patricia sellers

Then: legal advisor for gender, international criminal tribunal for rwanda and international criminal tribunal for yugoslavia

Now:   visiting fellow at oxford university, teaching international criminal law at master's level; and special advisor to the office of the prosecutor of the international criminal court


Q: When did you first want to become a lawyer?

A: Ever since I was between 10 and 12. It has a lot to do with growing up in a certain era where our heroes were people like Thurgood Marshall. We heard a lot about Brown v. Board of Education. Social engineering via the law was very prominent. By the time I got into law school, in the late sixties, early seventies, women were going to law school in greater numbers than before. I don’t think ever wanted to be anything else, seriously. Maybe a ballet dancer for two years between sixth and seventh grade, but that quickly lost speed.


Q: What was your legal career before you joined the International Criminal Tribunals?

A: I was a public defender in Philadelphia, worked with the Ford Foundation in Brazil on sexual violence and torture, and then I moved to Belgium, where I did a consultancy with the European Union in external relations, focusing on Thailand and Myanmar.


Q: You say in the film you made a cold call, that you’re “really not a cold-call person.”

A: I’d always been interested in international law and criminal law, and the tribunals were the perfect blend. It was about a 2 ½-3 hour train ride from where I was living. So here was the opportunity to get back into the courtroom and practice international criminal law, and it had come together so close. I couldn’t believe it. That’s why I called Judge McDonald cold. It was a dream come true.


Q: How important, in legal history, is the Akayesu case?

A: I teach international criminal law at Oxford, and Akayesu is one of the cases that I teach. Akayesu needs an audience that’s not just the legal audience of international criminal lawyers. It’s the equivalent in international law to Brown vs. Board of Education. I can’t say it any less than that to tell you the truth.


Q: When was the last time you saw any of the people featured in the film?

A: I hadn’t seen Lisa since that day she left the Office of the Prosecutor. I hadn’t seen Sara in over ten years. I’ve seen Pierre on TV, I’ve spoken to him a couple of times since then. Rosette was my intern at The Hague until she moved to Rwanda and worked on Akayesu, and we saw each other about seven months ago. I hadn’t seen the faces of the women for 17 years.


Q: And when you saw them in the film?

A: In your mind, you start seeing the person you saw 10 and 17 years ago. I’ve seen Binaifer over the years, but when I saw her talking about Akayesu, and I could hear how her voice was and her eyes and her reflection, I started thinking about the Binaifer that I knew 17 years ago. It was very nice to see Judge Kama again, even though he’s passed on. [The filmmakers] even caught the personality of Akayesu! I had kind of forgotten his very subtle—or not- so-subtle arrogance.


Q: What, in your opinion, was the most important part of the film?

A: Hearing the women talk about the trial in retrospect, because that is what is missing in so many articles and documentaries: to really see them now, 17 years later, and to have them talk about that case, their memories, and their feelings. That touched me the most. It wasn’t another one of those documentaries where women just confess they’ve been raped and you break the silence and you move on. It really took human consideration, from a very humane point of view.


Q: When you think back to the Akayesu case, what memory sticks out to you?

A: Discussing the legal theory with Pierre. Meeting the women in the safe house with them when they said the prayer. Being at the Rwanda Tribunal, which was so small at that time. Getting the feeling that it was a team that was really on a mission. Being quite impressed by Judge Kama and Judge Pillay. And every day, just putting one foot in front of the other but somehow knowing at the same time that it was going to be historical either way, irrespective of the decision. It’s rare to do things like that in your life.


Q: You ask in the film, “Akayesu—what does that word mean?” What does it mean to you now?

A: It’s a name that invokes horror. I don’t feel that when I hear the word “Taba.” Akayesu, could have stepped in as a politician and saved those women. He exercised an option. He allowed other people to physically rape and humiliate, and he supported and instigated it. That’s a real valuable lesson: you don’t get off just by saying “Hey, look, I never touched them.”


Q: In the film, rape doesn’t receive the same initial attention as other war crimes in Rwanda. Has this perception changed?

A: There’s a lot more recognition now from political leaders and from judicial institutions that sexual violence is not only illegal but should be addressed. That doesn’t mean that all the resources are going where they should to redress the rapes that occur, but certainly we’ve passed that threshold where people think that it’s just a couple guys having fun. We’re talking about boys and men, and women and girls and no one dare to look away.


Q: What impact do you think the film can have?

A: This gives us a way of looking at genocide and rape, and being able to look without feeling horrified and being paralyzed. This film is not going to change the members of Boko Haram, but maybe it will change some folks near Boko Haram, who knows?


Q: Both Boko Haram and ISIL have been using mass sexual violence as a weapon of terror. What are your thoughts on this?

A: Woah! I think, well, I’d really like to get a case and put on them on the stand and put them in prison, if they’re found guilty. I feel outraged about it, and in my mind, I go to a legal theory that could really capture them. That guy in Boko Haram is outrageous in that he’s made so many videos, taped and confessed his crimes, and then put them on the Internet. That’s just wonderful self-incriminating evidence. ISIL filming the slave market where they’re trading the young girls as sexual slaves, that’s great evidence.