Minow and Gourevitch: Human Rights as a recovery of Humanity

Yongho Kim
INTL245: Human Rights
November 7, 2003

Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is a powerful account of the genocide in Rwanda, an analysis of certain key concepts in issues of mass violations of human rights, and an outcry to the international community and the institutionalized humanitarian effort to aid those in need. Gourevitch believes that anybody stepping into Rwanda has some form of impact and responsibility in the genocide and its aftermath, and calls on to states and organizations to examine human rights situations more closely.

Minow’s Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, on the other hand, encompasses a range of well known cases, including the cases of Yugoslavia, Chile, Rwanda, and South Africa from a comparative perspective. While focusing in the institutionalized response to violations, she addresses challenges faced by two contemporary mechanisms that deal with massive violations: namely, Truth Commissions and Courts.

Each of these mechanisms embody a particular theme within the Human Rights movement, which I have chosen as the guiding themes for this paper: those of truth and justice. At the core of both themes, runs the question of humanity. Neither mechanism can work properly – to offer justice and reparations to victims – without critically assessing the sincerity of the apology, recognition, or sorrow and regret of the perpetrator. A shared experience of humanity in both the victim and perpetrator in the final act of reconciliation constitutes a minimum requisite before any act of amnesty or institutionalized forgiveness.

Minow is more concerned about the relationship between victims and perpetrators and the post-mass-violence world in general; accordingly, she deals with the theoretical issues arising within such contexts: What does disobeying or obeying an unhuman law entail? Can amnesty be transactioned for truth? In what form should reparations take place? And ultimately, is human dignity upheld in the process? Minow analyzes such dilemmas using an array of theoretical approaches, and in this paper I have tried to identify specific applications Gourevitch makes of such ideological devices identified by Minow.


In the particular case of truth, my main framework in sewing different instances of truth together derives from Gourevitch’s assertion that “Power consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality” (Gourevitch 48). Minow gives various examples regarding this approach supporting such assertion. Among them, she cites the bible: “Know the truth and it will set you free” (Minow 66). In sum, both authors agree that truth is an empowering tool.

Minow insists that truth telling often initiates a holistic process of social healing. Some may be more interested in telling their stories than in retribution (M 68). Some may expose traumatic memories (M 46). She argues that storytelling “permits an integration into a coherent history of events that were necessarily disassociated” (M 66), viewing it as a part of a process of personal healing. I prefer Gourevitch’s scheme of power as the ability of sharing (or maybe imposing?) his or her version of the truth for it accounts for more than a psychological treatment. Telling the truth, telling one’s story is essentially a reappropriation of lost power – a public and symbolic gesture of restituting the violated human dignity.

This interpretation explains, for instance, why memory in the context of the genocide is so selective. Odette, a Tutsi survivor, “was keeping everything that was not about Hutu and Tutsi to herself … Odette spoke as a genocide survivor to a foreign correspondent” (G 70). Minow may not agree, for she makes no explicit mention of such incident in her accounts of survivors; but she cannot deny the fact that she is quoting survivors only insofar as their subject remains within the context of violations of human rights. The numerous details of daily life may prove interesting or anecdotical, but ultimately they fail to do what truths in the context of mass violence of human rights accomplish: to empower victims to stand face to face with perpetrators who in a past neglected their very humanity. This is why one of the main focuses of the Japanese-American population claiming compensation for forced seclusion in camps during World War II lies in the education of “the entire or even international community” (M 100). Even though many may prefer not to talk about their years in the camps, slowly, with the integration of such stories into textbooks and the spread of general knowledge into the population, can such wounds coagulate (M 98, 99).

Truth-telling heightens a sense of responsibility on the perpetrator and the entire society. Gourevitch explains that victims “could never be properly compensated, unless, at the very least, the perpetrators of the genocide acknowledged that they had done wrong.” (G250). Admitting wrongdoing, then, is the first step towards retribution. Because of this, governments and organizations may deny the reality of mass violations to escape a call to action (G139): during the Rwanda genocide, UNHCHR insisted in the use of the term “possible genocide” (G152), while the U.S. avoids the use of the term “genocide” altogether (G 153) and France calls the Hutu dominated area with French support a “safe zone” (G 157).

