Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Helena Cobban Replies


8 The question of how human societies and the individuals who constitute them, can most effectively recover from atrocious political violence is a challenging one. Ken Roth and Alison DesForges fail to treat the subject with due seriousness when they substitute simplistic tropes for solid arguments, and when they fail to offer concrete suggestions about how Rwanda or other societies reeling from mass atrocities can rebuild the social foundations of a decent regime of civil and political rights.

One such trope is the use of the term "justice" to denote the employment of a Western-style criminal justice system—as though such a system were, on its own, sufficient to bring full justice to any society. Another is their use of the term "therapy" as a pejorative catch-phrase for the concepts and goals embodied in justice systems founded on ideals of social restoration. By dismissing restorative-justice approaches as mere "therapy," Roth and DesForges obscure the demanding requirements that many such systems—including Rwanda's gacaca courts—place on suspected perpetrators of violent acts: that they make a full confession of their deeds, express apologies directly to victims and their kin, and undertake some concrete form of reparation. Taken together, such requirements can constitute a demanding form of personal accountability, far deeper, perhaps, than that required by conventional criminal proceedings.

Roth and DesForges challenge my suggestion that the use of criminal prosecutions was externally imposed on Rwanda's post-genocide government. They note correctly that the Rwandan government originally requested an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). But they fail to acknowledge that in November 1994, Rwanda's representative was the only Security Council member who voted against the version of ICTR then under consideration, and that his colleagues all voted for it and rammed that resolution through. That strikes me as a clear case of external imposition.

Of course Rwanda, with its economy and society shattered by the genocide, had no alternative but to comply to some extent with the rigidly-expressed preferences of the rich and secure governments who dominate the Security Council and are the source of most international aid. But since 1994, criticisms of ICTR from members of the Rwandan regime, and of the country's well-organized associations of genocide survivors, have only intensified. By early this summer, the refusal of the genocide survivors' groups to cooperate with ICTR had just about paralyzed the court's proceedings. One well-placed Rwandan judicial official recently offered me this critique of ICTR: "It has made no contribution. It is just a way for the international community to act out its shame over what it did in 1994. How else can you explain it—that they pour such huge resources into it without being concerned at all about its performance? It has nothing to do with Rwanda. They exclude Rwandans."

Roth and DesForges's claims seem particularly weak when they criticize my argument that a well-planned use of amnesty in Mozambique contributed to termination of conflict and prevention of its recurrence. They cannot and do not challenge my conclusions there. Instead they huff that "countless other cases show that it is more usual for impunity to breed violence." But they fail to mention another example that I referred to in my discussion of amnesties: South Africa. I readily agree with Roth and DesForges that the amnesty-based agreement reached for Sierra Leone in 1999 failed to reach its twin objectives of ending the violence and preventing recurrence. Still, the record on amnesty-based deals is far more complex than they maintain. Before we exclude amnesty from the tools available to peacemakers, we need to conduct more research into the conditions of its successes and failures.

Roth and DesForges urge that, "we owe it to the victims of the Rwandan genocide…to contemplate Cobban's theory from their perspective." As it happens, I recently spent ten days in Rwanda doing just that. The testimony of a million victims speaks only problematically from the mounds of skulls and other ossiary at the various genocide memorials around the country. The views I heard expressed by survivors of the genocide—who are shockingly few in number, at around only 200,000—represented a spectrum of opinions. But I was deeply moved to find that these opinions skewed substantially toward the view that forgiving the vast majority of those millions of neighbors and compatriots who had participated in the genocide—in return for full truth-telling by these perpetrators—was the best way for Rwandans to move forward. A surprising number of the survivors with whom I spoke—including many who were little inclined to give unthinking support to an official line advanced by the government—said that they are now ready for the broad release into society of genocide suspects that will happen as the gacaca courts get underway. In the offices of the Ibuka survivors' union, one soft-spoken young man told me he hoped that gacaca could generate more information about who was responsible for killing three of his siblings and numerous other family members during the genocide. "Once someone tells me he did it, and asks for forgiveness, then I can forgive," he said. "It's not knowing who did it that makes me insecure."

The saddest aspect of Roth and DesForges's critique is its ungenerous and rigidly ideological tone. For seven years, I lived in Lebanon, which was then reeling under an atrocity-laden internal conflict. People in such societies face enormous challenges as they seek to find a way out of ever-turning cycles of violence, and to resist objectification by the "international community" by rediscovering their own capacities for constructive human agency. Highly-paid lawyers from rich, secure countries are perhaps the last people on earth from whom to expect an understanding of such dilemmas. And people in the human-rights community should avoid pandering to legalistic prejudices. <

Helena Cobban is global affairs columnist for The Christian Science Monitor and Al-Hayat (London), and a member of the Middle East advisory committee of Human Rights Watch.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review


Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |