Tuesday, March 25, 2008



By Jerry Okungu
Arusha, Tanzania

I am an East African citizen living in Kenya but, the other week I was ashamed to have visited the Rwanda genocide trial premises based at the Arusha International Conference Centre for the first time, yet, this great institution has been with us for nearly a decade.

The ICTR is Africa’s equivalent of a similar court based in The Hague. Whereas The Hague equivalent tries all cases connected with crimes against humanity, the Arusha Court was set up specifically to try suspects believed to have been the masterminds of the genocide that lasted one hundred days and left nearly a million people dead in Rwanda over a decade ago.

Despite the fact that these Rwanda trials are far from over; in fact hardly half way through, the UN, the very body that set it up in the first place is bent on closing the complex down in the next nine months!

A walk around the premises that included a conducted tour around the courtrooms and the library revealed that the UN invested heavily in building the infrastructure from scratch. Like all UN facilities in New York, The Hague and Nairobi, this is an international institution that has the potential to support the fight against impunity when it comes to crimes against humanity.

In today’s world, such violations of human rights are more prevalent in Africa than ever before. One only needs to remember the twenty one year old conflict in Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan and the never ending inter clan conflicts in Somalia and the raging genocide in Darfur to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.

Even though Charles Taylor is facing a similar trial in The Hague, the fact is that even in Liberia; Taylor is not the only culprit. There are many more perpetrators of crimes against humanity yet to be apprehended in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Darfur and Southern Sudan.

The significance of the Arusha International Court is obvious to Africa and the world. It can serve as a perfect deterrence for regional warlords in Africa. Its proximity to societies that are notorious for human rights violations makes it cheaper and cost effective to institute investigations, make arrests and transport suspects to the centre with speed. Another thing; the fact that it is located in Africa makes it have that credibility that suspects are tried on familiar grounds where even witnesses do not feel intimidated by unfamiliar environments.

A case in point is the Charles Taylor trial in The Hague. Under the circumstances, witnesses have to be transported from Liberia and Sierra Leone to go and testify thousands of miles away at some one’s cost. When they get there, the courtroom is a totally alien environment with mostly white or brown faces to contend with. Language becomes an issue as some of the witnesses may not understand any of the European languages used in the trials. Under the circumstances, the chances of a suspect like Taylor feeling like being lynched by a predominantly white jury are very high.

Equally important is the fact that UN institutions like the International Court of Justice should be permanently decentralized. There is need for such a UN facility in every continent with unique facilities to deal with unique regional violations.

As it is, the facility in Arusha employed close to two thousand people at its peak. Plans to close it down have scaled this number to a thousand employees with nearly fifty thousand direct dependants. The UN annual budget on this establishment has had significant impact on the economy of Arusha, Tanzania in general and even neighbouring countries like Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda itself. In the process, the standards of living and poverty levels have gone down drastically.

More importantly, regional despots are beginning to wake up to the reality that they can easily find their way into Arusha or The Hague cells if they continue with their wayward ways.

As the UN plans to close down this critical facility, what do the African Heads of State at the AU and the EAC level think? Will they just sit there and fold their arms as if nothing is happening? Can they rise up and raise the issue with the relevant authorities at the UN to rethink their decisions?

Presidents Jakaya Kikwete and Yoweri Museveni; you are the current chairs of the AU and the EAC respectively. Can you rise up to the challenge and save the Arusha institution? I am sure your voices are loud and strong enough to be heard across the globe. Over to you, Your Excellencies.