From Rwanda to Taranaki: Dealing with the horrors of inhumanity
Senior Lecturer Alison Cole talks about her experience working on the UN war crimes tribunals in Rwanda investigating abuses.
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By Craig Stephen
Teaching human rights at Hong Kong University in the midst of almost daily street protests, which often became violent, or dealing with the strict Beijing-imposed security law isn’t something that is likely to spook New Zealand lecturer Alison Cole.
Alison has, after all, worked at the scene of one of the most brutal conflicts in recent times, Rwanda, where she investigated some of the worst atrocities that occurred during the country’s genocide in 1994. The outbreak of violence killed up to a million people, most of whom belonged to the Tutsi population.
“The entire country was a genocide crime scene,” she says eerily in the comforting surrounds of a Wellington café.
Alison is a senior lecturer at Hong Kong University in its Human Rights Clinic within the Law Faculty where she is based full-time but teaches at Victoria University of Wellington for the summer semester.
She teaches students – many of them practising lawyers – to verify digital evidence to aid human rights investigations. The university has become the first regional partner of the Amnesty International Citizen Evidence Lab.
After attending Cambridge University in England and Harvard Law School through scholarships, Alison worked on a number of UN war crimes tribunals investigating abuses in Rwanda, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone.
Her introduction to the UN work was the small African country, and not surprisingly she describes it as “really confronting”.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was based in Tanzania and a UN plane would take investigators into the small landlocked country.
From the capital Kigali, Alison and the crew would travel to conduct interviews and visit prisons where atrocities occurred.
“There were some really awful stories. I ended up on the Rwanda tribunal straight after grad school. I had won the Harvard Human Rights Fellowship and from that programme, in the class I was taking, the teacher was the expert witness in the sexual violence at the Rwanda tribunal.
“For my thesis paper she gave me the evidential database of crimes against women. That contained about 600 statements of really horrific crimes against women. At that time there was still a lot of resistance to recognising rape as a war crime.”
About half a million women were estimated to have been raped during the genocide.
“I was hired because I had done the crime analysis of the database and I had to look at the existing indictments which mostly did not include the crimes against women charge. So we then tried to work through ways that we could use that evidential database to amend the indictment charges. We met with rape survivors and went into prisons to talk to the rape perpetrators and connect to the top military and political leadership. It was pretty intense.”
Alison says while this was an obviously extremely difficult process, it was crucial work and something that hadn’t been really done before.
“Our generation of lawyers were one of the first to undertake such investigations.”
She says some UN staff were excavating mass graves and there was so much evidence available of the mass killings even 10 years after the events.
Nightmares, she adds, were something that “you just accustomed to”.
The same year as Alison was working on the Rwanda tribunal, her iwi – Ngāti Ruanui, and she also affiliates to Ngāruahine and Taranaki Whānui – received their Treaty of Waitangi decision.
She says there are strong similarities between the events in central Africa and here in New Zealand.
“In the Ngāti Ruanui Waitangi report they found that what had happened to my Māori ancestors had amounted to like a holocaust, and they used that word holocaust in the report.
“And in a way that was the moment where everything came full circle because I was working on a modern-day holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and here we are in New Zealand and my ancestors are being linked to this similar type of suffering and power struggles several generations ago.
“It was pretty powerful to see how my work has been so linked to New Zealand’s history and has that relevance because sometimes people may think ‘oh well, working in war crimes work how does that relate to New Zealand’ but we forget that the wars in Aotearoa didn’t occur that long ago, our close ancestors endured similar international crimes before the legal framework existed.
“I became motivated to be involved in an investigative role in war crimes because of the potential to have a deterrent impact. A bit naïve perhaps given the power of politics and all that. But over the course of my work I increasingly came to realize the impact of natural resource competition and environmental harm as a root cause of conflict. Now with climate change, no matter how much we try to make the world a better place, if we are unable to breathe the air safely it’s almost like everything else is rendered moot. That’s why I’m now increasingly investigating climate crimes.”
Alison teaches the same course in both Hong Kong and New Zealand – Investigating Human Rights, International Crimes and Ecocide.
“We do most of the teaching through actual case work, mainly around climate justice and human rights.
“Some of the casework I teach in Hong Kong is actually New Zealand based as well so I come back for that too. With the new normal around Covid-19 I’m none too sure how things are going to pan out in the future, so I guess that’s just Covid-pending.”
Teaching human rights in Hong Kong just now brings the discussion, naturally, around the events that have occurred in the autonomous region over the past year to 18 months. China’s National Security Law had not long been introduced as we talked.
Alison says that is something that will be taken on board in her teaching.
“At the moment I’m waiting on instructions – the situation just now is super sensitive and I’m not quite sure what the pathway through that will be. But there’s such a strong, robust legal system (in Hong Kong) that I’m looking forward to continuing the work.
“With my background in war crimes investigations it’s not a circumstance that I’m unfamiliar with and there’s certainly a lot of best practices that you encompass into any type of human rights teaching or investigations for casework anyway. So to some extent things continue as normal because you’re well prepared for current events changing quickly.”
While the new law is ostensibly to target people who take to the streets and defy China’s rule on the region, I wonder if the new law could be used against someone who teaches human rights, and Alison says she already has to be wary of her actions.
“The thing that is most tricky is I have to be super mindful of any comment that I make in connection with my students, like part of the protection protocols would be anyone who’s working with me has the assurance that they are abiding by the Basic Law, which is the constitutional framework with China. “
Alison says her teaching is part of the move to provide access to justice for everyone and she believes pro bono can assist in that process.
“I spent time in the United States (studying at Harvard) and there is a strong tradition of charitable giving and public interest litigation there. But that’s more challenging in New Zealand because we don’t have the same level of philanthropic giving. So the first thing I prioritised in working back home was to acknowledge the importance of supporting our own legal community and hopefully encourage others to consider a gift-giving process.
“The essence of my class is really trying to encompass the techniques of strategic litigation, so we use open source investigation techniques, which is technology and citizen empowerment, to document directly their own potential human rights cases. So we try to think of ways that we can partner with individuals and communities to start gathering information and encourage folks to bring their own litigation cases.”
Approximately half of the 40-strong class are law students.
Alison Cole has established the Anitawaru Climate Scholarship, with the aim of assisting one student undertake extra-curricular action to address climate change. The scholarship is in honour of her Taranaki tīpuna and the peace movement at Parihaka. Alison was whāngai in foster care as a child and she is committed to supporting young people become future leaders.
“I had fantastic support going through law school from a network of New Zealand lawyers and scholars organised by former High Court Judge John Priestly,” she says. “His support of me during my studies has inspired me to set up my own scholarship at Victoria University.”
Alison is currently teaching semi-permanently at Victoria University – where she takes along her miniature schnauzer puppy Kurī – while waiting to be able to return to Hong Kong to teach there.
◀ Alison Cole with Kurī at Victoria University of Wellington’s Marae in Kelburn