugees, Rights of
  2. Soldiers, Rights of
  3. Due Process Rights
  4. United Nations and the Geneva Conventions