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Cynicism and Guilt in International Law after Rwanda

Luigi Russi
Published Online: 2014-05-14 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/gj-2014-0004


Framing the Rwandan genocide as a “failure” of international law forces one to approach it as an unintended consequence of an otherwise benign system of formal relations between states. The present article looks at it instead as a physiological product of international law, disclosing the possibility to contemplate the latter as a fundamentally imperialistic system pegged on the controversial notion of “rule of law”. International law embodies a system of legalised extraction swaying between cynicism and guilt: despite its real face showing on occasions like Rwanda, it keeps revamping itself so as to prevent a fundamental appraisal of the contradictory nature of the system as a whole.

Keywords: Rwanda; genocide; international law


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About the article

Published Online: 2014-05-14

Published in Print: 2013-08-01

An exception to this is, of course, found in heterodox paradigms of legal scholarship, such as Critical Legal Studies and Third-World Approaches to International Law. For a wider problematisation of the concept of sovereignty, see, for example, the seminal contribution of Kennedy (1992).

A partial – though perhaps involuntary – acknowledgment of this difference emerges from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations General Assembly 2007), as it attempts an uneasy fit between “rights” discourse – formulated in the terminology of abstract claims against others – and the embedded practices enshrined in “institutions, cultures and traditions” that are perhaps closer to the indigenous understanding of “law” and law-making.

Colonial times also left a legacy of co-operation and mutual reliance of churches with state institutions (Longman 2010, 14 and 91), which endured – after independence – even when state power was used systematically to discriminate against the Tutsi minority in the run-up to the genocide (Longman 2010, 171–172). It is only ironic then, and an observation that further strengthens the point being made in this article, that the response to news of direct contribution to the Rwandan genocide coming from church members and officials has given rise to the familiar flash-in-the-pan reaction of directing the focus away from institutional considerations and towards “individual sinfulness” (Longman 2010, 7). This, in itself, is yet another illustration of the fundamental cynicism that, despite the occasional jolt of horror, stands in the way of a more wide-ranging appraisal of the generative contribution colonial institutions (including Christian conversion) played in bringing about the conditions for the genocide to happen.

On the phenomenon whereby international law invariably calls for more international law to mend its own shortcomings, see Mattei and Russi (2012).

Citation Information: Global Jurist, ISSN (Online) 1934-2640, ISSN (Print) 2194-5675, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/gj-2014-0004.

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