The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), an entity of the UN, was charged with bringing the worst genocide perpetrators, planners and political champions to justice.

Since about two million Rwandans took part in the killings in some form or other, less egregious crimes — say, murdering one or two neighbours, or stealing their cattle — were dealt with at the grassroots level. Known as Gacaca, these community courts heard more than one million cases, most resulting in non-custodial sentences like community service. Gacaca is rightly seen as best practice in post-conflict reconciliation. How can you deliver justice for victims and their families without entrenching divisions and incarcerating millions of working age men and women? Rwanda found a way. 

At the ICTR, a would-be New Zealand politician decided to use a year in Africa to volunteer as an intern for the defence team. Golriz Ghahraman was not one of the 200 lawyers appointed by the UN. Her presence was voluntary. The ICTR was famously cashed up — it cost more than US$2 billion to secure only 61 convictions. Since recent publicity of Ghahraman’s time in Rwanda, one argument waged at me  —  that defendants deserve a lawyer — is a shameless red herring. Nobody is disputing this, least of all me, but the notion Ghahraman’s skills were needed when there were more than three high-end, properly accredited, lawyers for each one of the accused is beyond a joke. It was work experience.

It’s one thing for a UN defence lawyer to be assigned to defend ratbags. It’s quite another to seek them out in a voluntary capacity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with work experience, and internships are a good way to broaden one’s horizons. But I am deeply troubled by how Ghahraman chose to spend her time dealing with the aftermath of the genocide. The entire ICTR defence was predicated on a revisionist account of what happened in 1994 — one that posits the victims as perpetrators — and it is incredible that someone as smart as Ghahraman didn’t know that going into the role.

It’s one thing for a UN defence lawyer to be assigned to defend ratbags. It’s quite another to seek them out in a voluntary capacity. (Apparently she went on the payroll three months in).

In a paper co-authored by Peter Robinson, regarded by Rwandan expert Tom Ndahiro as a noted sceptic of the massacres being ‘genocide’, Ghahraman claimed the event that precipitated the genocide — the plane crash that killed former President Habyarimana as well as the President of Burundi — may have been a war crime committed by Tutsi forces, the Rwandan Patriotic Army. This “blame the victims” strategy was employed by Hutu Power propagandists from hours after the missile struck the plane. 

Ballistics experts have concluded the attack must have come from within the Hutu Power barracks, miles away from any RPA position. What’s more, the paper Ghahraman wrote contains a greatest hits of dubious claims from even more dubious sources — the kind of rumour and scuttlebutt that fuels conspiracies. It is a credulous piece of work. What’s more, it is yet another attempt to create a “both sides” narrative which can exonerate the true perpetrators. 

Wittingly or not, Ghahraman jumped on that bandwagon. As a public figure, she ought to be judged by such choices. 

The theory that blames liberating forces for bringing the genocide on themselves lives on in European capitals, which are home to exiled Hutu Power elites, and among a small cohort of genocide deniers scattered across the media and in academia. You can count them on two hands, but social media amplifies their twisted view of history.

Wittingly or not, Ghahraman jumped on that bandwagon. As a public figure, she ought to be judged by such choices. 

Former New Zealand diplomat Colin Keating is a hero in Rwanda. He was one of only three members of the Security Council in 1994 to demand action to prevent and bring the slaughter to a stop. He saw what was coming and had the courage and insight to force the issue against a persistent French, and sometimes American, veto. For that reason, being a Kiwi was always a breeze in Rwanda, where I lived and worked on a public sector capacity building project for three years. In my opinion, Ghahraman’s emergence as a volunteer defender of the perpetrators stains that pristine reputation.   

Ghahraman has had a dream run in her political career, but it is becoming clearer that her tendency to obfuscate her accomplishments brings her judgment into question. Posing with convicted war criminal Simon Bikindi in a beaming selfie is yet another bad choice in point.

I am less concerned about the CV-embellishing than the substance of Ghahraman’s choices. If she didn’t buy the fictitious account of the genocide propagated by the ICTR defence team, why on earth would she volunteer to spend a year to help them sell it?  

*This article has been updated to source the description of Peter Robinson to Rwandan genocide researcher Tom Ndahiro, and to remove the suggestion Robinson was a sceptic of the ‘massacres’ in Rwanda and Srebrenica.

Image: Screenshot from Twitter 

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