On a rainy Tuesday evening in St Salvator’s Quad, the Foreign Affairs Society impressed St Andrews’ human rights-enthusiasts yet again with a captivating talk on the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda by the trial’s former judge, Lennart Aspegren. Aspegren began has career as Magistrate in the Swedish judicial system in the late 1950s, and since then, he has launched the Swedish sector of Amnesty International and has served on the UN committee for the investigation of human rights violations during the Gaza conflict.
Held in the intimate atmosphere of Sallies Quad, the lecture room was filled to the brim with excited students. The demand for the talk exceeded expectations as attendees’ both stood and sat in the staircase for lack of vacant seating. Following an introduction by the co-president of the society, Aspegren clumsily took the stage, albeit charmingly. While explaining the horrifying events of the spring of 1994, Aspegren reminded the audience of the events of the past century, from the first Italian concentration camps in Libya to the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Until Rwanda, it had seemed as though genocide was a thing of the past, belonging to the turbulence of a different age. The BBC documentary Aspegren displayed shortly after attested to this very real and tangible nature of genocide: viewing vivid images of mass graves and beheadings, the audience seemed relieved when the documentary shifted to its main focus: the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu.
Taking place in Arusha, Tanzania, over a thousand people contributed of the workings of the tribunal. Its main goal was to catch “the big fish” – amongst which Akayesu was one – responsible for the horrific, systematic killing of Rwanda’s Tutsi population.
Aspegren explained that although the trial was successful in many respects — such as inaugurating genocide legislation with emphasis on the implications of rape and sexual violence and being the first to convict a head of government for genocide – the tribunal itself was mismanaged, partly due to a lack of general interest and political will from UN members. Heartbreakingly, he noted that what was discovered with the Rwandan genocide is that within the international community, some human life ends up mattering a great deal less than others.
In spite of the serious nature of the lecture’s topic, Aspegren proved to be immensely entertaining. With his witty anecdotes and charisma, he brought the entire room to laughter – a somewhat paradoxical sight at a series on genocide. Though the society’s guest speakers seem to draw audiences much larger than that which can be accommodated for, the event was an undoubted success.