25 years after deaths of 1 million Rwandans, these advocates say Canada can do more to fight war crimes

Dozens gathered at the Montreal Holocaust Museum on Sunday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

That tragic chapter of history saw 1 million lives claimed in just 100 days. Among those present was former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler. An acclaimed human rights attorney, Cotler has spoken and written extensively on the topic of the genocide and Canada’s role in preventing such atrocities from taking place.

“The genocide of the Tutsis occurred not simply because of the machinery of death but because of demonization of the other,” he said.

Laval University International Law Professor Fannie Lafontaine said that in the wake of the genocide Canada enacted the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act in 2000.

“It allows Canada to investigate and prosecute acts committed anywhere in the world before or after the act coming into force,” she said. “It’s a really strong piece of legislation which gave a lot of hope to victims of international crime.”

In 2009 Rwandan native Desire Munyaneza became the first person found guilty under the act. He was convicted of seven counts related to genocide and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

“We’ve prosecuted one other person since then so in 19 years we’ve basically had only two criminal prosecutions for genocidal crimes against humanity,” said Lafontaine. “We only extradited one person so it’s a very small record.”

Lafontaine said that while some may object to Canada investing resources into prosecuting criminals for crimes committed far away, doing so is Canada’s duty.

“If Canada doesn’t do it and then Switzerland doesn’t do it and Argentina doesn’t do it, the war criminals have places they can escape to,” she said.

Cotler said changes to the system are necessary to ensure war criminals don’t escape justice.

“We have to make the bringing of war criminals to justice a priority in Canadian government principals,” he said. “(We have to) make it a priority and sure it will be a priority. We have to allocate the necessary resources for that purpose.”