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20 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:38am

Why a spate of new trials are drawing international scrutiny

From Rwanda to Myanmar, this week has shown how justice can be wielded for power as well as truth.

By Emily Tamkin

Transitional justice. The phrase – only coined in the 1990s – is used to refer to how countries coming out of periods of conflict and repression address large-scale rights violations. It’s an important concept, albeit one that the world is still learning how to implement.

But so, too, are there governments and individuals who would misuse the very concept of justice to bend people and society to their will. This week, a number of trials around the world have drawn such international condemnation.

After the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, for example, the country carried out an ambitious transitional justice project, the results of which were decidedly mixed. The president whose government oversaw the project, and who steadied the country after years of mass violence, was Paul Kagame. Today, Kagame has total control over the country, and has managed to arrest the exiled Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who shielded hundreds of people from violence and whose efforts gained international renown with the movie Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina is now on trial for terrorism-related charges brought against him by Kagame’s government, of which Rusesabagina is a fierce critic.  

In Myanmar, authorities on Tuesday 16 February filed a second charge against Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader whom the military detained when it staged a coup, denouncing the democratically re-elected government. The first charge was for allegedly importing walkie talkies. This latest, her lawyer told local media, is of having violated the country’s national disaster law. A US State Department spokesman said the US is “disturbed” by the new charges. The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has called for her release. 

 Meanwhile, on Tuesday 16 February, some in Afghanistan were left frustrated by a European Court of Human Rights decision which said Germany had effectively investigated a 2009 attack on oil tankers that killed almost 100 civilians. Abdul Hanan, who brought the case to the court, and whose sons were killed in the airstrike, asked after whether the blood of Afghans was worth less than the blood of Germans. 

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The world’s judicial systems are, of course, a critical part of bringing justice to individuals and peoples who have been grievously wronged by their fellow humans. To try to use courts to try to bring societies forward from traumatic events is a noble pursuit – perhaps even by extending their reach to cover international crimes against nature, as my colleague India has explored

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But it works both ways. Judicial systems can bring nations forward, and they can send them back. They can be used to right wrongs, but so, too, can they be used to create new grievances. This week offered several painful reminders of that. 

[See also: Philippe Sands on why “ecocide” should be a crime]