Contra Quin: Ghahraman still did nothing wrong

Phil Quin says Golriz Ghahraman's time working for defendants in Rwandan war crimes trials deserves our condemnation. I don't think he's established the basis for such a claim.  

The issue of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman's past actions on international criminal tribunals is a pretty weird one. There doesn't appear to be any dispute about what she did. The argument is all about what those actions mean and how we should judge them.

I set out my thoughts on this in a post last night, basically saying that international human rights lawyers have to work for nasty people - if they don't, then the whole human rights project can't function as it is meant to. So if you think there is value in that project - which can always be debated - then you can't really criticise the actions of those who make it work. Since then I've become aware that Ghahraman herself told the NZ Herald's Kirsty Johnston much the same thing some six weeks before the election, which rather complicates allegations that Ghahraman and/or her Green Party were trying to hide her past role with the defence teams for some pretty reprehensable war criminals.

Today, however, Phil Quin alleged over on Newsroom that Ghahraman's actions do deserve some (unspecified) measure of moral condemnation. I think he's wrong about that, but before I get to say why I need to acknowledge something. Quin has spent substantial time in Rwanda engaging with its people and trying to help that country heal. He knows more about the circumstances of that place than I ever will. I do not question his commitment to the country or his understanding of the genocide or its effects.

Nevertheless, I still think that, based on the content of his article, the charges he lays against Ghahraman don't really stack up. Basically, they boil down to two things. First of all, she unnecessarily "chose" to go to Rwanda to volunteer on the defence side of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)Second, she co-authored an article with a more senior lawyer that (according to Quin) repeats genocide-denying canards. I think both these alleged misdeeds are mistaken.

First of all, Quin's claims about Ghahraman rest on a purported distinction between paid legal representatives (whom Quin says he accepts are a necessary and legitimate component of the ICTR process, which he also says he supports) and interns. Here's how he puts it:

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).

Note the somewhat buried point in paranthesis - Ghahraman's internship lasted 3 months, after which she became a paid member of a legal team (and so, in Quin's own terms, was a necessary and legitimate part of the ICTR process). So what Quin really is complaining about is those three months during which Ghahraman was "volunteering".

OK then - how exactly do such internships come about? Well, note that they aren't candy that the defence teams just hand out to whomever comes begging. They are official positions that the UN has established and which you must apply for and be accepted into, before being assigned to whatever tasks the UN has to hand. Here's that process laid out

So Quin's beef with allowing people to volunteer to be an unpaid part of the defence process at the ICTR would appear better aimed at the UN rather than someone wanting to get a first step on the ladder towards a career in international human rights law.

Nevertheless, Ghahraman still volunteered to be there - she chose to be on the defence side of the table in the ICTR. Unlike, suggests Quin, those paid lawyers who had to be there to do the nasty work. Except, how exactly does one become a defence lawyer at the ICTR?

Well, as this explains, you either get hired directly by one of the accused out of their own pockets (and agree to work for them), or else you agree to be a part of a pool of lawyers from which lawyers are assigned to defendants who can't afford to pay for one. In other words, you volunteer for the work.

So I'm really struggling to see what the moral difference is between a paid UN defence representative who has volunteered to be a part of the ICTR process (which Quin says is necessary and legitimate) and someone who gets put on a defence team after winning an official slot on the UN internship programme (which Quin seems to think is somehow being complicit with those who are on trial). 

What, then, of Quin's second claim:

In a paper co-authored by Peter Robinson, a noted sceptic of both the Rwandan and Srebrenica massacres, 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 (RPA). This “blame the victims” strategy was employed by Hutu Power propagandists from hours after the missile struck the plane. 

I'll set aside the fairness (and perhaps wisdom) of Newsroom allowing someone to be labled a "sceptic", much less a "noted sceptic", of mass murder based purely on the legal arguments he has advanced on the behalf of his clients and instead focus on Quin's claims about what this academic paper says. Unfortunately, I can't give you access to it directly, as it's hidden behind an academic pay wall. However, I can give you my view that after reading it that Quin simply isn't correct in his claims about it.

The paper does accept purely for the purpose of argument (but noting that the evidence at that time was very unclear) that the RPA shot down the plane, solely in order to assess what international criminal consequences then might follow from such an act - before concluding that probably none would and so even if the RPA had done so (which they don't say did happen), no charges should be laid. It's a bog-standard legal academic investigation of the consequences of a hypothetical. And if you need a tie-breaker on opinions about the paper's content, I invite you to read this thread by Max Harris.

There's then another problem with Quin's attack on the paper. He tells us that because "ballistics experts have concluded the attack must have come from within the Hutu Power barracks, miles away from any RPA position", even suggesting that the RPA may have been responsible is completely beyond the pale. This very well may be true - but the conclusive report that Quin cites took place in 2012, some four years after the paper's publication. 

To then thoroughly damn a 25-year-old Ghahraman for helping to write an academic paper, largely because of the findings of a report that came out four years later, seems remarkably churlish. The paper may be bad or ill-founded (although having looked at its subsequent citations, no-one else seems to have had a problem with it before now). But some sort of apology for genocide or giver of comfort to those who committed it? I think not.

So with all due respect to Quin's experience in Rwanda and knowledge of the ground there, I just don't think he's accurately represented what Ghahraman's place at the ICTR involved, nor do I think his criticism of a paper she helped co-write is really fair.