Award-winning Akayesu documentary to be screened at ASIL Annual Meeting

“The Uncondemned”, an award winning documentary about the first prosecution of rape as a war crime, will be screened at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law on Friday, April 14 at 7:30pm in the Regency Ballroom A of the Capitol Hill Hyatt in Washington, D.C. The world premiere of the film occurred at the United Nations in October.

Several of the lawyers whose work on the case is featured in the documentary will be in attendance for the screening, including Patricia Sellers, then Gender Officer for ICTR and ICTFY, Pierre-Richard Prosper, lead trial attorney in the Akayesu case, and Lisa R. Pruitt, then gender consultant to ICTR. Executive Director Michele Mitchell will also be present for Q&A after the film.

“The Uncondemned” tells the story of the case against Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba commune. Akayesu was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 1997. While rape has been “on the books” as a war crime for nearly a century, it had never been prosecuted until this case. The film follows the lawyers and activists working to investigate, indict and convict Akayesu, not only on the basis of killings but also sexual assaults. The even more compelling story of the Rwandan witnesses is a focus of the film as well. Despite being initially skeptical of the United Nations and ICTR, these witnesses ended up coming forward to testify about the atrocities they saw and experienced during the genocide.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan observation that “The Uncondemned” is “the story of how history is made in small, at times uncertain, steps” is exemplified by the sexual assault charges eventually brought against Akayesu. Originally, the indictment included only charges based on killing, despite the documentation of sexual assaults by human rights NGOs. During the case, however, evidence of sexual assaults surfaced, leading to suspension of the trial until the matter could be investigated further. In the end, the indictment was amended and Akayesue was convicted not only of killings but also in connection to sexual assaults.

As a UC Davis law student interested in international human rights, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of this inspiring film at my law school a few months ago. As an aspiring lawyer, I found the documentary inspiring and uplifting. Documentaries about the Rwandan genocide tend to be uninspiring and focused on the lack of intervention of the international community. However, “The Uncondemned” tells a different story. It illustrates the extraordinary resilience of and solidarity among the Taba women who witnessed and experienced genocidal atrocities. A New York Times reviewer felt the same about the film, writing that the “most extraordinary are the interviews with the women…their integrity and tenacity, and their loyalty to one another are enough to bring you to tears.”

For me, the most important message from the film, one that the witness known by the pseudonym JJ articulates at the end of the film, is that the Taba women’s testimony made a difference. Today, rape is used as a weapon of war everywhere, in every conflict. These women showed that victims’ voices can create change and this case set a precedent of rape as a war crime. In the last moments of the film, JJ calls on other women who are experiencing violence during war to speak out about the atrocities and to trust the international criminal justice process.

 

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