A “religion of doubt” governs Thierry Cruvellier’s reporting on war crimes trials

The visiting lecturer currently teaches a course on international criminal justice.
Photo by Meagan Doll / UW-Madison.

By Kyra Fox

When journalist Thierry Cruvellier first arrived at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, he had no doubt that justice would be served.

It was 1997. Cruvellier had just received an assignment: to report on the international court established to judge the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. It would be the first of many war crimes trials the young journalist would cover over the next two decades.

At the time, he was hopeful about the capacity of international justice mechanisms. “I think I shared the belief of almost everyone: that the judges were there only to apply the law and protect individuals’ rights,” Cruvellier recalls. “That is a very naïve idea that can be far from reality.”

Though many have labeled Cruvellier as an idealist for his dedication to covering international criminal justice, he insists he is a realist when it comes to politics and human behavior. So when Cruvellier realized that international criminal tribunals were as slow and dysfunctional as other human institutions (the Rwandan tribunal took 20 years and two billion dollars to convict 61 genocide orchestrators), it came as no surprise.

Cruvellier says his relentless questioning of institutions like international courts – a “religion of doubt,” he calls it – helped him capture the nuance of the war crimes cases he confronted at the ICTR.

The humanity of war criminals

Cruvellier had been covering the court for two years when he was first invited to meet one of the accused face-to-face.

“It’s a stupid story, because it should be natural to shake hands with any human being,” he says. “But it’s that moment where you sort of don’t know if you should.”

That handshake, he recalls, was the moment he fully accepted the humanity of those who committed inhumane acts.

“You’re able to separate the idea that they are humans from your own feelings about what they possibly did.”

According to Cruvellier, this is the only way to comprehend the complexity of war criminals – to understand how ordinary human beings behave in extraordinary circumstances. Of course, we all hope we would speak out if genocide occurred in our own country. But, Cruvellier says, history shows us that there is a much better chance that most of us would be bystanders at best.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I honestly don’t know how I would behave in such extreme circumstances.”

How did this realization – that most humans, in exceptional circumstances, are capable of extraordinary evil – affect his work as a journalist?

“Doubt becomes central to everything you think about,” he says. “Even though it made my work much more complicated, it made my writing more difficult, and it didn’t make my life any happier.”

But, he says, it taught him to think better – to think differently.

Translating war crimes to the classroom


Cruvellier’s course, “International Criminal Justice: Models and Practice,” focuses on the international justice regime’s response to conflicts in Cambodia, Chad, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone. (Photo by Kyra Fox / UW-Madison)


I ask Cruvellier how he communicates this complex understanding of the dynamics of good and evil to his students who may have never been out of Wisconsin, much less in the presence of war criminals.

“It’s the central challenge. I think it’s the central reason why I accepted this position.” He laughs. “Honestly, it’s inevitable to wonder how you do it.”

One thing he does know, however: he wants his students to be open to thinking about simplified dichotomies of victim and perpetrator, good and evil differently.

“You can live very constructively and very fruitfully in doubt.”