THE BLOG

Justice Must Not Be Dulled By Wrinkles

05/02/2014 12:35 GMT | Updated 06/04/2014 10:59 BST

In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, there is something about the public parade of geriatric sex offenders that mollifies our outrage. Perhaps it is because they seem, now, so frail, so benign. It is hard to believe that they are or ever were in fact predators, criminals of the worst kind. Likewise, in Germany last week, an 88-year-old man was charged in what may turn out to be one of the last attempts to prosecute a Nazi-era war criminal. This man is a suspect of the Holocaust, one of the most inhumane events in modern history - yet it is difficult to summon a sufficient level of disgust for something that happened so long ago, or was carried out by such an ageing specimen. Perhaps there is something about the wrinkles in these men's skin that tempers the evil they have committed, that makes us feel that perhaps we should, well, let it lie. This is a trick of perception that must be resisted.

In France this week, 20 years after the happening, one of Rwanda's foremost intelligence officers is being tried for his role in the 1994 genocide. Pascal Simbikangwa is accused of inciting the Rwandan government to identify and kill Tutsis in a slaughter in which at least 500,00 people were murdered. This is the first trial in France of its kind, despite many Rwandans suspected of war crimes having lived there in impunity since the event. France has, rightly, come under much criticism for this sluggishness, for its perceived reluctance to call people to account.

But, it is something we are all guilty of. It is how our newspapers are structured, and how we are conditioned to respond: These are not crimes committed in our own back yard, so somehow they matter less. They were not committed yesterday, so they are not as shocking. And most puzzling - they were committed by one of our own, therefore we will diminish their importance. In this case, France's colonial history left a legacy of close ties with the Rwandan government, whose military French troops armed and trained before the genocide. In less devastating cases, a British twenty-something is caught smuggling drugs in some far-flung nation, and our reaction is to feel sympathy, not shame.

Of course, in the latter instance, this may be something to do with the naivety of the suspects and the disparity between crime and punishment. And in all cases justice feels best when it is swift...and within the parameters of our own legal system. But we must not allow either time or distance to dull our sense of right. For the victims of any of these crimes the passage of years will not undo the misdeed. We betray them with our reluctance.

And Rwandans have already been betrayed. Not only by each other, in a massacre that saw friends turn on friends, neighbours on neighbours, but by the international community who were too slow to act, and too useless when they did.

Despite jumping headfirst into certain questionable wars, the league of Western nations whose values most of us identify with, are time and again too hesitant and too quiet in fighting international injustice and atrocity. In Sudan, women are raped, repressed, stoned to death. We say little. We do nothing. In Syria, thousands are fleeing for their lives. We take many months to finally inch open our door.

Rwandan survivors already live with the lingering impact of the genocide - with the fall-out of murder and rape, with displacement, with a lost generation, and with the memory of betrayal. We must not, again, betray victims with our disinclination to seek justice. France still harbours a host of untried suspects. The UK too is embroiled in a battle over whether to extradite Rwandan genocide suspects. (A UK domestic prosecution is not currently taking place, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is now considering only appeals.) We must of course consider each case individually, and fairly, without pre-conclusion. But in a shrinking world, we cannot close our eyes to foreign transgressions.

The time has come for the role of international courts to evolve and take a greater part. Our own governments must facilitate and demand this. And respond to humanitarian need. If the question is 'are we our brother's keeper?' the answer must be a resounding 'yes'. And for Rwandans, we must hope that this first French genocide trial is only the beginning of a shameful two-decades of negating the truth.