Trial of First Women Accused of Genocide

In March the Christian Science Monitor ran a profile of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the first woman formally charged with genocide for her actions in allegedly facilitating Rwanda’s nightmarish violence in 1994. Not only is Nyiramasuhuko charged with genocide, but she is also charged with a crime against humanity for using rape as a tool of political violence.

The Monitor describes how Nyiramasuhuko became a rising star in the Hutu-dominated government. From starting out as a social worker in the Rwandan town of Butare, she became one of the highest ranking individuals in the Rwandan government.

When that government decided to carry out genocide against the Tutsi population, it ran into a problem in Butare. Hutu/Tutsi relations in Butare were generally marked by an absence of the sort of ethnic conflicts that manifested themselves in other parts of Rwanda. So when the genocide began, Tutsis fled to Butare where they hoped they would receive protection.

The government dispatched Nyiramasuhuko to the town to ensure that this did not happen and that the genocidal program was carried through. Nyiramasuhuko is accused of bring her only son, Arsene Shalom Ntahobali and four others to create and carry out a plan which relied upon genocidal violence and rape. According to The Monitor,

It is alleged that they organized, ordered, and participated in massacres against the population, trained and distributed weapons to militiamen, prepared lists of those to be eliminated, and manned roadblocks to identify Tutsis and ensure that none escaped.

Witnesses at Nyiramasuhuko’s trial have testified that they witnessed her instructing Hutu gangs to pick out the nicest looking Tutsi women and rape them before killing them. Nyiramasuhuko’s son is accused of raping ten Tutsi women and of killing several dozen others.

The extent to which rape was explicitly used as a weapon on the Rwandan genocide is staggering. Some estimates put the total number of rapes at around 250,000.

One thing The Monitor doesn’t mention is that these international genocide trials are very controversial within Rwanda for a number of reasons. First, the United Nations failed to stop the genocide when it had the chance, then helped protect those who organized the genocide when they fled Rwanda, and then turned around and said only they had the ultimate authority to judge those accused of genocide (there have been numerous genocide-related trials in Rwanda, but many of the key participants have ended up in the custody of international agencies who have turned them over to the International Criminal Court).

Second, the length of these trials is something of a bad joke. Consider that the main Nuremberg trial that held former Nazi officials responsible for their crimes took just 10 months. Nyiramasuhuko first entered a not guilty plea before the ICC in September 1997, and her trial is unlikely to conclude until 2005.


A woman on trial for Rwanda’s massacre. Danna Harman, The Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2003.

Leave a Reply