lisa pruitt

Then: gender consultant for international criminal tribunal for rwanda

Now:   law professor, university of california at davis


Q: Were you surprised when Michele first contacted you in September 2013?

A: I was very surprised to get that first e-mail from Michele. In the 17 years since I wrote the memo, no one—no journalist, no one from the tribunal—had ever contacted me before. As far as I knew, my work at the tribunal had been, essentially, completely lost or ignored. Those were the messages that I was sent by the high level officials at the Office of the Prosecutor when I left. I had no idea my memo had ever seen the light of day. I was certainly surprised that, 17 years later, a documentary filmmaker had seen it.


Q: And when you found out that your memo had played such a key role in the case?

A: Well, it felt terrific. I hadn’t thought about it in years, to be perfectly frank. I hadn’t thought about it because while I was delighted that Akeysu was ultimately convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, based on acts of rape and sexual assault, I had just assumed that my work had nothing to do with it. So, I was delighted that my memo had been read by someone, and that it had actually been useful.


Q: Your memo also contained the first references to Witness JJ and to Godelieve Mukasarasi.

A: It was just extremely exciting to see all the pieces fit together. That, in fact, women whose statements I had been analyzing back in 1996 were the same women who ultimately testified before the tribunal. After I was in Rwanda, I was under the impression that none of that work ever mattered or ever got used. But, in fact, those very same witnesses that we knew about as early as 1996 were the ones who ultimately testified. When the judges decided to suspend the trial, to seek information for a possible indictment on sexual assault charges, it didn’t require a sort of reinvention of the wheel for the prosecution. It didn’t even require going and finding new witnesses, because we already knew about those witnesses. It just brought everything full circle.


Q: What is the most important part of the film, to you?

A: Definitely my favorite part of the film was watching the witnesses tell the story of how they came to make the decision to travel to testify. I find them extremely, extremely courageous and inspiring. I met them for the first time in Rwanda in June, and they are so unassuming and self-effacing. Yet I think what they did, most people would agree that what they did, was incredibly courageous and path-breaking. To see them on film, and see their beautiful faces and to hear their beautiful voices was just very exciting and awe-inspiring.


Q: In the film, you come forward for the first time about your own sexual assault. Why did you decide to come forward?

A: Going to Rwanda was part of a personal journey as a rape survivor, and as an ardent feminist. In some ways, I see sexual assault, wherever it occurs, as a related phenomenon. There are major differences between being raped in the midst of a war and being raped as a college student, like I was. But, one of the commonalities is that it is an attack on bodily autonomy. Rape is widely recognized now as more about power than it is about sex. I think that we gain nothing by shaming rape survivors, by discouraging them from talking about what happened to them. I know that it makes us uncomfortable, that society is made uncomfortable, when women are open about being rape survivors. But I don’t see how we’re going to begin to solve the widespread phenomenon, or reduce the incidents of rape, if we don’t encourage women to be open and honest about their own rape stories. I feel that it’s very important to be out as a rape survivor, and talking about it in this film was walking the walk.


Q: Thinking back to your time in Rwanda, and working on your memo, what memory sticks out to you the most?


A: Well, I think the first thing that really comes to mind is how outraged I was when I learned that nothing was going to become of the work that I was there to do. It felt like the ICTR calling me a “gender consultant” and having me do this work had all been a silly, cruel joke.


Q: What will you discuss about the case with your students?

A: There is, on the book, a successful conviction of rape as an act of genocide. But there are other lessons to be taken from this case. The fact that very young, idealistic lawyers like Pierre, Sara, and me were able to act on our convictions and our idealistic motivations and ultimately to be involved in a path-breaking conviction like the Akayesu case is a positive. But there are also many, many practical and political barriers to achieving outcomes like Akayesu. As the film depicts, there were many moments when it was not at all clear if this case would be about rape, or that, once it came to be about rape, that there would be a successful conviction. Law is rarely a straightforward endeavor. Politics and practicalities––like gathering witness statements, gaining the trust of witnesses––can impede the development of a case. Ultimately, the Akayesu case is a story of overcoming those obstacles, but nevertheless it’s important to recognize that those obstacles were there, all to be navigated.


Q: What do you think about other conflicts where sexual assault is used, such as by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram?

A: It just makes me furious all over again. On an ongoing basis, the world community is not doing anything particularly meaningful to stop the use of rape as a weapon of war. We had this successful conviction in the Akayesu case, and it’s wonderfully symbolically important, but what difference has it really made? We have to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands, and even millions of women—and men—have been raped as part of military campaigns in civil wars in the years since Akayesu was convicted.