The Alleged War Criminal in the U.N.’s Midst
Twenty-five years after the Rwandan genocide, will the U.N. at last pursue one of its own former officials?
Charles Petrie, a retired senior official at the United Nations, has devoted a fair chunk of the past quarter century of his life to a single crusade: securing the prosecution of a former U.N. employee, Callixte Mbarushimana, for allegedly overseeing the murder of 32 people, including three other U.N. workers, in Rwanda during that country’s 1994 genocide.
So far, the endeavor has been an unmitigated bust. But in an effort to breathe new life into the case on the 25th anniversary of the genocide, Petrie has prodded U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to support a long-standing attempt by Rwandan survivors in France to hold Mbarushimana and other alleged Rwandan mass murderers accountable.
In a March 25 letter to the U.N. chief, Petrie threw new light on a scandal that has largely remained within the U.N. walls, alleging that U.N. officials failed to pursue one of their own employees in the aftermath of the slaughter and even kept him on the payroll for years.
As the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus began in April 1994, and the U.N. withdrew most of its force of 2,500, Mbarushimana, then a computer technician with the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) in Rwanda, declared himself the agency’s officer-in-chief. He seized control of UNDP’s assets, including Motorola radio handsets, and more than 25 U.N. vehicles, making them available to the Rwandan military, which used them to hunt down Tutsi victims who were suspected of serving as a kind of fifth column for the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army, according to an indictment prepared by a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). He also pointed the military to the homes of several U.N. employees who were later killed, said the indictment, which charged Mbarushimana with overseeing the murder of 32 people in all.
He later eluded prosecution by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for Rwanda and dodged extradition to Rwanda from Kosovo, where he continued to work for the U.N. He has been arrested on war crimes charges in Germany and France, only to be released. Last year, a French judge, Emmanuelle Ducos, concluded that she had insufficient evidence to proceed with a trial. Her successor, Stéphanie Tacheau, will soon weigh whether there is enough evidence to drop the case altogether.
Mbarushimana declined to comment through his lawyer, Laurence Garapin, who said the French investigation is proceeding in secret. “As a lawyer, I am also obliged by this secret,” she told Foreign Policy by email. “My client is waiting also for the conclusions of investigations, and until then, he does not wish to make any comment.” But Mbarushimana has previously denied any role in killing U.N. employees or anyone else during the Rwandan genocide.
The new appeal to the U.N. secretary-general is part of a wider effort by Petrie (who has been trying to track down eyewitnesses from Rwanda) and lawyers representing the survivors to collect more evidence of Mbarushimana’s alleged crimes to persuade Tacheau to pursue a trial.
In his letter, Petrie claims the U.N. shares the blame for Mbarushimana’s flight from justice, charging that it failed to conduct a proper investigation into the killings a quarter century ago and subsequently suppressed a critical internal review commissioned by Mbarushimana’s then-employer, the UNDP, of the U.N.’s mishandling of the case. When a French judge requested a copy of the UNDP review back in 2011, the U.N.’s top lawyer at the time denied in writing that such a document existed, according to a copy of the lawyer’s letter to the French judge, which was viewed by Foreign Policy. “Surprisingly, when asked for a copy of the internal investigation that was undertaken by UNDP in November-December 2004, the Office of Legal Affairs denied that such a report existed,” Petrie wrote to Guterres.
The French investigation into Mbarushimana was triggered by a 2008 complaint by a group of survivors known as the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda, or CPCR, which first initiated legal efforts to prosecute alleged Rwandan mass murderers living in France back in 2001. The case has been gradually unraveling as eyewitnesses who testified against Mbarushimana before investigators with the ICTR more than 18 years ago have “retracted their testimonies, been killed or disappeared,” Petrie wrote to Guterres. Petrie said he has contacted a key witness who is prepared to confirm testimony to international investigators. But she fears testifying at trial. “She knows that Callixte Mbarushimana remains a key member of the FDLR, and fears for the safety of her children,” Petrie wrote. The FDLR is the French acronym for a rebel Hutu militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
“The French judicial process is coming to an end, from what I know—there is probably insufficient cause to take the case to trial,” Petrie told Foreign Policy by email. “I am asking the new secretary general [to] instruct the U.N. to collaborate with the French judge, meaning 1) release all documents in the possession of UNDP and the rest of the U.N. system 2) protect and support U.N. staff who have information that could be of value for a case 3) consider constituting itself as a plaintiff.”
The UNDP review, whose findings have been reported previously, delivered a damning assessment of the agency’s handling of the crisis. “The organization has failed, at every step of the way, to pursue the case of CM [Callixte Mbarushimana] to a satisfactory conclusion,” the report stated. “Not only were the charges against him never properly investigated, but he was never held accountable for his actions.”
“[The U.N.] failed to provide its national staff with a minimum of protection during the emergency,” the report added. “Until now, the murder of a large number of the staff is yet to be properly investigated, at least to bring the tragic episode to a closure.”
Petrie appealed to the U.N. chief to cooperate fully with the French legal effort to prosecute Mbarushimana and the others—or at least to supply the French with all the information it requested back in 2011. He also urged Guterres to use U.N. resources to “find and protect” any witnesses, some of whom remain employed by the United Nations.
The U.N. leader’s chief of staff, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, made no concrete commitments to Petrie but noted that Guterres and his predecessors have followed the case closely. “We have been cooperating on this matter over the years with several judicial authorities both at the domestic and at the international level,” Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told Foreign Policy. “This cooperation has included the sharing of documents and consenting to the interview of United Nations staff by judicial authorities. The United Nations will continue to cooperate with any similar judicial cooperation request concerning this case in the future, in accordance with its rules and regulations.”
Petrie has long been trying to raise public awareness of a case that has remained a stain on the organization and to raise money for the group of victims. He has joined forces with a graphic illustrator, Spike Zephaniah Stephenson, to produce a book—The Triumph of Evil—that tracks Petrie’s effort to hold Mbarushimana accountable.They are raising funds to publish the book through a crowdfunding publisher called Unbound. Once the publication fees are met, Unbound will receive 50 percent of any profits. The rest will be split evenly among Petrie, Stephenson, and the survivors’ collective, which will use it to support its legal campaign.
The Rwandan genocide marks one of the darkest chapters in human history since the Holocaust. In April 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government, backed by armed militias, undertook the systematic slaughter of more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutus. It also serves as a low point in the history of the United Nations, which dismissed prior warnings of a pending mass killing and withdrew from the country once it began, leaving the population, including local U.N. employees, to fend for itself.
The killing was triggered by the April 6, 1994, assassination of Rwanda’s then-president, Juvénal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down with surface-to-air missiles as it prepared to land in Kigali’s airport. During the next three months, Hutu extremists in the army, backed by Hutu militia, known as the Interahamwe, murdered whole communities of ethnic Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutus and executed 10 Belgian peacekeepers serving under the U.N. flag.
The violence led to the collapse of the U.N. mission in Rwanda, when Mbarushimana took over the UNDP. “During April, May and June 1994, Callixte Mbarushimana, contrary to his duty to protect UNDP employees from threat, violence or killings, disclosed to the soldiers, guards, Interahamwe, other militiamen and/or armed civilians, hiding places of Tutsi employees of UNDP. When he disclosed this information, Callixte Mbarushimana knew or should have known that the Tutsi UNDP employees could get killed,” the ICTR indictment read.
Among the dead was Florence Ngirumpatse, a U.N. personnel officer who was slaughtered in her home along with 10 others, including two 8-year-old children, according to witness testimony before the ICTR. Their murders—which took place sometime between April and May 1994—were attributed to Mbarushimana.
Between April 10 and April 17, Mbarushimana also led a group of soldiers and militia to the home of Augustine Ntashamanje, a driver for the World Food Program, where they “killed all persons perceived to be of Tutsi ethnic or racial group as part of a process to destroy in whole or in part, a Tutsi population, as a group,” according to the same indictment prepared by a tribunal investigator. The indictment, which drew on witness testimony from former U.N. employees, ex-militia members, and survivors, was never signed by the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, who ultimately dropped the case.
Following the genocide, Mbarushimana presumably fled Rwanda after a Tutsi-dominated insurgency took control of the country, driving the Hutu military and militia members across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the former military established the rebel FDLR.
Despite allegations of wrongdoing, Mbarushimana encountered little difficulty in finding U.N. work, first in Angola and later in Kosovo, where he was detained in April 2001 on a Rwandan warrant and fired from his U.N. job. Kosovo’s Supreme Court rejected the extradition request on the grounds that there was “insufficient evidence to support a reasonable suspicion” that Mbarushimana had committed crimes. In September 2002, the ICTR withdrew its plans to indict Mbarushimana amid pressure from the U.N. Security Council to wind down all but the most serious cases of mass killing.
Mbarushimana appealed his firing before U.N. administrative tribunals and won twice. In a grotesque twist, a U.N. administrative tribunal treated Mbarushimana as the victim, awarding him 13 months back pay, about $45,000, in 2004 for the violation of his rights to employment. The U.N. judges argued that Mbarushimana had been fired earlier from his job in Kosovo on the basis of unproven allegations of mass murder. His U.N. supervisor, they noted, had rated his performance as “good.”
Mbarushimana, meanwhile, went on to a leadership position in the FDLR. In 2010, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor charged him with eight counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities in Congo. But that case was dropped by judges from the ICC pre-trial chamber, and Mbarushimana was released in December 2011.
“One would say that Callixte Mbarushimana was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. How else to explain the way he has been able to escape all attempts to get him to account for his actions,” Petrie said. “It is just incomprehensible how lucky this guy has been. Or is it really only a case of luck?”