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The Hunters: the small UN unit that tracked down Rwanda’s worst killers

By Julian Borger World affairs editor
Inmates accused of war crimes sit in a prison in Kibungo, Rwanda in 1994.
Inmates accused of war crimes sit in a prison in Kibungo, Rwanda in 1994. UN tracking teams played an essential role in finding most of 93 accused war criminals indicted for genocide. Photograph: Javier Bauluz/AP

Protais Mpiranya was pursued to his grave by a small but relentless posse of seven UN investigators and analysts known as the tracking team.

The unit has played an essential role in finding all but a handful of the 93 accused war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). A similar tracking team worked for the parallel Yugoslav tribunal (ICTY), and by 2011 had helped bring to justice, or otherwise account for, all 161 of those charged with war crimes from the Balkan wars.

Few UN operations can boast such striking success rates with such few resources, and the team’s advocates argue the methods and lessons learned by the two ad hoc tribunals, and the “residual mechanism” that followed them, should not be allowed to go to waste if there is to be any hope of delivering international justice for war crimes in the future. The International Criminal Court, at present, has no comparable unit.

When the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals were established in 1993 and 1994 respectively, there was no model for how to hunt war criminals. In the Nuremberg tribunal, the defendants had almost all been caught by the allies occupying Germany, so there was little need for trackers.

That did not apply in the Yugoslav and Rwandan cases.

“One thing is absolutely clear, that we didn’t fully appreciate when this started in the 90s: you should really assume that every person indicted is going to be a fugitive,” said Kevin Hughes, the chief of staff in the mechanism’s prosecutor’s office and co-leader of the tracking team. “These guys are not just waiting around to be arrested.”

The tribunals’ first tracking teams were led by veterans of military and police intelligence, with experience of handling informants and conducting surveillance.

That worked for the low-hanging fruit among the fugitives, the careless and unlucky. But as others sought haven from sympathetic governments – many Hutu genocidaires initially flocked to Cameroon for example – it became clear that diplomatic skills would be required, to cajole and pressure those governments into cooperation.

The tracking teams also brought in analysts able to find patterns in the huge amount of data generated by the investigations, and to dig deeper into the worlds in which the fugitives lived.

By the time the Rwanda tribunal was wound up at the end of 2015 and its last cases were handed over to the residual mechanism, just eight of the 93 indictees were still at large. But among them were some of the most important figures behind the genocide, and the pursuit showed signs of flagging.

Serge Brammertz was brought over from the ICTY to be the chief prosecutor under the mechanism, with responsibility for Rwanda. The Belgian lawyer, who had overseen the capture of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, brought some of the ICTY team with him and a fresh approach.

They found the investigations were drowning in a sea of data and leads generated by more than 80 paid sources, who had sent the trackers chasing their tails around the world. Under Brammertz, the payments were stopped and the number of informants shrunk to 10.

Then the trackers went back to the case files, stripping out dubious tips from questionable informants, and interviewed or re-interviewed witnesses, looking for ways to establish more detailed profiles of the wanted men.

“You have to be able to investigate the whole narrative of your fugitive and the whole arc of your fugitives. We needed to understand his complete story. We need to understand his family and his associates,” said Ewan Brown, a former British army officer and the tracking team’s other co-leader, who has also investigated war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Darfur. “To do that effectively we need creative thinkers exploiting creative sources.”

Over the past two years, the team has steadily crossed the last major fugitives off its list. Felicien Kabuga, a Hutu businessman whose radio stations had stoked hatred of Tutsis and who imported half a million machetes on the eve of the genocide, was caught in Paris on 15 May 2020. The remains of former defence minister Augustin Bizimana were identified in Congo-Brazzaville on 22 May 2020.

After that Mpiranya was their most wanted man, the last of the big fish. Five more junior fugitives remain, but Brammertz’s team is confident of more breakthroughs in the near future.

The main lesson from the 20-year manhunt for Mpiranya, the trackers say, is to start laying the ground for the hunt as soon as you start investigating the crime.

“An investigative approach from the very beginning is what we really recommend now as being the way forward,” Hughes said.

“Some of these things could have probably been closed earlier, because you would have already been asking questions in 1994.”

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Dive Deeper:
Alleged senior leader of 1994 Rwandan genocide confirmed dead
Protais Mpiranya, one of the last remaining fugitives sought over the 1994 Rwandan genocide, has been confirmed dead and the…
Twenty-year search for Rwanda genocide suspect ends in Zimbabwe grave
Inside the manhunt for Protais Mpiranya, accused of Rwandan mass killings and the world’s most wanted war crimes fugitive
Zimbabwe denies harbouring deceased Rwandan genocide fugitive
DNA shows body exhumed in the country was Protais Mpiranya, Rwanda’s most wanted fugitive
Ukraine: ordinary Russian soldiers face war crimes charges but the big fish are likely to avoid punishment – here's why
Ukraine’s chief prosecutor has announced plans to hold the first war crimes trial over Russia’s invasion. Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Two Britons testify against Interpol chief in UAE torture claim
Matthew Hedges and Ali Issa Ahmad allege Ahmed Naser al-Raisi was responsible for abuse in detention
War crimes: How are they defined, investigated and punished?
International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has already announced an investigation into Russia’s conduct in Ukraine as invasion continues and atrocities…
Get all your news in one place