Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal

By Catherine O'Donnell

As the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda issues its remaining judgments, a University of Washington team has assembled a historic collection of interviews with the judges, lawyers, interpreters and other people who have worked on the trials. "Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal" is believed to be the first collection of stories from people who have served on war crimes tribunals. It puts human faces on international justice.

Seventeen years ago, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were massacred in only 100 days. The trials have focused on people accused of masterminding genocide and crimes against humanity.

As an interactive website, "Voices" features video interviews with court personnel at the tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, and its investigative branch in Rwanda. The website is historic in both its content and the public invitation to help with curation, said Batya Friedman, a professor in the UW Information School who heads the project. So often in the past, she said, such material would be kept under lock and key in library special collections.

Along with offering 21 of 49 interviews in streaming video, download, or audio form, leaders of the project seek suggestions from the public about curating the interviews. "If you have as little as 20 minutes, please have a look and contribute," Friedman said.

In compelling, sometimes graphic detail, these interviews explore not only legal and political obstacles court personnel have faced, but the personal pain that comes with daily exposure to horrific stories.

The interviews also document legal justice and other efforts to heal the people of a nation. In many cases, Rwandans who have been harmed are unaware of the tribunal -- that perpetrators of the crimes have been tried and punished.

"Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal" begins to change that, at least for some victims, and puts faces on people who help render justice, Friedman said.

People of the tribunal will eventually disperse to the four corners of the globe, and with them will go their experiences, knowledge, wisdom and insight," she said. "In the interviews, they explain to victims, their families and their countries how and when justice is being carried out. These members of the tribunal also know what in the tribunal has worked, what hasn't -- and they explain."

So it's important not only to preserve these stories, Friedman said, but also to make them available for sharing.

"In time, people will wonder why tribunal personnel made some of the decisions they did. Some people may wonder why this tribunal, which produced landmark jurisprudence whereby rape can be regarded a form of genocide, rarely prosecuted for rape and crimes of sexual violence."

Some of the answers can be found in the interviews. For example, prosecutor Charles Phillips discusses putting a rape victim on the witness stand, knowing her husband would learn about the rape and that it would jeopardize the marriage. In the end, he decides not to bring the witness to the stand.

Another member of the tribunal, information officer Straton Musonera, a native of Rwanda, discusses the difficulty of holding the trials in Tanzania, away from the people who were harmed.

A third member of the tribunal, translator Colette Ngoya, says what she had to translate sometimes made her cry. Asked what she would advise other translators, she said, "No amount of coaching can give you an idea of what you will hear."

The "Voices" interviews may be used by anyone, but to ensure they are not altered, the project's security team led by UW Computer Science Professor Tadayoshi Kohno computed a unique hash mark for each one.

A few short video clips from the interviews were released in 2009, but the updated website built by Trond Nilsen, a UW industrial and systems engineering doctoral student, includes many more, plus technical features that invite visitors to help curate the collection. Visitors can suggest video segments to be highlighted as well as keywords that could be used for search features.

The interviews have been released in the language they were recorded -- most in English, about half a dozen in French. A small number of short video clips are subtitled in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.

In Rwanda, high school students have used the interviews as background for their own films on transitional justice. Important for healing and reconciliation, the student films focus on rebuilding the justice system. In eastern Congo, UW political science doctoral student Milli Lake used some of the interviews in a meeting with recent victims of sexual violence. Friedman and partners in Rwanda have also distributed "Voices" material to information centers around the country.

An expert in design of information systems, particularly those that take human values into account, Friedman envisions Rwandans listening to the videos as part of community radio, projecting them onto screens in rural settings, or using them to train counselors, legal professionals and others in the country. As part of designing information systems that speak across generations, Friedman and her team will also build a system that interacts differently with genocide survivors than with children born after the genocide; the goal is to support multi-generational healing.

Friedman's team has included former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Utter; Lisa Nathan, a professor at the University of British Columbia; and award-winning documentary filmmaker Nell Carden Grey. Friedman recently received new funds from the National Science Foundation to continue work in Rwanda.

For additional information contact Friedman at 206-351-6414 or batya@uw.edu.