December 11, 2017

Itinerant Justice (Retired)

By the Honorable Mary McGowan Davis

It is April 2011, and the humidity is intense in Kamituga. I have been sitting all day in a white plastic garden chair under a large tent pitched on a bluff in this remote hilltop village in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have been invited here to assess the effectiveness of the gender justice mobile courts the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa is sponsoring in partnership with the American Bar Association/Rule of Law Initiative (ABA/ROLI). Outside the tent, throngs of villagers are standing patiently under a broiling sun. Many women in the crowd have babies on their hips, some are minding young children, and others are shooing away the goats and chickens that wander in their midst. Many people are dressed in their Sunday best, others are barefoot and sport faded T-shirts, but all are intently following the proceedings within the tent and have been doing so for hours.

Inside, behind a panel composed of a military judge and four “assessors” seated at a long table, a banner announces that the military tribunal, “in Partnership with the American Bar Association,” is holding trials before a mobile military court, “Everyone Welcome.” The Congolese lawyers and judges routinely brave impassable roads, primitive accommodations, and long working hours to afford residents of villages like Kamituga a forum where they can hold their assailants accountable for alarming crimes of violence and sexual assault that, according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, have made eastern Congo “the worst place in the world” to be a woman or child.

As I listen to the teams of lawyers delivering their closing arguments in a rape trial, I am reminded of my first encounter with an international tribunal 10 years earlier at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. In contrast to the dingy courtrooms where I had presided in Manhattan, the trappings of international justice heralded a gleaming new era: judges robed in scarlet, lawyers—some wigged—wearing black gowns with white cravats, instant video replay transmitting testimony to the public gallery, and simultaneous translation in three languages. Yet here in Kamituga, the makeshift courtroom is equipped with only the essentials: one laptop for the presiding judge, one French interpreter, one generator to power the few dangling light bulbs, a couple of soldiers with AK-47s to guard the prisoners, and white plastic chairs for those members of the public lucky enough to find seats under the tent.

As night falls, the long trial day comes to a close. The lawyers conclude their impassioned summations. The educational impact of these speeches, with their frequent invocation of legal authority (“Akayesu!”)* and impressive elocution, has to be significant—at least for those in the large crowd who understand French. The lawyers for all parties speak passionately about the law, about respect for the rights of the accused, about the value of Congolese lives and the importance of security to their communities, while the attentive audience nods in agreement. After demonstrating to the presiding judge’s satisfaction that he has comprehended the lawyers’ summations, the defendant has the last word: “All lies.”

This pared-down model of international justice is decidedly less imposing than the expensive prototype on view in The Hague in the Netherlands and Arusha in East ­Africa’s Tanzania, but the impact of these Congolese mobile courts is immediate: The diligent judges and lawyers try ordinary crimes of violence, the kind that beset every community, in the presence of rapt onlookers who are directly connected to the victims and to the accused. As one young woman who testified openly and fearlessly about the violence done to her by a soldier told me later, “Thanks to the mobile court at Kamituga, I am beginning to believe there is justice.” And another woman, the mother of four daughters, observed: “Because of the mobile court, women don’t have to hide themselves away anymore. . . . It is important to come to watch. If such a thing were to happen in my own family, I will know what to do.”

There are countless other judges and advocates with whom I have been privileged to collaborate on comparable efforts to promote accountability in such destinations as Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, and, currently, Madagascar. Earlier in 2016, I beamed with pride as three extraordinary Chadian lawyers, fresh from our confidence-boosting prep sessions, expertly delivered riveting closing arguments on behalf of some 4,000 victims at the trial of Hissene Habre, former dictator of Chad, who was convicted of international crimes (including rape) before an international court in Senegal. The victims’ lead lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, herself survived an assassination attempt ordered by a police commissioner she had charged with torture under Habre. The July 18, 2015, issue of the New York Times quoted Moudeina: “The grenade became a challenge for me, to live and continue the legal work, and so I did.”

I encourage lawyers who want to expand their horizons and experience the art of lawyering in new ways to consider pro bono opportunities offered by the ABA/ROLI, the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative, the International Bar Association, the International Senior Lawyers Project, and the International Legal Foundation. And don’t forget the Peace Corps. Senegal, for example, now has a variety of projects, both domestic and international, geared for older volunteers who may have missed out on the opportunity to serve in their youth.

*The venerable 1998 judgment of the ICTR that set forth a groundbreaking definition of rape.


The parts of this article on the gender justice mobile courts in Kamituga were adapted from the research and assessment materials previously submitted to OSISA.