As the genocide against the Tutsi unfolded in 1994, the Netherlands minister for development cooperation Jan Pronk was one of the few vocal voices calling for the intervention of the international community. Pronk actually visited Rwanda on May 11-17, 1994. He saw first-hand what was going on.
The Netherlands, with Minister Pronk at the forefront asked the UN Security Council to extend the mandate of the UN force on the ground called UNAMIR II. The Dutch offered to provide emergency financing for upkeep and transport for the additional UN troops to Rwanda to stop the killings and protect civilians.
After the mass killings had been stopped by the rebels, Pronk offered substantial Dutch financial support to the new government. The Dutch helped put in place what was called at the time “Trust Fund” where different countries put money, from which the Rwandan government, UN and NGOs would be funded for reconstruction. However, due to infighting among UN agencies over the money, in addition to ineffective bureaucracy, the Trust Fund slowly fell apart as the Dutch and others went separate ways.
As a result of this consistency, Minister Pronk emerged as a trusted person within the new government in Kigali. He again returned to Rwanda October 21-24, 1994, about three months after the new government had been installed. Then again on April 7, 1995, Pronk was the only foreign dignitary at the first commemoration of the genocide.
It was from this special relationship that in 1995, Pronk initiated discussions with the new government on judicial reform to expedite cases of genocide suspects. According to various accounts, the issue of justice for genocide suspects was so sensitive that it was only the Dutch that attempted to address it. Everybody else feared to speak about it, avoiding anything, they believed, would antagonize them with the RPF-led government.
The few available prison facilities were full with over 130,000 suspects at the time, far beyond their capacity. By late 1997, Minister Pronk had negotiated far more from the Rwandan government. Current president Paul Kagame, was the vice present. Available records also show, Pronk made it a point to work directly with Kagame, perhaps aware he would get a lot more done.
Minister Pronk won agreement to fix the completely broken court system. The Netherlands was the only donor country or agency that, against all odds, that committed to fund the construction of new jails. As a follow up, $2m was granted to set up the so called ‘Commission de Triage’, which were within the justice ministry responsible for determining whether incarcerated inmates should be released or remain in custody for genocide crimes.
In 1998, the first success emerged. Government released 10,000 prisoners. Over the years, tens of thousands more have been released. Those remaining in jails and convicted, are also scheduled to be freed by 2023.
It is within this Dutch engagement to reform the country’s judiciary and prison conditions that Paul Rusesabagina the figure behind ‘Hotel Rwanda’ movie, finds himself.
As of 2021, the Netherlands has essentially put its force behind making sure the people manning Rwanda’s courts have the facilities and systems in place to do their job.
Rusesabagina has been incarcerated at the Mageragere prison in Kigali since last year. It is a new facility. The special treatment he is enjoying there, unlike nearly everyone else held in the same facility is as a result of Dutch efforts. Rusesabagina is given three meals and three bottles of water per day – benefits thousands of fellow inmates can only dream of.
The specialized High Court Chamber for International Crimes (HCCIC) in which Rusesabagina is being tried for his role in the atrocities of his rebel force the FLN, was also built with Dutch support.
The Netherlands has for its part extradited the biggest number of genocide suspects than any other country.
The Netherlands, perhaps aware that its funding had created a judicial system in Rwanda it can trust, opted to aid state prosecutors in a case against Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza. She had been living in The Netherlands before moving to Rwanda in 2010. There, she used her home and Dutch hospitality to channel funds to FDLR rebels in DR Congo. The Dutch system granted permission for her home to be searched, which yielded much of the evidence that led to her conviction. It is the same court system that Rusesabagina is facing.
The Hague’s current role as host to international courts, organisations and the international community is said to be part of a tradition dating back more than 750 years. A new chapter opened at the end of the 19th century when Tobias Asser, who would later go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, founded the Hague Conference on Private International Law in 1893. This makes it the oldest international organisation in The Hague still in existence today.
The Netherlands has won acclaim as a center for justice. It is puzzling that American and European lawmakers, and campaign groups, have never doubted the Hague as a neutral place to provide justice for the many international criminals who have been prosecuted and jailed there. But the same Americans and Europeans have very easily cast doubt on the Rwandan judiciary, which the same Dutch have worked so hard to build.
Writing in the Washington Post this August 18, Tom Zoellner who was co-author of Rusesabagina’s memoir “An Ordinary Man”, says his friend is facing trial in a ‘sham court on charges of “terrorism” for which the Rwandan authorities have provided no real evidence.’
He adds: “The judiciary in Rwanda is a servant to the will of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has nursed animosity for years against Rusesabagina, whom he perceived as a rival to power. Given the charges against Rusesabagina, a guilty verdict could well lead to a life sentence.”
What Zoellner doesn’t say is that all proceeding of that trial have been aired live on TV and online from day one. Everyone who bothered to follow the case heard the evidence put forward by prosecutors and rebuttals from his lawyers.
There is no doubt President Kagame, like it would have been for any other government in any other country, would like to see that Rusesabagina and co-accused are punished for killing very innocent Rwandans in attacks conducted by the FLN rebels.
Zoellner is asking why US President Joe Biden is not getting involved to require that the Rwandan government frees Rusesabagina without trial. Perhaps we could frame the concern differently, asking what President Kagame should tell the victims of FLN attacks if he is ever to decide to free Rusesabagina.
From 2018 to date, government figures show it received Rwf 235.3billion ($235m) from the Netherlands – a significant portion of it going to the judiciary. It is highly doubtful the Dutch government can allocate such huge amounts of money to finance the same institutions that it may believe are being undermined by the recipient government.
Also, the Rwandan government may have to consider refunding all the funds The Netherlands has invested to develop the same Rwandan courts that the country’s critics find not up to standard. The mere fact that the Dutch themselves have never raised any concerns, rather have kept the course with their programs, is evidence enough they are confident the system is working.
A further step would have to be taken as well, calling on the international community to move all the international courts based in the Hague, because as it appears, Zoellner and the others don’t have trust in something the Dutch are involved and invested heavily.