A week ago, a landmark case in Finland against a 59-year-old Rwandan preacher concluded with a life sentence for mass murder (the Finnish legal term joukkotuhonta actually roughly translates as ‘mass/group destruction’). The man, Francois Bazaramba, had sought asylum in Finland in 2003 and was arrested in 2007 in Porvoo, Finland, accused by the Rwandan authorities of involvement in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Although not unprecedented, Finland’s exercise of the so-called universality principle in public international law, has revived the controversy surrounding the principle which, in theory and if codified in national law, allows national courts to prosecute individuals suspected of involvement in genocide or other grievous and systematic attacks against civilian populations, regardless of the location of the crime or the nationality of the suspect.
More importantly, however, it has marked another step in the torturous road toward justice and reconciliation in Rwanda.
Bazaramba was eventually sentenced for inciting murder in five out of 15 cases he was charged with. He was tried in Finland after authorities there refused to extradite him to Rwanda on the grounds that he would not be assured a free and fair trial there. Another reason cited was that the legal processes in Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda were slowly being phased out. For more than a decade they have also been totally overwhelmed.
In Finland the case received widespread attention, even controversy, as the total cost of the three-year case was estimated at €1 million. Members of the public openly questioned the logic and necessity of putting on trial a foreigner for crimes committed in foreign lands at such a high cost.
But even beyond the issue of cost, the concept remains highly controversial in legal terms and is unevenly and often ambiguously applied in the national laws and courts of countries like Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, all of which have, in the past decade, prosecuted Rwandans for involvement in the death of the approximately 800,000 victims.
Henry Kissinger has famously opposed the principle, undoubtedly out of fear of being indicted himself (for crimes unrelated to Rwanda), but in convicting Bazaramba the Finnish authorities have helped push forward justice in a country that still, 16 years later, struggles with its painful legacy of destruction.
In a crime of this magnitude, universality is a necessity if justice is ever to be served.
As a Rwandan man noted in response to a similar case in Canada in 2009: “The priority first for me is to bring these people to Rwanda, because this is where genocide was committed. But if there is no way for them to come to Rwanda, they should be brought to the book somewhere else.”
Better in the north than nowhere, I say.