Phil Quin says Golriz Ghahraman's time working for defendants in Rwandan war crimes trials deserves our condemnation. I don't think he's established the basis for such a claim.  

The issue of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman's past actions on international criminal tribunals is a pretty weird one. There doesn't appear to be any dispute about what she did. The argument is all about what those actions mean and how we should judge them.

I set out my thoughts on this in a post last night, basically saying that international human rights lawyers have to work for nasty people - if they don't, then the whole human rights project can't function as it is meant to. So if you think there is value in that project - which can always be debated - then you can't really criticise the actions of those who make it work. Since then I've become aware that Ghahraman herself told the NZ Herald's Kirsty Johnston much the same thing some six weeks before the election, which rather complicates allegations that Ghahraman and/or her Green Party were trying to hide her past role with the defence teams for some pretty reprehensable war criminals.

Today, however, Phil Quin alleged over on Newsroom that Ghahraman's actions do deserve some (unspecified) measure of moral condemnation. I think he's wrong about that, but before I get to say why I need to acknowledge something. Quin has spent substantial time in Rwanda engaging with its people and trying to help that country heal. He knows more about the circumstances of that place than I ever will. I do not question his commitment to the country or his understanding of the genocide or its effects.

Nevertheless, I still think that, based on the content of his article, the charges he lays against Ghahraman don't really stack up. Basically, they boil down to two things. First of all, she unnecessarily "chose" to go to Rwanda to volunteer on the defence side of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)Second, she co-authored an article with a more senior lawyer that (according to Quin) repeats genocide-denying canards. I think both these alleged misdeeds are mistaken.

First of all, Quin's claims about Ghahraman rest on a purported distinction between paid legal representatives (whom Quin says he accepts are a necessary and legitimate component of the ICTR process, which he also says he supports) and interns. Here's how he puts it:

It’s one thing for a UN defence lawyer to be assigned to defend ratbags. It’s quite another to seek them out in a voluntary capacity. (Apparently she went on the payroll three months in).

Note the somewhat buried point in paranthesis - Ghahraman's internship lasted 3 months, after which she became a paid member of a legal team (and so, in Quin's own terms, was a necessary and legitimate part of the ICTR process). So what Quin really is complaining about is those three months during which Ghahraman was "volunteering".

OK then - how exactly do such internships come about? Well, note that they aren't candy that the defence teams just hand out to whomever comes begging. They are official positions that the UN has established and which you must apply for and be accepted into, before being assigned to whatever tasks the UN has to hand. Here's that process laid out

So Quin's beef with allowing people to volunteer to be an unpaid part of the defence process at the ICTR would appear better aimed at the UN rather than someone wanting to get a first step on the ladder towards a career in international human rights law.

Nevertheless, Ghahraman still volunteered to be there - she chose to be on the defence side of the table in the ICTR. Unlike, suggests Quin, those paid lawyers who had to be there to do the nasty work. Except, how exactly does one become a defence lawyer at the ICTR?

Well, as this explains, you either get hired directly by one of the accused out of their own pockets (and agree to work for them), or else you agree to be a part of a pool of lawyers from which lawyers are assigned to defendants who can't afford to pay for one. In other words, you volunteer for the work.

So I'm really struggling to see what the moral difference is between a paid UN defence representative who has volunteered to be a part of the ICTR process (which Quin says is necessary and legitimate) and someone who gets put on a defence team after winning an official slot on the UN internship programme (which Quin seems to think is somehow being complicit with those who are on trial). 

What, then, of Quin's second claim:

In a paper co-authored by Peter Robinson, a noted sceptic of both the Rwandan and Srebrenica massacres, Ghahraman claimed the event that precipitated the genocide — the plane crash that killed former President Habyarimana as well as the President of Burundi — may have been a war crime committed by Tutsi forces, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). This “blame the victims” strategy was employed by Hutu Power propagandists from hours after the missile struck the plane. 

I'll set aside the fairness (and perhaps wisdom) of Newsroom allowing someone to be labled a "sceptic", much less a "noted sceptic", of mass murder based purely on the legal arguments he has advanced on the behalf of his clients and instead focus on Quin's claims about what this academic paper says. Unfortunately, I can't give you access to it directly, as it's hidden behind an academic pay wall. However, I can give you my view that after reading it that Quin simply isn't correct in his claims about it.