Minow worries that “people from different quarters [may] see the same thing and empathize with the same witness or instead line up with those [including perpetrators] whose positions most resemble their own” (M 75). I believe, however, that this is a commendable result, since for justice to occur, those who were involved need to take some sort of stance. Degrees of responsibility (G 250) may be multilayered, caused from complex motivations (M 63). Recognizing such differences is important, for “there is no injustice in punishing… [those] who knew they were committing a crime” (M 34, also G 131)

Because truth has such transformative force to people who come to know of it, portrayals of mass violations by media and government officials becomes particularly prominent in the international arena. Gourevitch attributes responsibility to such organs as the UN or other international bodies for not reacting when the crisis was ongoing, because intervention was harder, and for rushing in to provide help to runaway genocidaires, providing a major tragedy in the history of humanitarian intervention (G 170, 262), raising high walls of suspicion among the Rwandan population and leadership. (G 293)

Minow points to the lack of objectivity in addressing mass violations of human rights. Citing Herman, who says that “survivors… view all relationships through the ‘lens of extremity’” (M 65), Minow addresses the concern of people who worry victims may lack precision and some veracity in describing the utmost emotional aspects of the experience (M 70). While she encourages the latter on the basis that truth telling is at the same time a confirmation of the facts and an opportunity for the person to “reinvent or repair.. the self” (M 64), she argues against the overarching effect of mass violations. Gourevitch opposes her in this first point; citing Frohardt, he argues that “everything you do in Rwanda has to be done in the context of the genocide” (G 206) because not doing so would be an insensitive disapproval of what happened in Rwanda.

It goes without saying that forgetting the extermination “is part of the extermination itself” (M 118); the intention of the killers was to kill everybody so that nobody would know (G 200), leaving their work invisible (G 21). An active affirmation of truth may be painful, but necessary. Kagame says that telling the truth is “the best way out” (G 274), even for his people, who are the real survivors of Rwanda. Sometimes, this may be a lot easier than what it seems – Odette’s son reminds her that the floating bodies are not statues fallen to the river, but that “it’s corpses” (G 130).


How should mass violations be dealt with at their aftermath? Many perpetrators in Rwanda and elsewhere, like Gimuruhatse (G 309) argue that they were “just following orders”. They were “understood as a legal act” (M 43) But which orders were being followed? Minow argues that fundamentally “wrong” rules should not be obeyed, and upon compliance the perpetrator takes on part of the responsibility (M 27). Were orders understood as wrong, or did perpetrators bear no responsibility because of reasoning was paralyzed? A convincing proof of this is that many Hutus fled as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) moved through the country; Gourevitch observes that they had to know they were guilty in order to flee (G 161). Duress is a sensible issue that neither Minow nor Gourevitch seems to tackle directly (M 36); rather, they appeal to the humanity of a restorative justice and argue that the issue at stake is the reintegration of perpetrators and victims alike into society, after proper recognition and reconciliation of crimes. (M 92, G 313)

In the case of Rwanda, however, since genocide has been so skillfully masqueraded, it is hard identify perpetrators at all. Even though genocide was defined by the government as one “committed by masterminds and slave bodies” (G 249), who becomes a “mastermind” is not a clear-cut distinction and those in middle ground may claim only partial responsibility. (G 310) Minow points out that in many cases “only small portions … [of perpetrators] became the target of prosecutions” (M 31). This observation, in conjunction with the fact that most high-ranking officers of apartheid did not admit individual responsibility (M 76), calls into question the equality of criminal procedures that selectively accuse perpetrators. Are only those who seek justice judged? How is the fact that most direct carriers of genocidal orders in Rwanda won’t admit charges, with the refusal of powerful bystanders in South Africa to recognize their participation at all? Gourevitch supports a more incisive judiciary – only this way, the numerous mourning voices from his account will gain strength (G 131). Minow backs an institutionalized judiciary (M 82) and sees more hope in the system: some perpetrators have simply come forward to tell the truth and be judged (M 125).

Judicial ambiguity is further severed because courts in Rwanda were often overburdened with the number of cases and due process was a goal far away (G 248). Minow criticizes the lack of defense lawyers and the lack of transparency in the trials, and does not accept the excuse that trials were an “reestablishment of the rule of law and an end to the repeated waves of ethnically motivated violence” (M 124). “A trial”, Minow notes, “marks an effort between vengeance and forgiveness” (M26), and should therefore be consolidated rather than abandoned. Gourevitch stands diametrically in opposition to her claim. First, unjailed Hutus may often be killed by angry Tutsis. (G 245) Second, the courts were underfunded and under permanent instability by the remaining Hutu Power leaders (G 166), while the nation was being denied basic necessities (G 248). Additionally, the situation in South Africa (which is shown as a role model) was altogether different, Gourevitch claims, for it had a newly established order in which prior power structures had been completely abolished (G 251). Still, the challenge of due process remains a pragmatic one, since “outside observers … [may] question the fairness [of trials]” (M 37) and move humanitarian organizations to keep denying help.

But should individuals take justice on their own hands and fill in the gaps? People certainly “have the wish” for revenge (G 318) and often settle their scores privately (G 223). Minow is most likely to oppose such irrational choices, for “vengeance can lead to horrible excesses and still fail to restore what was destroyed initially” (M 11). She poses an additional problem to vengeance, namely, that there is a goal set by the judicial process that vengeance cannot fulfill. This goal is accountability and an integration of perpetrators back into the society (M 9). The truth is that the whole society has been the perpetrator of crimes like the Rwandan genocide or South African apartheid and putting them all into jail is not possible (G 242). Reintegration only happens in light of reconciliation (M 106). Kagame, Rwanda’s new vice president, recognizes that “there are feelings of people” between “the demands for justice and the desire for order” (G 308). In this respect, Gourevitch’s general approach to the issue of repatriation of “refugees” falls under Minow’s theoretical frame. It is impossible to justly compensate victims (“compensation” becoming pretty much meaningless), but accountability should nevertheless be kept in watch. (G 315)


There are two meanings contained with the word humanity: one talks about the oneness of the whole human race, as the one sought by the pygmy (G 7) who wills to marry a white woman to prove his theory. The other, the more practical aspect of humanity is a shared bond among members of a social group, epitomized in the image of Archbishop Tutu burying “his head in his hands” and bowing upon hearing the story of Malgas and seeing him cry. (M 73).

Why do crimes such as the genocide constitute a crime against humanity? In a most literal sense, humanity is understood as the survival of a group of humans; an intent on fundamentally threatening their survival becomes a crime against it. However, a second connotation is that by committing crimes against humanity, the perpetrators and bystanders alike have lost their human touch in their everyday lives. Gourevitch recalls: “They [the killed] looked like pictures of the dead” (G 15). People who have been so violently killed cannot be directly perceived; they need to be imagined, reconstructed within the hypothetical framework of generalization. It’s not my mother nor my brother who was killed; it was the Rwandan people. It was the black population in South Africa who was discriminated solely on the basis of race. 800,000 people were killed. “These kinds of facts [numbers, detectivesque details] stand apart from any meaningful dispute about what is real, or open to human grasp” (M 86). Thus in the process of finding facts, inquirers become detached from the human dimensions of the tragedy.

This particular property of observation into massacres is precisely a mirror of the process of genocide. “The individual ceases to exist” (G 95) in order to accommodate political agendas, for if the individual did exist, such killings may not become so highly widespread. A genocide, then, is the halt to the perception of humanity to victims on behalf of perpetrators.

Restoring such loss of humanity should be the prime goal of reconciliation, Minow argues (M 146). Truth-telling should “include also the survivor’s emotional and bodily responses and reactions of others important to her [mother in Chile whose son was killed by the police]” (M 70). The same is expected from the perpetrator, but often those who apply for amnesty and thus get to tell their story in a truth commission may be arrogant, or admit their crimes in monotones, with no embarrassment – without a deep recognition of the wrongness of what he or she has done (M 77). Others may see the need to tell the truth and reconciliate as a mere result of a regime change. (G 310. The implication being that should the regime change over, they will become again ruthless genocidaires). Such situations may only cause the impression to the population that the deed was paid and that the population should “move ahead”. This amounts to a roundabout negation of genocide, and to survivors, it could be an invitation to personal vengeance, or a second, spiritual, genocide (G 312).

Both recognition of the true account of events and justice imparted on perpetrators need to be generated within the context of a shared, socialized humanity. Otherwise, trials may look to outsiders like a formalized revenge, and truth hearings a mere opening of old wounds (M 85). More needs to be acknowledged than the mere fact that “I, under superior orders, killed four people”. Perpetrators need to recognize that the genocide was about people killing people. Gourevitch presents the national identity as a possible social bonding strategy among perpetrators and victims in Rwanda (G 353). While this approach may work, I prefer a closer-knit circle that Minow describes in South African TRC sessions. In contrast to the rather unnatural “functions of how we imagine ourselves and how others imagine us” (G 71), there is an appeal to Minow’s communal approach. (M 114)

There is definitely an ideological challenge to the conceptualization of justice as a community endeavor if for Hutus, “genocide was community building” (G 95). This is a question that needs further elaboration on the part of Gourevitch, for the main complain that Gourevitch has with the Rwandan trial system is that people who apparently have not wholly repented from their wrongdoings convive in society believing that they have done the right thing. Humanity is a volatile concept and always prone to structural abuses.


Minow and Gourevitch present contrasting, yet mutually confirming, attitudes and conceptual inclinations in dealing with the challenges facing human rights in times of massive violations. Part of this is due to the fact that Gourevitch’s work is a journalistic work and a call to humanly empathy, while Minow’s manuscript is legal and political by nature and focuses in the question of fair justice. Even though sometimes the two authors may stand at opposite sides of an ongoing discussion about international humanitarian intervention and the aftermath response to perpetrators, they both converge in identifying unalienable human characteristics as a basis for restorative justice.



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