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The Quebec Superior Court will release its verdict today in the first case of a suspected war criminal to proceed in a Canadian court since four former Nazis were tried, unsuccessfully, in the 1990s.

Désiré Munyaneza was brought to court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on the basis of his alleged role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days.

A former militia commander, Mr. Munyaneza is accused of committing murder, psychological terror and sexual violence. He was living in Toronto when he was arrested by the RCMP in 2005.

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In the media coverage, the trial has been most noteworthy for the emotional testimony of the first witness, who recounted her experience of being raped five times by the accused, as well as for the physical attack suffered by Mr. Munyaneza himself while in prison in Canada.

What has not received sufficient attention is the important place in history this trial will claim, both in Canada and internationally - regardless of the verdict.

Every functioning legal system in the world metes out punishment for crimes ranging from trespassing to shoplifting to murder, based on a belief in the importance of justice for the victims, to send a signal that such behaviour will not be tolerated and to deter the commission of future crimes.

Yet individuals who plan and execute campaigns of terror, killing, rape and mutilation of entire populations had in the past all too commonly done so with impunity.

While human-rights treaties were dramatically strengthened after the Second World War, missing were effective means of enforcement. This began to change at the end of the Cold War, when international tribunals were created to hold individuals criminally accountable for back-to-back genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Then came the establishment of the new International Criminal Court in 2002. The court's creation was heralded as a remarkable triumph because it required the government leaders supporting the treaty to agree that they themselves could be subject to criminal prosecution. Canada played a key role in this historic achievement.

The vision has always been that the ICC will handle only a handful of cases at a time against the highest level perpetrators, while serving as a catalyst for war-crimes trials in national courts around the world. Ideally the cases can be tried where the crimes occurred, but when this is not possible, the courts in other countries with the necessary legislation are empowered to take the cases. The law used to charge Mr. Munyaneza was created in 2000 as part of Canada's implementation of the ICC treaty.

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The possibility of such trials in Canada was previously shut down by the Supreme Court in 1994, which upheld the acquittal of former Nazi Imre Finta. Mr. Finta admitted to shipping Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz and other camps by cattle car, but the trial judge allowed the defence that Mr. Finta believed Jews were the enemy.

The passage of Canada's new war-crimes legislation was a watershed moment, creating hope that Canada would build on its international reputation as a trail-blazer in international justice through renewed commitment to war crimes trials in its own courts.

Reports by the government of Canada indicate that at least 1,500 alleged war criminals and human rights abusers from countries around the world are currently living in Canada, often in the same communities as their former victims.

Despite these figures, the Munyaneza case is the only one of its kind to proceed to trial under the new law. A Globe and Mail opinion piece on Dec. 1, 2008, by Lloyd Axworthy and Penelope Simons pinpointed the problem as lying in the woeful underfunding of the unit of the Department of Justice responsible for the trials.

Canada would hardly be alone in making a greater commitment to using its domestic courts to try alleged war criminals. In recent years such trials have taken place in 13 European countries, resulting in over 50 charges and many convictions. In the United States the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor recently faced criminal charges for torture.

Significantly, the courts of the countries in which such abuses occurred are also increasingly changing their laws and addressing their history through justice processes. Criminal cases have gone to trial in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

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Such trials can provide a measure of hope to the large numbers of survivors of torture and war trauma worldwide. They also represent a global investment in the prevention of future atrocities, sending a clear signal that it is no longer possible to escape accountability for the most serious of international crimes.

The Munyaneza trial is a critical contribution by the Canadian government and Canadian courts to the emerging system of international justice. When the verdict is announced today, regardless of the outcome, it is our hope that the case will be noteworthy for its global significance - and that it will not be remembered in future years as one of the few of its kind in Canada.

Richard Dicker is the director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch in New York. Jayne Stoyles is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for International Justice.

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