Cultural Relativism in International War Crimes Prosecutions: The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda


The tension between universalism and cultural relativism lies at the heart of war crimes and war crimes prosecutions. While cultural relativism arguments should never be the basis for ignoring war crimes outside of the West (particularly in Africa), neither should the international community adopt a radical universalist approach that ignores the unique circumstances underlying each war crimes prosecution. The establishment of the ICTR, over the objection of the post-genocide Rwandan government, probably erred on the side of universalism by ignoring the legitimate needs of the Rwandan people. Nevertheless, the ICTR has appropriately adopted a “mild” cultural relativist approach in its proceedings, by considering cultural differences when evaluating witness testimony, interpreting the definition of certain crimes within the context of the Rwandan experience, and considering Rwandan sentencing practices when sentencing defendants. Future international tribunals should learn from the ICTR experience and consider cultural differences as necessary to do justice in the communities they are designed to serve.


Human Rights Law | International Law

Date of this Version

June 2005