Genocide is nothing new.
The atrocities of murdering and displacing entire groups of people based on their ethnicity, nationality or religion has been a festering scar on humanity for thousands of years. It wasn’t until after the Holocaust that the international community, as a group, began to seek trials and punish those involved in committing such abhorrent crimes against humanity.
Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies Associate Professor Babafemi Akinrinade is researching how international law is responding to genocidal crimes across multiple conflicts in Africa, as well as the different responses to the Holocaust and more recent genocides.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Akinrinade came to the United States in 1999 to pursue a graduate degree at Notre Dame Law School.
“Growing up in an environment with occasional ethnic tensions and rivalries, which sometimes culminated in violence, led to a commitment to finding some enduring solutions to the problems that generated the conflicts,” he said.
He knows there are rarely quick fixes for these issues.
“I recognize that solutions may not be instant, since these are longstanding problems that require patience in designing appropriate solutions,” Akinrinade said. “On the other hand, there is immense suffering that accompanies armed conflicts, and victims and survivors need some form of justice for their suffering.”
Akinrinade’s 2009 book, “Human Rights and State Collapse in Africa,” focuses primarily on human right abuses and state collapse in Africa, using Sierra Leone and Somalia as case studies. In the book, he writes that the modern wave of state collapse in Africa began in the Congo in the 1960s.
“The collapse of the Congo set off a wave that toppled or paralyzed the government institutions of Uganda, Chad, Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia and Sierra Leone,” he said.
The collapse of government institutions led to power vacuums that planted the seeds for the atrocities to follow, such as the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.
Akinrinade’s research is complex; he looks at many issues that come out of multiple African genocides. The lasting effect of a genocide is not only loss of life or displaced populations; the infrastructure that keeps a government functioning can be destroyed through loss of courts, loss of buildings and loss of detention centers. Without this infrastructure to do so, it becomes difficult for a country to put someone on trial. If they do not have functioning courts, buildings to house the courts and buildings to hold the accused, then holding a fair and legitimate trial becomes almost impossible.
The collapse of the Congo set off a wave that toppled or paralyzed the government institutions of Uganda, Chad, Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia and Sierra Leone.
“When the Rwandan genocide occurred, most of the judges and prosecutors were killed or fled abroad,” Akinrinade said. “So there were few prosecutors left in the country. So we have to examine how to protect the people when most of the state’s power is absent.”
When a country loses its ability to prosecute, that is when the international community can get more involved, Akinrinade said. Other countries or the United Nations can lend a hand, and send experts or train new government lawyers and judges. But Akinrinade said this occurs infrequently; time and time again, countries in Africa especially are left to deal with their own issues and atrocities are widely ignored.
“The system we have generated so far is not perfect. No system is perfect. But the imperfections are magnified by the choices that people who run the system make,” he said.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created in in 1998 after being ratified by 60 different countries. The ICC’s mandate is to prosecute serious international crimes; including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. The court only brings cases to trial if a country’s national court “cannot or will not prosecute perpetrators of international crimes.”
“For the people running the system, of course they feel very satisfied with what they are doing. But as observers, we can see maybe some of those things they can do differently,” Akinrinade said. “Take the International Criminal Court. There is a complaint from African countries that they are unnecessarily targeted by these processes. And the ICC’s response is, ‘Oh no, we are just following the crime, this is where the crimes are committed.’ No, come on, crimes are committed everywhere, they don’t go after them. They only go after the low hanging fruit in African countries because they cannot resist.”
Across the globe there are crimes occurring that could be prosecuted by the ICC. Many of these countries where the crimes are occurring cannot or will not prosecute those involved. The organization Genocide Watch lists 17 different countries where extermination practices are currently happening, and nearly half of those countries are in Asia.
“Crimes are being committed in Syria, in Yemen; but no one has brought cases from those kind of places,” Akinrinade said.
The ICC was founded in 2002 and in the 16 years it has been operating has brought 26 cases to trial. Every case has been related to an incident that occurred in Africa. The ICC is investigating crimes outside of Africa, but they have not brought any to trial. When the organization brings someone to trial, they fly the person to The Hague.
“When you are sitting in the Netherlands and are judging crimes in the Congo, that is called the externalization of justice,” he said. “If crimes are committed in country X, ideally, the ICC should sit in that country and examine the case right where it occurred.”
Akinrinade believes that the ICC should help countries build up the capacity to hold trials in their own countries.
“We don’t need judges from The Hague to tell us what is wrong in the Congo. Congolese people can do that,” Akinrinade said. “They know what is wrong with their country. They know what their problems are. We just need to train them to deal with their problems.”
Understanding Genocide – A Historical Perspective
Akinrinade’s research into comparisons of the international response to the Holocaust as opposed to atrocities in Africa is a newer endeavor that he has undertaken in the past few years.
“To kill one million people in a particular location takes enormous effort,” Akinrinade said. “You need so many people to facilitate that. In terms of the Holocaust, at the top of the pyramid is Hitler himself, then Göring, and all those big top officials. Then you begin to widen the circle of responsibility. How far can we take it?”
He says the major difference between the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust was how the killings took place. The Rwandan genocide occurred over four months in 1994 and resulted in anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million deaths. In comparison, the Holocaust took place between 1933 and 1945 and resulted in the deaths of 17 million.
Concentration camps were set up throughout Nazi Germany’s occupied territory, but the extermination camps were located outside of Germany in Poland, Ukraine, Serbia and Belarus. Tens of thousands died in concentration camps as well, but the extermination camps were designed for the industrialized extermination of millions of men, women and children.
At the end of World War II, 200 former Nazis were indicted in the Nuremberg Trials. A few key players in the Holocaust committed suicide before they were indicted. In 2016, trials were still going on relating to participants in the Holocaust, when a 95-year-old was prosecuted for his role in the murder of thousands at Auschwitz.
Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide occurred, 92 participants have been indicted for their part in the genocide by Rwandan courts and a United Nations backed court called the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Similar to the Holocaust, this has only resulted in a small portion of those actually responsible for the atrocity being prosecuted.
“Perpetrators can count on a divided society to get away with crimes. There is no fear of the law. There is no fear of consequences. All of those things have gradually been eroded,” he said, “If somebody wants to perpetrate massive crimes, the person can gauge the international audience and if they target well, they will get away with the crime. Think about the Darfur genocide. What has happened since then? It started in 2003 or 2004. Nobody has been brought to justice. Those who did it knew what they were doing.”
The ICC issued six arrest warrants regarding the atrocities in Darfur. Five of the targets of the investigation are still at large. One of those accused, Abu Garda Case, went to trial but the charges were not confirmed due to a lack of evidence.
“We want rights to be enforced, but some states cannot even do that,” he said. “What do we do when there is that gap? What do we do when people exploit that gap? The phenomenon of state failure, and state incapacity of power and the consequent gaps created in the enforcement of law are some of the things that led me in this direction.”
In the meantime, Akinrinade will continue his research in an effort to give voice to the victims of genocides across the world.
“Justice takes time,” he said. “Some crimes are of such a magnitude it takes time to prosecute them.”
Note: This is the third installment on a series of summer articles focusing on faculty research in Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. The other articles are here: