The ethics of political art

A critical review of Swiss theatre director Milo Rau’s multi-media project, "Congo Tribunal,” about the violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Still from "Congo Tribunal."

How can arts respond to conflict, human rights violations and impunity? What role can they play in peace building and reconciliation? These questions are raised by Milo Rau’s Congo Tribunal, a multimedia project, consisting of a film, a book, a website, a 3D installation, an exhibition in The Hague and, most centrally, a performance that took place in Bukavu and Berlin.

The project has an ambitious bottomline: “where politics fail, only art can take over.” The failure of politics, in this case, lie in the blatant impunity and perpetuation of the violence that engulfs eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since more than twenty years.

Milo Rau is very explicit in his political aims, stating:

as a reaction to the passivity of the international community to the systematic attacks against the civil population, [the tribunal] was designed to counteract the decades of impunity in the region.

In the film, footage from the hearings in Berlin is mixed with images from Mutarule, Twangiza and Bisie, the cases under investigation, but the bulk of the film reports on the Bukavu hearings. In this eastern Congolese town, a three-day fictitious tribunal was set up, bringing together various actors of the Congolese conflict, including the victims, witnesses, civil society, opposition and government actors as well as other observers. Victims and human rights advocates spoke out about the role of government and the UN in massacres, about conflict minerals and forced displacement, divided into the three aforementioned cases.

Although the project is admittedly larger than the film (the website has recently been updated with the full-length hearings), the film is the primary means through which Rau communicates with his western audience. The film, however, ends up in murky ethical waters: it remains deliberately ambiguous about what is fiction and what is reality, its producers lack rigor in examining the cases under investigation, and they selectively take responsibility (wrongly claiming a positive impact and avoiding questions about possible negative impacts) for the impact of the intervention.

Although the tribunal is presented as theatrical (and some elements such as a man with a clapperboard stepping on the scene sustain this), most other elements give a different impression: the stage is set up as a real tribunal with a large “Truth and Justice” banner hanging above the scene, the hearings mimic court procedures, use related idioms and are full of factual information. Rau himself emphasizes, that “there is no doubt that all witnesses and all experts are real and that they pledge to say the truth.”

In his communication, Rau has also repeatedly mentioned the participation of International Criminal Court lawyers in the court, adding to its image as a real tribunal. While indeed some of the tribunal’s jury members have been working as civil parties at the ICC, they have certainly not partaken in the tribunal on behalf of it.

Mixing up fiction and reality in this way may not only be confusing to western, but also local audiences. “People have been mobilized for the hearings and sensitized about the rights of local communities vis-à-vis the mining companies, but until today we have not seen any impact,” a local analyst says. A participant in the hearings told us that he “hopes the message will have an effect in maybe five or ten years. But so far the effect on the political situation has been nihil.” We are willing to follow and even applaud Rau’s reasoning that this is a symbolic and not a pragmatic act. And as researchers we strongly believe it is extremely important to talk about the ongoing violence and impunity in Congo, to give a voice to all parties involved. However, we feel such an ambitious project should pay more attention to ethics, as it does intervene in real and ongoing conflicts and hence may have more than symbolic consequences.

Milo Rau does take responsibility for the real consequences of his project when it comes to positive effects, but seems less concerned about potential negative effects. In several of his communications around the film, Rau claims responsibility for the dismissal of two ministers. However, according to our sources in South Kivu’s civil society, their sidelining can be attributed to internal provincial politics, including wrongdoings entirely unrelated to the issues dealt with by the Congo Tribunal, and certainly not directly to their performance in the Bukavu hearings. Moreover, local observers stress that the success of the hearings had more to do with the presence of witness opposition candidate Vital Kamerhe than with intrinsic enthusiasm about the project.

In general, our contacts in the region seem to be rather disappointed by the limited impact the project has had (so far) on the political situation, some of them dismissing it as a show of the bazungu. In this sense, the director seems to overestimate the positive effects of the project, or at least use this as a selling point towards his western audience to show that this symbolic act has had pragmatic consequences. Potential negative consequences, in turn, are not addressed. For example, one may raise questions about the protection of witnesses who (courageously) testified against their government and/or big mining corporations.

Still from Congo Tribunal.

Despite Rau’s claims that a witness protection program was set up, this was limited to the anonymization of one witness during trial. One participant in the hearings confessed to us: “There was no witness protection program. They have not followed up. I was told they didn’t have the budget nor the time to do so.”

Most importantly, Congo Tribunal has, in various ways, failed to live up to its own stated aim and rigor, namely to provide an explanation for the rampant impunity and to contribute to the fight against it. If a project claims to make “a very concrete analysis of all causes and backgrounds that led to a civil war in Congo” and to unveil the truth, it must use rigorous methods to do so or at least try to do so. Our earlier concerns about this were brushed away by Milo Rau. Yet, here lies a major problem: the film suffers from a striking lack of research into the cases, namely a violent massacre (the 2014 Mutarule massacre, which has been thoroughly researched by two of the authors, as well as other researchers), the role of a multinational in eastern Congo (the industrial gold producer Banro Corporation, also researched by one of the authors), and the clash between artisanal and industrial mining interests in the world’s biggest known tin mine (Bisie).

By using cinematographic techniques and presenting particular images (for example Mutarule, followed by an aerial view of Banro’s Twangiza concession) in sequence, the film suggests a causal relationship between these cases. Likewise, as participants of the hearings shared with us, the hearings as such did jump rather arbitrarily in between the different case studies, and hence, in between different stereotypical registers of a much more complex setting of violent conflict. Testimonies about the hugely complex case of Mukungwe, for example, are conflated with Banro’s resettlement to Cinjira, while these are very different dynamics.

In neglecting to explain the complexities of each case-study, the film does what it aims to criticize: it explains multifaceted conflicts through a dominant and oversimplifying narrative—the narrative on conflict minerals—which reduces the conflict in eastern DRC to an economic war, as a struggle for mineral resources.

Presenting this narrative as something new and neglected, the film and artist seem (painfully) unaware of the long history of this narrative, as well as the wide criticism on it. Much research has shown the inaccuracy and even harm done by this selective focus. Similarly, while the film claims to have brought in a wide range of witnesses and experts, it is very selective in its editing and construction of its message. Experts who were critical of the conflicts minerals narrative—such as one of the authors (Vogel)—have been tackled with a series of suggestive questions during the hearings. His testimony was not taken into account in the cinematographic edition, for it might represent too much a cognitive dissonance to Rau’s preformated punchline?

Rau’s wider work provocatively engages with the boundaries between fiction and reality of cruelty and violence, but—as critiques on his other pieces have shown—can border on recuperation of this cruelty.

Here lies a major challenge: art aims to be provocative, but what if the actual context becomes secondary to the artistic mission—however vaguely defined? This is particularly acute in extremely complicated and opaque conflicts such as the DRC. Overall, the film leaves questions about the project’s ethics, and particularly, about the impact on its local participants, who may be facing not just symbolic, but real consequences—in a positive as well as a negative sense. The example of Congo Tribunal shows that creative and active engagement with war and violence is an important function of the arts, yet we need to give justice to the complexities and risks associated with that engagement—and Congo Tribunal should have done better in this.

About the Author

Sara Geenen is a lecturer in International Development, Globalization, and Poverty at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

Kristof Titeca is a Professor at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His latest book is Rebel Lives. Photographs from inside the Lord's Resistance Army.

Josaphat Musamba is a researcher at the Conflict and Human Security Research Group (GEC-SH) based at CERUKI/ISP-Bukavu.

Christoph Vogel is a researcher at the University of Zurich and the director of

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