'She Makes Me Ashamed to Be a Woman': The Genocide Conviction of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, 2011
46 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2012 Last revised: 16 Apr 2013
Date Written: October 2, 2012
Although much of the literature on gender and conflict focuses, appropriately, on women as victims of violence, women also act as agents of violence, including mass atrocity, during conflict situations. The first (and, to date, only) woman to be convicted by an international tribunal for genocide and rape as a crime against humanity is Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwanda’s former Minister of Family and Women’s Development. She was sentenced to life imprisonment by Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in June 2011. At the time of her conviction, she was 65 years old.
This article is partly biopic (sketching her background), partly legal (summarizing the trial/judgment), and partly interrogative (on this latter note, exploring the intersections between gender and justice in the strategies of participants in the proceedings and, more tellingly, in public portrayals thereof). The judgment itself, at 1,500 pages in length, is gender-neutral in terms of its depiction of Nyiramasuhuko. She is presented as a perpetrator indifferently from her male coperpetrators.
Public portrayals of Nyiramasuhuko, in contrast, exude problematic essentialisms, stereotypes, and imagery of women and mothers. These caricatures – which constitute the focus of this paper – emerge at two distinct levels. First, they are invoked by the media to sensationalize and spectacularize the trial itself – in short, to titillate. Second, they are instrumentally invoked to favor strategic operational outcomes. For example, those stakeholders who condemn Nyiramasuhuko’s conduct turn to her status as woman and mother to accentuate her personal culpability and individual deviance (i.e. she is a worse perpetrator, a greater disappointment, and a more shocking offender because she is a woman, mother, and grandmother). Those who defend her conduct, including Nyiramasuhuko herself, pretextually invoke tropes rooted in imagery of womanhood and motherhood to emphasize the impossibility of her culpability (i.e. she can’t be a perpetrator, in particular of rape, because she is a woman, mother, and grandmother).
Nyiramasuhuko’s trial and conviction also, when deconstructed, offer a number of important lessons for the development and effectiveness of international legal interventions in post-conflict spaces. These proceedings, therefore, can be read didactically. The adulation heaped on her case belies a shadow side, to wit, that the veneration of international justice can lead to neglect of national justice. The proceedings against Nyiramasuhuko also inform of the need to rethink the role of femininities and masculinities in the metastasis of atrocity. Recognizing women as agents of violence, as bystanders to violence, as resisters of violence, as well as victims of violence informs a more nuanced understanding of atrocity and, thereby, solidifies deterrent aspects. In this vein, this article advocates for a more nuanced, grounded, and sublime approach to victims and victimizers, at times the two being one, in mass atrocity. And, finally, the proceedings against Nyiramasuhuko reveal the limits to criminalization in the process of transitional justice more generally, and important components thereof such as emboldening the status of women in post-conflict societies.
Keywords: Genocide, Justice, Gender, Women's Rights, Mass Violence
JEL Classification: K10, K32, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation