Saturday, February 14, 2009

Alison Des Forges

The 1st genocide conviction after an international trial was issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on September 2, 1998, in the case of a Rwandan bourgmestre, Jean-Paul Akayesu. That milestone -- IntLawGrrl Susana SáCouto discussed the Akayesu judgment in a post just 2 days ago -- owed much to the work of Dr. Alison Des Forges (right).
Genocide charges turned on this question: Did the victims of the 1994 massacres in Rwanda -- mostly Tutsi -- belong to a protected "national, ethnical, racial or religious group" notwithstanding that they shared nationality, language, religion, culture, and customs with their Hutu killers? Essential to the ICTR's answer in the affirmative was the expert testimony of Des Forges, a historian who worked as a Senior Advisor for the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. Among the judgment's many mentions of Des Forges occurs in para. 5.1, where she is quoted at length on the question:

'The primary criterion for [defining] an ethnic group is the sense of belonging to that ethnic group. It is a sense which can shift over time. In other words, the group, the definition of the group to which one feels allied may change over time. But, if you fix any given moment in time, and you say, how does this population divide itself, then you will see which ethnic groups are in existence in the minds of the participants at that time. The Rwandans currently, and for the last generation at least, have defined themselves in terms of these three ethnic groups. In addition reality is an interplay between the actual conditions and peoples' subjective perception of those conditions. In Rwanda, the reality was shaped by the colonial experience which imposed a categorisation which was probably more fixed, and not completely appropriate to the scene. But, the Belgians did impose this classification in the early 1930's when they required the population to be registered according to ethnic group. The categorisation imposed at that time is what people of the current generation have grown up with. They have always thought in terms of these categories, even if they did not, in their daily lives have to take cognizance of that. This practice was continued after independence by the First Republic and the Second Republic in Rwanda to such an extent that this division into three ethnic groups became an absolute reality'.

Des Forges also gave expert testimony in national courts, the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, and the national legislatures of Belgium, France, and the United States. She published Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda the year after the Akayesu judgment, and also won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work as, to use MacArthur words, a "Human Rights Leader."
Des Forges died Thursday in the plane crash near Buffalo. She was 66 years old.

1 comment:

Hope Lewis said...

A very great loss and a courageous woman. I met her at Northeastern's commemoration of the 12th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. The many survivors there clearly valued and appreciated her relentless pursuit of justice and peace.