<p>Offices of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania.</p>

Rwanda: The First Conviction for Genocide

Genocide was first recognized as an international crime in 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The first conviction for genocide only occurred nearly 50 years later in response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Key Facts

  • 1

    The world’s first conviction by an international court for the crime of genocide was issued on September 2, 1998.

  • 2

    Jean-Paul Akayesu was judged guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for acts he engaged in and oversaw while mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba.

  • 3

    The Akayesu judgment is historic for another reason: it was the first time an international court defined rape as an international crime and recognized mass rape as a means of committing genocide.

Background

The United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994. 

On September 2, 1998, the ICTR issued the world's first conviction by an international court for the crime of genocide. The tribunal judged Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for acts he engaged in and oversaw while mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba.

Jean-Paul Akayesu's Early Life and Career

Born in 1953 in Taba commune, the young Akayesu was an active member of the local football team. He was the father of five children and worked as a teacher. Akayesu was a respected leader in his community. He was widely considered a man of high morals, intelligence, and integrity.

Akayesu became politically active in 1991. He was elected local president of the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), an opposition political party. Initially reluctant to run for public office, Akayesu was elected bourgmestre (mayor) of Taba. He held this position from April 1993 until June 1994.

As mayor, Akayesu was the leader of the village and was treated with respect and deference by the population. He oversaw the local economy, controlled the police, administered the law, and generally led social life in the village.

Role in the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan genocide began on April 7, 1994. Initially, Akayesu kept his town out of the mass killing. He refused to let militia operate there and protected the local Tutsi population. However, on April 18, there was a meeting of mayors with interim government leaders (those who planned and orchestrated the genocide). Following the meeting, a fundamental change took place in Taba and apparently within Akayesu. He seems to have calculated that his political and social future depended on joining the forces carrying out the genocide. Akayesu exchanged his business suit for a military jacket, literally donning violence as his modus operandi. Witnesses saw Akayesu incite townspeople to join in the killing and turn former safe havens into places of torture, rape, and murder.

Conviction

As the war's tide turned, Akayesu escaped to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He later went to Zambia, where he was arrested in October 1995. He was brought to Arusha, Tanzania to be tried by the ICTR. In addition to its historic finding of genocide, the ICTR's verdict was the first time an international tribunal defined rape as a crime under international law. It was also the first time an international court recognized rape as a means of committing genocide. 

Akayesu is serving a life sentence in a prison in Mali.

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