The paper does accept purely for the purpose of argument (but noting that the evidence at that time was very unclear) that the RPA shot down the plane, solely in order to assess what international criminal consequences then might follow from such an act - before concluding that probably none would and so even if the RPA had done so (which they don't say did happen), no charges should be laid. It's a bog-standard legal academic investigation of the consequences of a hypothetical. And if you need a tie-breaker on opinions about the paper's content, I invite you to read this thread by Max Harris.

There's then another problem with Quin's attack on the paper. He tells us that because "ballistics experts have concluded the attack must have come from within the Hutu Power barracks, miles away from any RPA position", even suggesting that the RPA may have been responsible is completely beyond the pale. This very well may be true - but the conclusive report that Quin cites took place in 2012, some four years after the paper's publication. 

To then thoroughly damn a 25-year-old Ghahraman for helping to write an academic paper, largely because of the findings of a report that came out four years later, seems remarkably churlish. The paper may be bad or ill-founded (although having looked at its subsequent citations, no-one else seems to have had a problem with it before now). But some sort of apology for genocide or giver of comfort to those who committed it? I think not.

So with all due respect to Quin's experience in Rwanda and knowledge of the ground there, I just don't think he's accurately represented what Ghahraman's place at the ICTR involved, nor do I think his criticism of a paper she helped co-write is really fair.

Comments (17)

by on November 28, 2017

Come on did you guys learn nothing from Metiria. Freaken pressers should be routine. You know? Or is this how scoops from inside the Greens will be handled. Come on. Get with the progress.

by Andrew Geddis on November 28, 2017
Andrew Geddis

I think you've mistaken me for the Green Party. You may wish to direct your comments there.

by on November 28, 2017

What is it about the 4th estate (MSM for those who don't know) or even the 5th estate (non mainstream media types) don't understand about 'go after the system.'

There was an understood condition that the Hutu position wouldn't be challenged. Basically the UN were willing to let one through to the keeper on this. Be swept under the rug to save millions of faces and ease the liability.

Additionally, given how the Hutu government worked (or, more correctly, didn't work), it's questionable just how much control the Government really had. While the Hutu government at the time certainly wasn't completely an uninvolved figurehead as the story went at the time, it wasn't like the Hutu government could actually reign in the militia at the time - no one could. There was an attempted genocide, they probably underestimated how much effort has to go into something like this, when there was the suspicion they were going to be swamped by Tutsi's.

And singling out Golriz Ghahraman? Please. Weak. It's like the old saying. Terrible opposition make for terrible wins.


by Kat on November 28, 2017

Andrew, having any real "basis" for mud slinging is the last thing the Natz think about. Its a beat up if ever there was one.

Get used to 56 Natz MP's slinging mud and spaming parliament fot the next three years, and all tax payer funded.

by Ross on November 29, 2017

Quin has written an awful lot about the Left and Labour in particular. It's usually negative. Indeed, earlier this year he predicted that Labour would be in Opposition again.

In the wake of Labour’s coming — and fourth consecutive —  defeat, the central role of the MoU in kneecapping whatever chance Labour had to reemerge as a credible governing party will be obvious to all but the small handful of apparatchiks. These are the people who conceived of the agreement, and whose reputations hinge on pretending, against any and all available evidence, that it was a resounding triumph. ... 

Have no doubt that the geniuses within Labour responsible for every misstep of the past ten years remain as powerful today as they ever were. Do not expect any contrition or admission of failure. Whoever is to blame for the failure of Labour’s strategy, look anywhere but in the direction of Labour strategists. They are, let's face it, far better at making excuses than making headway against the Nats.


The people in charge of Labour have guided the party through a period of strategic ineptitude, policy torpor, financial ruin and organizational decay. They are just not very good at politics.

Until the party reckons with this, root and branch, their only other idea — changing leaders periodically in the hope that doing so will transform the party’s fortunes — is merely window dressing to distract from the shambles within.

