On Golriz Ghahraman, human rights and defending the devil

A new Green MP is under fire over her past work as a legal intern in a team defending men accused of war crimes in Rwanda. Do the criticisms hold water, asks legal professor Andrew Geddis

There’s a popular narrative around human rights. In this story, there is the good side and the bad side. The good side are those who stand up and fight for the rights of the oppressed. The bad side are those who do the oppressing.

It is the Rebel Alliance against the Empire. William Wallace facing down the English invaders. Smith in the bush, resisting Volkner’s neo-fascist enforcers.

One problem with this narrative is that the actual way human rights issues are dealt with in international legal forums involves a lot less heroic action and a lot more paperwork. That fact is not accidental. The basic aim of the international human rights project is to create binding standards of behaviour that then can be enforced through institutions which command the respect and voluntary obedience of all state actors.

In a nutshell, it tries through sheer dint of process and protocol to turn the fierce moral urgency of “you should respect rights” into “you will respect rights”. The Death Star isn’t really destroyed by two proton torpedoes; it’s slowly transformed into the Nice Star by pan-galactic accords requiring minimal standards of respectful treatment for the diverse stellar civilisations as developed by inter-species committees and overseen through quasi-judicial processes for resolving disputes over the application of those standards.

I think it’s this gap between what we imagine when we hear “international human rights lawyer” and what that job actually entails that led to Golriz Ghahraman hitting the interweb yesterday. For those of you who missed it, there was some shock—shock!—expressed at the news that her past work experience involved spending some time on the defence team for an individual facing war crimes charges in Rwanda.

Then intern Golriz Ghahraman with Simon Bikindi, the pop singer convicted for incitement to genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2008.

Even discounting for the fact the main expression of outraged hurt came from David Farrar, a source not likely to be sympathetic to Ghahraman in any circumstances, there’s still two things to consider here. First of all, did Ghahraman actually do anything wrong by helping to defend an accused war criminal? And second, even if Ghahraman actually didn’t do anything wrong, did the Green Party do wrong by somehow covering up her past?

I think the first question actually is pretty easy to answer. Defending nasty individuals is just a part of what international human rights lawyers do. Consider the example of probably the world’s most famous such lawyer, Amal Alamuddin (now Clooney).

Yes, she’s represented the Armenian people in an effort to have their genocide recognised, advocated for the Yazidi people and stood in court for the Chagos Islanders. But she’s also represented “the dictatorial King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa; Abdullah al Senussi, former intelligence chief to the late Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi; and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.”

That’s because the point of the international human rights project is to create global institutions that can implement the rule-of-law practices we expect in nice, rights respecting places like New Zealand. So, when you’ve got someone accused of genocide in Rwanda, you don’t just summarily execute him or leave him to rot in a hole. You determine whether or not he actually did what he’s accused of, then punish him accordingly.

Such processes then require people to stand on each side of them; people who believe in the overall project irrespective of whether they are there “for” the defence or the prosecution. Because just as in our domestic legal system it’s not only the prosecution who believes in “the law”, so too do both sides in the international human rights field share a commitment to a vision of a better, human rights respecting world.

For me, this serving a greater project also distinguishes Ghahraman from MPs whose previous jobs involved taking on more morally questionable duties. Ghahraman played a necessary (if hard) role in an internationally established institution designed to resolve in an open and legitimate fashion individual guilt for horrible actions (thus showing that we collectively are better that those we condemn through it). Chris Bishop chose to work for a company whose product kills people (sorry, Chris).

So, then, is it all a question of nothing really to see here? Well, mostly. But consider how many words it’s taken me to try and convince you that being on the defence team of an accused war criminal doesn’t make Ghahraman a bad person, or even a good person who did a bad job.

Explaining that being pro-human rights can sometimes mean having to stand in the corner of allegedly very evil individuals is hard to do in a simple good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative. It’s much easier to just say “I’m on the side of human rights, which means I back the good guys in every fight”.

And it has to be said that the Green Party seems to have decided that this easier road was the one to take, up until the election anyway. At no point, I hasten to add, did they actively lie about Ghahraman’s past. But if you read her party profile, it tells you this:

Her studies at Oxford, and work as a lawyer for the United Nations and in New Zealand, have focused on enforcing human rights and holding governments to account. Golriz has lived and worked in Africa, The Hague and Cambodia putting on trial world leaders for abusing their power, and restoring communities after war and human rights atrocities, particularly empowering women engaged in peace and justice initiatives.

Which rather soft-pedals the fact that some of that “putting on trial world leaders for abusing their power” involved her ensuring that their rights were properly respected in the process.

And it was not until after the election was complete and Ghahraman was declared elected that she appears to have completely recounted to Vice her experiences working as an international rights lawyer. Certainly, a couple of hours spent searching didn’t turn up any pre-election media stories describing her role as a defence lawyer (although there is this (apparently left uncorrected) NZ Herald story from January wrongly stating “She worked as a prosecutor at United Nations tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia…”)

Again, we need to keep this in context. I’m sure that the various other lawyers sitting in parliament may have done work for past clients that they probably would rather wasn’t waved in front of the public. That which is legal, and indeed completely ethical, can still be politically troublesome. And political parties aren’t exactly in the business of highlighting the politically troublesome aspects of their candidate’s past.

So, if no-one ever asked Ghahraman exactly what her role was in Rwanda, should she really have volunteered to an otherwise incurious interviewer “I’d just like to clarify that while I was serving the greater human rights project, my particular role at that point in time was to help the institution of the court provide a defence to a man accused of some very ugly crimes against defenceless civilians”? Is that the standard of proactive disclosure we now expect of all our prospective politicians?

Perhaps, then, Ghahraman’s complete story can best help to remind us that stories with the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other generally belong in books or on movie screens. In real life, and certainly in the practice of international human rights law, the narrative is (as they say) a bit more problematic. It shouldn’t really be a shock to us that this is so.

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