Many Rwandans would have been interested in a recent online debate hosted by the Oxford Transitional Justice Research at the University of Oxford, UK, under the motion “international monitors, such as the UN Group of Experts or human rights groups, are essential for reporting on mass conflict.”
It pitted Jason K. Stearns for the motion, against Phil Clark, Lecturer in Comparative and International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and author of the book, “The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Justice without Lawyers”.
Stearns is a political analyst, director of the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project and author of the book, “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa”.
He headed the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2008.
One needs not be reminded of the passions the international monitors have raised locally and in the region due to their reporting on conflict and human rights violations.
It bears no repeating here, though it may be mentioned that the reports are often at odds between the international community, the monitors and the regional actors.
It is fair to say that everyone has their biases, and that whatever interests there may be have been amply discussed and reported in the local and international media. As the case may be, claims have been made with equal counter-claims and rebuttals – the trend of which, incidentally, the intellectual debate evoked.
Rather, without going into the nitty gritty of global politics regarding the region let us stick to the larger issue of the debate, which was what role the international monitors should play, if, indeed, they are “essential for reporting on mass conflict.”
A guest commentator was succinct: “international monitors should be what it says on the tin – globally objective – trying to get at the facts however uncomfortable that might be.”
To pick on only one issue, taking an example of recent UN Group of Experts Reports offered at the debate, many Rwandans would have been startled at Stearns’ suggestion that “if journalists and donors latched onto [the] claims of Rwandan support to the M23 rebellion, it was because they were able to confirm them independently.”
While the truth of that has been disputed, a rebuttal by Clark seemed to sum it about the situation on the ground as many observers would have it.
Clark observed that in the rush to cite the latest UN or HRW report on central Africa, the international media and policymakers rarely consider the range of Congolese, Rwandan, Ugandan or Burundian NGOs, think-tanks, journalists and academics who live in the affected areas, maintain constant contact with their interlocutors and possess a degree of political, social, cultural and linguistic expertise unmatched by any foreign analyst.
The result is that international debates are often deprived of the in-depth knowledge that only these local sources can provide.
The debaters were in agreement that conflict zones are often complex, and that there was need for greater scrutiny of international monitors and investigators working in complex conflict zones.
As the debate moderator observed, the focus should not just be on the quality of evidence, but the questions that drive the reporting.
We may also not dismiss the international monitors outright, as their “investigations can help uncover … crucial information,” as “by its very nature, much of the conflict economy takes place in the shadows.”
Obviously, the debate entailed more than this allocated space allows, but it underscored on the divergent opinions and issues that all of us – including the international community, the monitors, regional actors and citizens – ought to interrogate outside of intellectual circles.