In fact, he seldom, if ever, has anything positive to say about the Left. I do wonder whether his attack on Ghahraman is motivated by pique at his failure to predict the election outcome, or he simply despises the Left. Either way, I'm not sure he's acted in good faith here.

by Andrew Geddis on November 29, 2017
Andrew Geddis


Quin's overall grip on NZ political matters has been questionable for quite some time. It's revealing, for instance, that he says he'd never heard of Golriz Ghahraman before the current contretemps arose. 

However, in fairness to Quin, Rwanda clearly is a subject he cares deeply and passionately about, and has walked the hard road on. So I'm prepared to accept that he's driven by a genuine sense of outrage at what occured there. I just think he's misdirected that outrage in Ghahraman's case and it's caused him to misunderstand just what she did, as well as coloured his views of what she has written. Sometimes being too close to a subject causes you to lose perspective.

by Ross on November 29, 2017

 no greater contribution can be made to justice than by a fiercely independent member of the bar who will take on unpopular cases or act for unpopular litigants. 

Who made that comment? Well, it was none other than the then Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, himself a lawyer. I have no idea if Finlayson has represented defendants although I'd be surprised if he hasn't. But that's immaterial because, as Ghahraman says, even the worst criminals deserve representation and it's a measure of a civilised society how we treat those people.

by Simon Connell on November 29, 2017
Simon Connell

I read the Harris/Quin thread. I think it is possible to extract a relateively tenable argument from Quin's writing on this. As someone I know posted on Facebook:

asking whether Kagame could be liable for hypothetically shooting down the plane lends legitimacy to genocide-denial, in the same way that asking whether Obama would be eligible to be president if he hypothetically was born in Kenya lends legitimacy to birtherism.

To provide a couple more examples, it would be possible to write pieces along the following lines:

  • Assuming that vaccinations do cause autism, are vaccinations still justified on a utilitarian basis?; or
  • Assuming that the conventional numbers of deaths in the Holocaust were massively exaggerated, were crimes against humanity still committed?

Even though there might be some academic merit in discussing these hypotheticals, arguably that's outweighed by the damage done by reinforcing the beliefs of people who actually believe that vaccinations cause autism, or deny the Holocaust. Look, these people can say, here's an academic article which assumes, for the sake of argument, that the position I hold is true - that demonstrates that my opinion is one which the authors think reasonable people might hold.

Whether or not the article in question here is remotely comparable to those hypothetical articles, I don't know. I suspect not. It depends on how well-accepted-as-false the original hypothetical (ie RPA shot down the plane) was at the time the article was written. That's not really something I know much about, and it looks like (based on the timing of the 2012 report) that's not the case. So the argument probably does end up failing to persuade.

This one (in my view) more tenable argument is buried under a bunch of other stuff. Even if it's persuasive, I don't think it makes Ghahraman a genocide-denier. But she could be seen as genocide-denial-emboldening, which I think could fall under the category of "doing something wrong".

by Andrew Geddis on November 29, 2017
Andrew Geddis


Agreed in theory - but that argument depends upon answering the question "what was it reasonable to claim as possibly true in 2008?". All I'll say on this is:

(1) The article notes (amongst other things) that: "An investigation in France led by Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière determined that the plane was shot down on the orders of Paul Kagame ..."; and, "A separate investigation in Spain, led by Judge Fernando Andreu Merelles, also determined that the plane was shot down on the orders of President Kagame." Writing a law review article based on accepting for the sake of argument the premise that two judicial findings of fact may be correct does not strike me as beyond the pale.

(2) Quin himself repeatedly has cited the subsequent 2012 report as being the definitive evidence on the matter ... and, further, it is reasonable to ask "if it really was so unarguable that Kagame did not do this, why exactly was that 2012 report even conducted?" 

So, no - I don't think the cited analogies are apt. As of 2008 - which is the only date that matters - it was not unreasonable to inquire "Kagame may have done this ... but without saying that he actually did, what would follow as a matter of international criminal law?"

by Ian MacKay on November 29, 2017
Ian MacKay

Breathtaking that a person who on balance has done good things and intends to do more good things, is even accused of pretty esoteric "crimes."  What is the matter with our society that Soper, Hosking, Quin have an encouraged platform? Free speech is valued but therefore should white supremists be welcome on the same platform? So sad am I.

by Alan Johnstone on November 29, 2017
Alan Johnstone

I don't understand why this is even a thing, there's a presumption of innocence for all people charged with crimes, even genocide.

