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Siira Gunderson

2000 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship Site: International Legal Resources, Arusha, Tanzania

By Pat McGroarty


“I don’t deal with high level defendants charged with genocide and crimes against humanity on a daily basis. It was a great opportunity,” said Siira Gunderson of her 2000 Fellowship at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. Working on the defense team for clients accused of attempting to eliminate an entire group of people may seem a strange way to advocate for human rights, but it was an incredible opportunity for Gunderson as a young law student. Working at the ICTR representing Rwandan government officials accused of the genocidal killing of the minority Tutsi tribe was the perfect opportunity to learn about the necessity of a fair trial for all; especially those accused of such atrocities.

The opportunity to intern at the ICTR came to Gunderson through Howard Morrison, a defense attorney with International Legal Resources working with the ICTR and the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia). During a speech at the University of Minnesota Law School in 2000 Morrison invited students to apply for an internship on his defense team in Arusha, Tanzania. Gunderson heard of the opportunity from Jessica Munson, a fellow University law student, and both applied for a 2000 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship.

In May of 2000 Gunderson and Munson traveled to the Hague in the Netherlands where they spent the first week of their Fellowships observing the proceedings of the ICTY and gathering international law materials to be used in Arusha. They then traveled to Arusha and the ICTR where they began their work as defense interns.

“While in Arusha, we assisted Howard Morrison and Michael Graves, who continued to work from Europe. We observed proceedings and had the opportunity to work on a motion brought by the prosecution to try several defendants at a time. The defense position was that there was no space in the courtroom for all those people and their lawyers. It also didn’t make sense to try people together with so many different issues and stories. The court denied the motion for consolidation,” explained Gunderson.

The internship also entailed meeting with defendants regularly at the United Nation’s Arusha detention center: “We would visit our clients twice a week and talk with them about their experiences in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide as well as their experiences at the U.N. detention center. We were a good contact for the lead attorneys, who continued to reside in Europe and couldn’t easily communicate with the clients or obtain legal resources from Arusha. However, as an intern a lot of our work was self-educating. Talking with the clients was often more to inform ourselves about the situation in Rwanda than it was to help the attorneys.”

The chance to meet with ICTR detainees and observe ICTR proceedings were incredible opportunities for Gunderson and Munson to learn about Rwanda’s troubled past in a light seldom seen by Americans.

The reasons for the killing of over 800,000 Rwandans over the course of 100 days in 1994 are complicated and disturbing. When Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in April of 1994, there was a massive and immediate backlash from members of his Hutu party and tribe, the majority in control of the nation. The party responsible for the assassination has never been identified, but years of struggle between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsi ethnic group pointed responsibility in the Tutsi’s direction. Hutus banded together and began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus in large numbers. In July the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi resistance group, captured the capital and declared a cease-fire. By that time over 800,000 people had died with little or no intervention from Western powers and the United Nations.

Gunderson feels that her experience at the ICTR allowed her to examine the Rwandan situation more closely than through the Western media’s reports of mass genocide: “The American media’s portrayal was very sympathetic to the Tutsis, of course. Being on the defense side allowed me to critically analyze whether it was really a situation of victims verses perpetrators or whether it was more complicated than that. From the defense perspective, there were several concerns about the basis of the tribunal and its jurisdiction. One also has to question whether what happened was a true genocide. We examined the definition of genocide under international law and worked to make sure the prosecution carried its burden of proof for each element of the crime of genocide.”

The horrific reality of the slaughter of over 800,000 Rwandans, almost all of whom were Tutsis, is not lost on Gunderson. In fact, it is because of the magnitude of the situation and the severity of the charges brought against many ICTR detainees that Gunderson stresses the importance of a fair and just trial: “There seemed to be more Americans on the prosecution side. That may be because of the media’s portrayal. When some Americans think about doing human rights work, they are sympathetic toward the alleged victims in situations such as this and would be inclined to work for the prosecution. Representing those accused of genocide is a less popular position, to say the least. But as a lawyer, trial rights and the rights of a defendant are incredibly important. You need to have a fair trial for justice to be done.”

It has been four years since Gunderson’s Fellowship at the ICTR and many of the defendants she worked with are still in detention or on trial. It could be several more years before all the detainees arrested in connection with the 1994 killings are finally prosecuted.

After returning from her Fellowship, Gunderson continued her studies at the law school, graduating in 2002. She now works for Gregerson, Rosow, Johnson & Nilan, Ltd., a Minneapolis law firm. As a civil litigator she practices construction law, insurance defense, and municipal law. She looks back on her Fellowship as an incredible opportunity to explore international issues and learn about the importance of upholding the justice system: “My Fellowship was really a special experience and an unusual opportunity in my career. I don’t think there are many attorneys who work abroad or do this kind of work, and it was great to gain some insight into the U.N, into criminal tribunals, and into international law. I didn’t expect to do it again, but it was an incredible opportunity to educate myself.”

Gunderson’s work as an intern in an international tribunal and as a part of the investigation of one of the modern world’s worst human rights disasters will remain a strong presence and influence on her understanding of world events and of the responsibility to work for justice: “I certainly think that as a lawyer, no matter what you’re doing, general justice questions and questions of fairness pop up constantly. You need to question the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. That spirit of justice then guides decisions in your career.”

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