The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as the Theater: The Social Negotiation of the Moral Authority of International Law

31 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2006 Last revised: 29 Oct 2011

See all articles by Maya Steinitz

Maya Steinitz

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2007


The international criminal courts (ICCs) - the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the Former-Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, the recently-established permanent International Criminal Court, and hybrid internationalized tribunals such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone - are the international community's attempt to address the worst of the criminal manifestations of racism, nationalism and large-scale xenophobia. Based on five months of ethnographic research at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), analyzed using Erving Goffman's dramaturgical framework, this article examines the means through which moral authority is constructed and communicated by the ICTR. Specifically, the article advances the argument that the ICCs seek to personify the Generalized Other; that they claim to embody the universal authority and morality of the international community. The generalized other is an organized and generalized attitude with reference to which individuals define their conduct. The Generalized Other and institutions help socialize people in different parts of society to have the same responses, interests, and moral beliefs and conceptions of selves needed for understanding and synchronizing with others. It is through interactions - immediate and mediated - with Generalized Others that the self arises and is negotiated; that stigmatization of individuals and groups occur; that social concepts are defined; and that psychological citizenship manifests. Therefore, the interplay between inclusion and exclusion, hegemony and diversity in institutions that have the potential not only to communicate for, but also to embody and personify the international Generalized Other, as well as the very existence of such social institutions, is of great social significance.

The analysis of the ethnographic data traces the three dimensions of jurisdiction - geographical jurisdiction (space), temporal jurisdiction (time) and subject-matter jurisdiction (story) - which are also the three dimensions of theater and of reality. In describing the negotiation of each dimension the article explores the philosophical notion that law qua law claims legitimate and supreme authority and the sociological notion that courts, including international criminal courts, are among the most significant institutions to perform, dramaturgically speaking, such claims by explaining that, more specifically, courts try to fashion themselves as the embodiment of a truly universal Generalized Other proclaiming the universal morality of the international community. In contrast to that projected unity, a close decoding of the face-to-face interactions, the performances, which give rise to the abstraction the ICTR demonstrate that the negotiated reality that is the ICTR (and by implication, ICCs generally) is an emergent of and, at least to a degree, a reflection of cultural and gender differences and diversity. Whether or not one concludes that the ICTR's projection is successful, the attempt has profound implications for the formation of the self and citizenship of individuals in the international sphere.

Keywords: ICTR, Rwanda, International Criminal law, Transitional Justice, international community, legal philosophy, Joseph Raz, Goffman, dramaturgy, theater, authority, legitimacy, generalized other, self, rape

JEL Classification: K33, K14, K19, K10, K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Steinitz, Maya, The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as the Theater: The Social Negotiation of the Moral Authority of International Law (June 1, 2007). Journal International Law & Policy, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 1, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Maya Steinitz (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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