This is for the benefit of everyone, even the victims. Only when evidence is laid out in details and robustly challanged in court can we be sure it's valid. 

What do people want, show trials and sumamry executions ? The whole story is crap and the people promoting it should be ashamed of themselves 

by Tim Watkin on November 29, 2017
Tim Watkin

I tend to be with Alan on this. Really interesting argument, Andrew. Simon, your points are well made. I'm wary of shutting down asking awkward questions or unpopular questions, but those examples are very strong ones.

Yet Andrew's point about the dates matters and I'm equally wary about people being expected to have 20/20 foresight. Could she have been expected at that time to realise she was getting on the wrong side of history? You could explore the hypothetical that perhaps she should have seen what she was getting into. Some scenarios get a shelf-life long beyond their validity and when you can see where the facts lie amidst the debate. Climate change over the past decade or two, for example.

I know I stumbled into the hell of anti-vaccine campaigners around 12 years ago when arguably there were still questions about significant reactions and more. But I could see where the science was pointing and wrote a story debunking the anti-vaxxers. Could Ghahraman have been expected to see she was teetering on the edge of healthy debate and falling into unhealthy justification?

Thing is, I don't know. And like Alan, while Andrew has made me more interested than I've been thus far, I'm not overly vexed by the whole thing. The story was spun, but there's nothing wrong in what she did and she didn't lie. So I'm curious about the degree of fuss.


by Andrew Geddis on November 30, 2017
Andrew Geddis


I suspect the question "who shot down the plane?" is the Rwandan equivalent of "who shot JFK?", and entering that rabbit hole could consume your life. So I'll just note further that in 2008 the Germans actually arrested one of Kagame's close aides (on the basis of a French arrest warrant) on suspicion of involvement in the plane crash. In that context, writing a legal article saying "it may be true (but we can't say it is) that Kagame ordered the shooting down - what then follows in international law?" is pretty small beer. 

by Ross on November 30, 2017

Apparently Quin has made an apology of sorts to Ghahraman via Twitter. However, I haven't seen his tweets so don't know if that is true.

by Andrew Geddis on November 30, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Interesting. I'm not on Twitter neither, so if anyone can post a screenshot that would be good?

[Update: story on it here - the upshot is that Quin got so hot and bothered about this whole issue that he forgot exactly what he was accusing people of. Readers may choose to judge his overall claims in light of this fact.]

by Jim Rose on December 04, 2017
Jim Rose

The UN does not run intern programs for the defence teams; they have their own if they want to have them. The UN does have an intern program for the prosecutor's office.

All the trouble and strife is from the ambiguity over whether she spent her time on the prosecutor's side or the defence side. If you are running for parliament, holding genocidal murderers to account is far better selling point than saying you are a defence lawyer performing that vital but often unpopular role

by Andrew Miller on December 04, 2017
Andrew Miller

I’m rather late on this, but I‘ve found it both surprising and sad that so few questions  have been asked of Quinn, and his motivations for banging the drum so loudly over this. Almost no one seems to looked at what work he carried out in Rwanda, which I understand to have effectively been PR for the Kagame government. This is of course a government with a fairly well documented record of human rights abuses, not to mention allegations over the deaths of government critics. Quinns response to this is telling and I’ve seen him attack Amnesty, HRWs and the UN for criticism of the HRs situation or Kagame’s role in DRC. 

I have real trouble believing the ‘genocide denier’ comment was simply heat of the moment as I’ve seen him use it before directed at Kagame critics (I do get there are genuinely genocide deniers with regard Rwanda, but a lot of the time it’s simply used to silence critics of Kagame). He isn’t simply looking to defend historic truth, but seems to be quite openly an apologist for Kagame. 

It seems ironic that such serious questions are asked of a lawyer working with the UN tribunal syste, and almost none at a man worked for and continues to be an apologist for a dictator. Hopefully if anything comes up on this again journalists might ask a few more questions before giving him such a platform to attack people. 




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