Transnational Trials as Transitional Justice: Lessons from the Trial of Two Rwandan Nuns in Belgium


More than a decade after the landmark trial of two Rwandan nuns for their role in the 1994 genocide, important lessons from the proceedings have yet to be fully explored. While scholars have vigorously debated the merits of international tribunals, hybrid courts, and local justice, comparatively little attention has focused on transnational trials—when national courts, typically in Europe and North America, exercise jurisdiction over foreign persons for crimes allegedly committed in foreign countries. Drawing on evidence collected in Belgium and Rwanda, including interviews, trial transcripts, and public opinion data, this Article uses the trial of the two Rwandan nuns to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of transnational trials. The story of Srs. Gertrude and Kizito provides an example of how Belgium’s exercise of jurisdiction prevented two accused génocidaires from escaping the law’s reach. But their story also reveals the challenges associated with conducting a highly sensitive trial in a culturally and geographically distant land. Defense attorneys for the nuns argue that Belgian jurors were ill-equipped to sort truth from fiction because of their lack of familiarity with Rwandan culture. The Belgian government’s reluctance to grant a key witness a visa to testify at trial deprived the jury of the opportunity to hear and assess his testimony. Furthermore, public opinion data reveals that the trial failed to capture the attention of the Rwandan people, perhaps detracting from the trial’s capacity to promote norm penetration and reconciliation. The trial also implicitly privileged Belgian legal values, like due process and relatively light sentences, over Rwanda’s preference for harsher punishments. Before fully embracing universal jurisdiction and transnational trials, policymakers must carefully consider the goals they aim to achieve by prosecuting foreign citizens for crimes committed abroad.


transitional trials, transnational trials, belgium, rwanda



Max L. Rettig (Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State)



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