binaifer nowrojee

Then: researcher for human rights watch in the women's rights division

Now:   regional director for asia at open society foundation


Q: In the film, you talk about how you went to law school because you were interested in justice. How—or when—did that start?

A: I grew up in Kenya at a time when there was a very autocratic and dictatorial government. And I grew up in a household where my father was a human rights lawyer. He represented detainees. So very early on, I got exposed to both the issue of repression and to the possibility of redemption through justice.


Q: The Akayesu case happened 17 years ago. What was your reaction when the filmmakers approached you?

A: Michele’s email came out of the blue, and I had completely moved on since then. I work now in philanthropy, and Akayesu had been kind of tucked away for the last so many years. I hadn’t thought about it.


Q: What was your reaction when you watched the film for the first time?

A: I felt like I had been transported back almost twenty years to that moment. It all just came alive again. The movie captured what had happened, including the depth of emotion and passion and outrage that I’d had at that time. It took quite a few years, and a lot of time and energy from a lot of people to make that judgment happen. That long road to justice flooded back, all of the pain and the glory.


Q: Godelieve Mukasarasi and all the witnesses are all in this film—the witnesses on-camera for the first time.  What was your reaction to seeing them?

A: I’ve known Godelieve for the last twenty years. So I knew that she would be good in front of the camera, and strong. The witnesses—I was so struck at how profound their observations were about why they had gone to testify, and their understanding of what they had contributed to. It was, to me, such a confirmation of the importance of justice. That justice really is, like what they said in that prayer before they went out to testify, it’s not about revenge, it is about justice. It’s about acknowledgement. And you can see how these women just felt so empowered by that concept.


Q: Michele was waiting to meet you when she was looking at the Lisa Pruitt memo for the first time. What was your reaction to seeing the memo?

A: I had never heard of that memo, and no one had spoken about it, and no one had spoken about Lisa Pruitt. In all the time that I spoke with Pierre Prosper, Sara Darehshori and Patricia Sellers, no one ever mentioned that there had been a consultant who actually came to look at these issues and who wrote a memo. It had completely been buried.


Q: After you wrote ‘Shattered Lives’ you mentioned that you got a different response to the sexual violence in Rwanda as opposed to that in the former Yugoslavia.

A: Many of the investigators that were hired were not trained to interview rape victims, and quite a few of them did not see rape as a crime of genocide. Their own legal understanding of that crime was wrong, and so they didn’t investigate it. A number of them didn’t feel comfortable asking the detailed questions that were needed about the act of rape in the witness cases. And so what we find is even for those investigators that did ask about it, there wasn’t sufficient questioning in order to get the level of evidence that was needed to move forward.


Q: You say in the film that Godelieve is one of your heroes. Do you keep in touch?

A: Yes, I see her every couple of years. We are as fond of each other today as we’ve been for the last so many years.


Q: In the film, you tell one of the most searing stories about some of the sexual violence that occurred. Some people might be surprised that that kind of brutality happens.

A: Yes, I agree. The level of brutality is unimaginable in terms of the way sexual violence was used as a weapon of genocide in Rwanda. That's why when judicial investigators and prosecutors at these international tribunals treat it as a lesser crime, it shows a lack of understanding not only of the international law, but also how rape is used in conflict to terrorize and to reach a political goal because rape affects many levels: It physically harms the individual; it impacts the family due to the stigma of rape; and it destroys the fabric of the community for long after the event.


Q: What steps can be taken to solve that lack of understanding?

A: First of all, you have to ensure that your staff is trained to understand the jurisprudence, the law, etc. Then, staff has to be held accountable through performance appraisal. Usually the position of gender advisor is separate from everything else, as opposed to being fully integrated into the system. That needs to be integrated, and every single representative in leadership needs to understand that it’s part of their job to prosecute sexual violence.


Q: What impact do you hope this film will have?

A:  I hope that this film can be a message to people working in international justice to ensure that this issue is not forgotten. For people who are not working in international justice, I hope that they get a better understanding of the fact that sexual violence is a serious crime that can and should be prosecuted; that it get the kind of wide, mainstream recognition that it deserves. This film is really quite groundbreaking in telling both a story and also addressing a very critical and serious issue about international justice, and the need for it to strengthen its response to rape.


Q: Rape is being used right now as a weapon of war by groups like Boko Haram or ISIS.

A:  It comes as no surprise for me, because you can see why combatants use rape. But what actually is outrageous is that even up to today, the ability of the international community to hold combatants responsible for this crime remains very, very minimal.


Q: Does hearing these stories that are happening now brings you back to memories of Rwanda?

A: Absolutely. Oh my god, absolutely. I’ll tell you, it has really deeply affected me, this film. I really was transported back. All of us were so intertwined––there was a time when we were really interacting with each other, with a lot of push and pull. The depth of emotion and the meaning of justice that Michele and Nick have managed to capture in the film is profound. I think for that reason it’s well worth others seeing the value of what justice can do for people whose lives have been so completely broken.