Profiles in Prevention

Justice Lydia Mugambe


The Honorable Lady Justice Lydia Mugambe is a Judge of the High Court in Uganda, the winner of the 2017 Women’s Link International People’s Choice Gavel Award for her work on issues of gender-based justice and will act as the 2017 Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellow at Columbia University in New York. In addition to contributing to AIPR’s national and regional level work in Africa, Justice Mugambe attended the 2013 Global Raphael Lemkin Seminar for the Prevention of Genocide in Poland.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience working with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda? How did you come to be involved in this work?

As a part of my LLM study at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria in 2002 and, in 2003-2004, at the Raul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, Sweden, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda featured prominently. Before the genocide began, some relatives that were in my age group had visited Uganda and we’d made friends. A few months later, these friends from Rwanda had been killed in the violence. Before embarking upon my work at the International Criminal Tribunal, I’d also heard stories from friends in Uganda who lost relatives in the genocide.

As a country, we in Uganda, which neighbors Rwanda to the north east, experienced the genocide through the news, from stories of our relatives and our friends, and, most poignantly for me, we had seen the images of bodies thrown into the Kagera River – beginning upstream in Rwanda and docking on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda – served live on television. So, when the UN-ICTR offered me a position as a legal researcher in the Chambers, it was my opportunity to better understand the genocide and the history of Rwanda, and make my contribution to ending mass atrocities in our world.

Mass atrocities do not happen overnight or by accident. Evidence from around the world demonstrates that they are usually well planned over a long period of time and involve people at both high and low levels. So, preventive efforts should not focus only on the triggers for these crimes, but also on the systems and institutions put in place to ensure consistent and close monitoring for stamping out the planning and organization that precedes the triggers.

What do you remember most about your visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and your time at the Lemkin Seminar?

The visits to the gas chambers and to other places where people from different parts were gathered on arrival to Auschwitz before they were killed, as well as the stories of the torture that they experienced, leave me baffled to this day. How could humanity be so cruel to humanity? I ask!

Which actions, policies, or approaches do you feel are the most effective in the prevention of mass atrocities?

The most effective approaches should address the pre-genocide planning activities, which happen long before the genocide. There should be effective institutions and policies that monitor actions in communities and have the authority to stifle any tendencies related to the planning and execution of mass atrocities. If necessary, laws need to be amended or enacted to enable this.

Who or what inspires you in your work?

The legacy of “Never Again”, the memories of the suffering demonstrated by witnesses at the UNICTR, and by and the magnitude of the problem, as exhibited by Auschwitz, all inspire me to keep at it.