After Law: Atrocity Archives, Dialogue, Young People Learning and Active Participation

Author: Dr Benjamin Thorne 

This is part one of a two part blog

More than two decades of trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda led to the creation of a vast and diverse archive. This somewhat side-lined archive has great potential to contribute towards dialogue and community repair in Rwanda. 

Legal Atrocity Archives: The Good, the Bad, and the Potential 

During 100 days (April – July 1994) approximately 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu, were killed in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. In response to these horrendous events the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was created, located in Arusha, Tanzania. This court was tasked with prosecuting those most responsible for the genocide. Spanning more than two decades, the ICTR indicted 93 individuals and successfully prosecuted 62 Individuals.  

[ICTR & M.N. Kinuthia (2011)] 

These trials, which were complex and often very long, the longest being just over 15 years, created a vast and diverse publicly accessible archive. These materials relate to the pre-genocide, genocide, and post-genocide periods, and includes witness statements and testimonies, audio-visual recordings of trials, forensic reports, investigators’ dossiers, audio material, videos of investigation sites, diaries, letters, drawings, and photographs from pre-genocide, genocide and post-genocide periods.   

Whilst archives are arguably a very important part of the process of international criminal justice and their legacies, during the early years of the ICTR, consideration and resources given to this legal archive were at best some way down the ‘to do list’, and at worst an afterthought. During the early years of the tribunal, material would come in from the field and because there was no formal document storage facility, in some instances, material was temporarily stored in a hotel room bathtub.  

Fast-forward to November 2016 and a brand-new archive facility was unveiled in Arusha, and the new permanent home of the archive material. In the background of the fanfare ‘opening’ of this new shiny facility and the positive institutional rhetoric, there had been ‘complications’ during the facilities construction resulting in inappropriate storage environment being installed. This new facility remained empty and closed to the public for many months after the official opening ceremony.  

The ICTR archive also consists of an online archive, which has gone through several upgrades and restructuring initiatives. Drawing upon more the six years-experience of engaging with ICTR online archive for research, the current version in my opinion, whilst still having flaws, is by some margin the most user friendly and robust to date.  

Despite the many challenges the archive has faced, there is great potential for this very rich material to contribute towards dialogue and community repair in Rwanda. In the last few years, the ICTR archive has endeavoured to bring awareness to this material through initiatives such as a digital exhibition, ‘Worth a Thousand Words’. However, important questions remain regarding how meaningful and useful these initiatives are to Rwandan society: who are the audiences and what is the purpose of these initiatives? One criticism of the archive, like the tribunal, is their distance from Rwanda, and Rwandans. Whilst the archive has purportedly engaged with community outreach, to date this rich source of material located outside of the country continues to be little known by Rwandans if known at all.  


To realise the archives potential for post-conflict transformation, learning and education initiatives need to bridge the gap between the material and Rwandan communities. 

In my ongoing research I am particularly interested in exploring the role ICTR archives could have in aiding plural dialogue about complex pasts with particular focus on how the intergenerational transmission of memories can engage young people as active participants in conversations about their communities past, present and future. This ongoing work exploring the potential of the ICTR material and engaging with Rwandan communities and young people, users arts research methods and participatory action research (PAR). Applying arts methods and PAR to the archive material has significant potential to facilitate Rwandans exploring meanings within the archive material, and how these materials can facilitate important dialogue between individuals who experienced the genocide and those born afterwards. 

The Art of Learning: Plural Dialogue, Listening and Young Person Active Participation  

Arts based methods fits under a wide umbrella category that embraces the multiple form and genres of arts including visual art, performing arts, and textual forms of artistic narration. PAR is a collaborative process entailing, research, education and action which is explicitly directed towards contributing to social transformation. At the core of arts methods and PAR is their direct interaction and interplays with the plurality of knowledge within and across diverse range of institutions and contexts.  

Arts methods are capable of embracing the plurality and abstract nature of human experiences, particularly when those experiences entail complex, contentious and traumatic events and relationships. Arts offers expression and pathways to dialogue where verbal communication is either impossible, inappropriate or unable to grasp the complex and fluid form of social interactions and relationships. Artistic expression can be a gateway to opening verbal dialogue and learning possibilities. 

[Aegis Trust Peace School at the Kigali Genocide Memorial] 

Beyond these general attributes for rationalising applying arts methods to the ICTR archive material there are additional connections to Rwanda, namely the arts have been a mushrooming mechanism for individuals and communities in Rwanda attempting to make sense and move beyond the trauma of 1994. Staying in the capital Kigali for just a short while one thing is strikingly evident: the arts are alive and making their ‘voice’ heard. In a country that continues to live with the trauma of the genocide against the Tutsi it is not surprising that many Rwandans feel drawn to arts as a holistic mechanism to try and come to terms with the traumatic events of 1994. Kigali, and beyond, consists of numerous organisations who use arts aiming to help individuals and groups with understanding and moving beyond their difficult pasts. It seems then that arts methods and PAR when applied to the ICTR archive material has significant potential to facilitate young people learning, dialogue and active participation. 

Part Two to follow 

Author Bio – ‘Dr Benjamin Thorne’s main areas of interest are socio-legal studies, transitional justice, and critical theory. Currently a central focus is memory, transitional justice, and legal atrocity archives. More generally, Benjamin is interested in questions around visuals, sounds, as well as the broader sensory field, in how people experience crime, law and justice; and the co-existence of spaces of law and faith in the aftermath of mass violence.’

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s