Some Thoughts on Black Earth Rising (No Spoilers!)

Some Thoughts on Black Earth Rising (No Spoilers!)

I wasn’t feeling particularly well on my recent long flight from Buenos Aires to Amsterdam, so I took advantage of my sickness to binge watch all eight episodes of BBC2’s international criminal justice drama, Black Earth Rising, which focuses on the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I wasn’t expecting much, because BER was billed as a drama about the ICC. But I was very pleasantly surprised. The acting is superb, especially Michaela Coel, who plays Kate Ashby, a survivor of the genocide who was raised by a British former international prosecutor and is now a legal investigator, and John Goodman, who plays Michael Ennis, a barrister who has been Kate’s lifelong friend and hires her at the beginning of the series. The absolute standout, though, is Lucian Msamati, a British-Tanzanian actor who plays David Runihura, the Special Advisor to the President of Rwanda. Msamati is simply stunning in the role — if he doesn’t win every imaginable acting award, it will be a crime against humanity.

I don’t want to provide any spoilers, so suffice it to say that BER offers a very intelligent, and often very powerful, exploration of how the current political situation in Rwanda and the DRC is still in the thrall of the 1994 genocide. The series focuses on two war-crimes prosecutions, one by the ICC and one by Rwanda. The ICC prosecution involves Simon Nyamoya, a former RPF General charged with committing war crimes the warlord of an anti-Hutu militia in the DRC. The Rwandan prosecution centres on Patrice Ganimana, a Rwandan General deeply involved in the genocide. A third story then revolves around a power struggle between the President of Rwanda and her adopted sister, Alice Munezero (a stellar Noma Dumezweni), both of whom were decorated leaders of the RPF in 1994.

Everything in BER that focuses on Rwanda is genuinely excellent — though, for reasons I won’t get into to avoid spoilers, I doubt the current Rwandan government will agree. The writer/director, Hugo Blick, has done a masterful job of telling a very complicated story without oversimplifying or caricaturing the people and politics involved.  No character in the Rwanda story is all good or all evil — even Ganimana himself. That’s quite a writerly accomplishment.

BER goes off the rails, though, whenever it mentions the ICC. Blick supposedly did his research, including meeting with numerous Court officials. But it doesn’t show. Here are some of the most obvious mistakes and problems:

[1] In the very first scene in the series, a black student in London attacks the Court as a neo-colonial institution. Kate’s mother Eve Ashby, the former international prosecutor, replies: “it may help you to know my daughter is black. And she was born in Africa.” If the series was trying to make Eve look ridiculous, job well done. But it’s actually trying to make her look sympathetic.

[2] In response to the same student’s question about why the ICC is not investigating “the West Bank,” Eve says the Court can’t because it’s “an active situation.” Huh?

[3] The US actively supports the ICC’s prosecution of Nyamoya. In the first episode, an Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of African Affairs in the State Department tries to strong-arm the ICC Prosecutor into hiring Eve. When the Prosecutor asks why the ICC should do the US’s bidding, the Assistant Secretary replies that it would be a “big step” toward the US ratifying the Rome Statute. Sure…

[4] Kate is opposed to Nyamoya’s prosecution because he helped end the genocide as an RPF General. She tells Eve that the ICC should instead be prosecuting the Hutus who were responsible for the genocide. Temporal jurisdiction, anyone?

[5] Nyamoya is held in the “ICC Detention Centre” in The Hague. It’s actually a UN detention centre that houses accused from multiple tribunals.

[6] The UK holds an “extradition” hearing concerning Nyamoya’s surrender to the ICC. That’s not how it works.

[7] When the British police come to arrrest Ganimana, who has been receiving treatment for cancer in London, the detective says they are acting “under Art. 25(3)(a) of the Rome Statute.” Um, no. Last I checked, that Article simply covers modes of participation in an international crime.

[8] After the ICC drops the case — many of the witnesses die in suspicious circumstances — it releases Nyamoya. Michael, the British barrister, is surprised, because he thought “the UN” would pick up the case and prosecute him. How exactly?

None of these problems cripple Black Earth Rising. As I’ve said, it’s an excellent series that anyone interested in Rwanda or in international criminal justice should watch. Just don’t think of BER as an “ICC series.” It’s not — fortunately.

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Africa, Featured, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Organizations
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Stian Øby Johansen

Just to be an even more obsessive pedant: the wing of the Scheveningen prison where ICC detianees are held is actually called the ICC Detention Centre. It is on a separate floor from the UN Detention Unit (ICTY/ICTR/MICT). The ICC Detention Centre is a subsidiary organ of the ICC Registry, which in turn is an organ of the IO that is the ICC. The UN Detention Unit is currently a part of the MICT registry, which in turn is a subsidiary organ of the UN Security Council, and thus the UN.

tl;dr: They actually got [6] right!

See e.g.: (at the bottom) (factsheet on the Detention Centre)
– ICC, Regulations of the Court, e.g. regulations 2 (definition of the “detention centre”) and 90.

Omar N
Omar N

Finally! I have been waiting for the OJ to give its take on Black Earth Rising.

Re. (2) when asked why the ICC isn’t investigating the West Bank, I understood Eve’s response as “I believe that’s an active situation” i.e. the ICC is in fact investigating it. Admittedly though the student’s sneery response (“active situation?”) doesn’t make much sense that way either.

Re (1) I had the same thought, not exactly the response of a world class prosecutor.

Omar N
Omar N

And…either way it would be wrong (it’s under preliminary examination not an active investigation.)