Among the many challenges they faced, there was this one: No one had ever been prosecuted for rape in a time of war. Moreover, rape in Rwanda had been in a category of crimes that equated it with theft of items such as a basket of beans. Pierre-Richard Prosper and his legal team would overcome that obstacle and more—making legal history in having rape recognized as a war crime on par with genocide and sending a small-town Rwandan mayor to prison for life.
The case was the subject of a documentary released last fall called The Uncondemned. The University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics sponsored a screening of the film in November, when they also recognized Prosper as a Hinckley Fellow, joining the ranks of other distinguished politicians, academics, and professionals such as Malcolm Gladwell, Mitt Romney, and Thomas Friedman. As a Hinckley Fellow, Prosper lectures on campus; mentors students, faculty, and community leaders; and speaks at the Hinckley Forums. Since November, he has met with undergraduate honors classes and worked with several law students seeking career advice. “It is an incredible honor,” says Prosper. “I hope that by being named a fellow, I can help inspire future leaders.”
Prosper has lived in Utah for about a decade and is a partner in the Los Angeles-based law firm Arent Fox, where he specializes in international government relations and related issues. He had been working as a hardcore gang prosecutor in Los Angeles before taking the post as a war crimes prosecutor for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He eventually served as chief prosecutor in the 1997 trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was the mayor of Taba, a town in Central Rwanda, during the 1994 conflict between Hutus and Tutsis.
The magnitude of the atrocities that occurred over the course of 100 days in Rwanda are incomprehensible: 1 million people died, and tens of thousands of women were raped. Prosper says that comprehending the depth of that inhumanity was a struggle. “It was one of those situations where it expanded the mind and soul,” he says. “You’ve got to imagine walking down the street a year later and you could still smell the stench of death.”
As the team marshaled evidence—documenting mass graves, speaking with survivors and listening to their stories— they also had to work to retain their own humanity. “You don’t want to become numb to the point where you lose your sensitivity, but you also don’t want to become overly sensitive to where you can’t be objective.”
Until the 1997 trial, rape had never been successfully prosecuted even though it had been listed as an international war crime since 1919. “It was a lesser crime, a spoil of war, no big deal,” Prosper explains. “It’s hard to comprehend, particularly when it was on the books.”
Rape, according to Rape: Weapon of Terror by Sharon Frederick and The AWARE Committee on Rape, has always been a weapon of war but has been viewed as a “mere injury to honor or reputation,” something less egregious than personal injury or death. But Frederick notes, as did the team working in Rwanda, that rape is a “very effective method for breaking down the community” through the degradation and humiliation of women. In some conflicts, there has been an intentional effort to impregnate women as a way of remaking a community or country. “All you have to do is spend two minutes with a survivor and you understand it is not an act of sex but of torture that destroys the individual and society, and that it should have equal footing with other crimes,” Prosper says.
The initial indictment against Akayesu did not include sexual assault charges, and in the film, Prosper says that while the team was committed to prosecuting sexual violence, they needed evidence.
“Some of the challenges are the survivors themselves. Getting them to come out and speak about the abuses is not easy—it’s not easy in the ordinary context of domestic sexual violence,” he says. “But dealing in a war context, where there is rape, gang rape, and sexual slavery, it is extremely hard for the women to relive that and to identify themselves as someone in their community who has endured such horrific acts.”
Then came Witness H. The legal team, as the film shows, was eventually able to get her and two other women to come forward and testify despite intimidation and even the murders of other potential witnesses. Akayesu was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Since the Akayesu trial, there have been additional prosecutions in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but “unfortunately it is not the norm,” Prosper says. That’s the case despite continued sexual violations by groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State.
“I worry that we have slipped backwards and lost some ground,” Prosper says. “I hope this film reminds us of what is possible and that we get back to doing what we need to be doing.” And that’s why the message behind the film, which continues to be shown in theaters and at universities across the country, remains so important to share, explains Prosper.
“Individuals can make a difference, and we as individuals have a personal responsibility to each other and to humanity to do whatever is in our power to make a difference,” he says. “It may simply be talking to your neighbor, talking to your elected officials, paying attention. In a lot of these conflicts, we were not paying attention and were being woefully blind. We do have a responsibility and duty to each other.”