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Gary Haugen has witnessed some of the most devastating human rights abuses of this generation from child slavery to the exhumation of genocide victims in Rwanda. Despite encountering ‘deep evil’ up close, he still believes justice can prevail

Ever watched the Hollywood version of Crime Scene Investigation? If so, you might have a stereotyped image in your mind of law enforcers who bring perpetrators of terrible crimes to justice. They’re larger than life, super confident, vociferous, even bombastic, right? On paper Gary Haugen ticks all those boxes: a top Harvard graduate, senior trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, murder and massacre investigator and now founder and president of International Justice Mission (IJM). As CEO of this human rights agency, which is the only one of its kind, securing justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression, and as the 2007 recipient of both the William Wilberforce and Joseph Awards for his work, how can Haugen be anything else?

It’s in the foyer of a swanky Mayfair hotel, where we’ve gathered for the interview, that Haugen presents himself. The tall, imposing figure I’d expected is in fact of medium stature and build with an open, friendly countenance. My stereotype rapidly crumbles. As we settle ourselves into the tasteful surroundings of the hotel library two words come to my mind concerning him: grace and humility. This becomes my lasting impression.

As we talk I wonder how willing he’ll be to share some of his more grisly experiences investigating multiple murders and exhuming victims in the Philippines, or as officer in charge of the UN’s genocide investigation in Rwanda. He chooses his words very carefully, sensitively, sketching out the mental images of mass graves, massacre sites and corpses in varying stages of decomposition. During silences in which he seems momentarily caught up in those memories, there’s a sense of awe in the room caused by our being in the presence of someone who has witnessed what he calls ‘deep evil’.

Quietly spoken and pensive, he takes us on a dramatic journey of horror, violence, rescue, justice and triumph over evil.

You’ve been involved with human rights and justice all your career. What’s the attraction?

At elementary school I was seized by the drama of the struggle for justice in my own country, the United States, such as the civil rights movement. That was coupled with the natural outrage that most of us have when someone is mistreated, and the sense of significance that comes with trying to do something about it. I have a bit of a fighting nature and wanted to take on tough struggles, sensing there could be some great satisfaction in stepping up to them in a way that might make a difference for someone. Over time I got close to the victims of abuse and saw some inspiring examples of people who were quite fearless in doing something about it. I saw the beauty of a life that was lived like that and developed a yearning for it.

Some Christians would say faith and human rights are two separate things and others would say they’re intimately connected. What do you say?

I think one is a fruit of the other. The fruit of faith is love and for me the struggle for human rights is done out of love. If I believe Jesus is Lord and that I’m called to love him and my neighbour then that means I’m called to works of justice. People who say salvation in the hereafter is all that matters seem to be in favour of inhaling, but not of exhaling. I’m in favour of breathing, which is inhaling and exhaling, loving God with all your heart and mind and loving your neighbour by sharing the gospel and meeting him at his point of need. It’s an unfortunate distortion of the gospel by whoever divided those two things because I don’t think Jesus ever did.

What led you to found IJM?

It was really a very practical realisation that there was no Christian ministry addressing in a hands-on way the needs of those who were victims of violent oppression. I had friends who were serving among the poor around the world, doing evangelism, church planting, or they might be medical missionaries, teachers or pastors. But when they came across the way people were abused, raped, illegally detained, tortured or sold into slavery there was no place to turn to for justice and that seemed really odd. I saw this as a massive category of need. There’s a clear biblical mandate to seek justice, rescue the oppressed and defend the orphan. Out of that, a couple of lawyers and I, in a Bible study, began to talk about it. That was how IJM started.

What difference has IJM made?

It’s made a lot of difference in individual lives. We’ve seen prisoners no longer being illegally detained, widows having their land restored to them, children no longer being raped by police in the community, thousands of people released from slavery. We’ve seen hundreds of some of the most violent perpetrators in the world brought to justice. One of the tragic things in those communities is that people have never seen justice done before and it brings enormous hope when they realise the powerful, bad guys can actually be restrained.

Also IJM has provided tangible stories of what’s possible. If Christians have never seen that God can use them to make a difference in this area then it’s hard for them to step up to that. Now they can say, ‘Wow, God’s still in the business of justice and he uses ordinary people to get the job done.’

What are the worst cases of human rights abuse that you have witnessed?

Undoubtedly, one is the genocide in Rwanda. I went there just weeks after the war was over, when the country was still filled with corpses. I was given a list of about 100 massacre sites to visit and gather evidence against the perpetrators. We collected the initial evidence of what had taken place in a church or a stadium or a school where maybe 1,000, 5,000 or 20,000 people had been sliced open and hacked to death by their neighbours. We saw what human beings are capable of. Those who aren’t convinced by the scripture’s teaching on the fall of man need to just take a genocide studies class. It’s not just Rwandans – any ethnic group can have a gratuitous capacity for massive slaughter and find celebration in it. They give themselves over to it and they actually come to revel in it. This is deep evil.

The other I’ve seen is the horror of sex trafficking which is a euphemism for the business of rape for profit. Human beings are capable of the worst kind of intentional, gratuitous pleasure in sexual violence against completely innocent young girls who they want to humiliate and brutalise as much as possible, and to make money from it.

What is your emotional response to these extreme human rights abuses?

I think it’s a response that defies words because these abuses are so outrageous and horrific. There is of course a deep sadness imagining what has happened to the victims which emerges not so much from the corpses but from interviewing the survivors and getting to know them.

There’s also a great sorrow about the journey that must have taken place in the lives of those who have committed those atrocities. They’ve gone from being a child intended for good things by their maker to being a criminal of moral sickness and depravity. I see the perpetrators when they’ve been handcuffed and are in deep trouble. All their arrogance falls away. Their sense of being master of the universe completely crumbles and they are pathetic and lost, an object of the triumph of evil.

My greatest anger is perhaps against the authorities who use their position of power to make money from these offences. That is outrageous and sometimes harder to bear. But it’s also part of professional discipline in this work that you must be able to examine and understand your own emotional response to it, and respond in the right way.

IJM has a four-fold purpose of victim relief, perpetrator accountability, victim aftercare and structural transformation. Which of these is the hardest to achieve?

They’re all really, really hard but the first three are easier in a sense because they’re about dealing with individuals. The second and third are the most miraculous whereas the fourth is larger in scale because it’s trying to fix the broken public justice system so that it does the job of protecting the weak, and this calls for fundamental change in that community.

Is there a danger of IJM being seen as interfering?

That’s an important challenge for the human rights community because they’ve always been criticised for this by those holding power in these situations. Fortunately, IJM has a couple of things going for it in this regard. Firstly, we are just seeking enforcement of the country’s own law, so it’s hard to see how that would be interfering; we’re not asking them to adopt some foreign standard. The other advantage is that IJM staffing is overwhelmingly indigenous to the community in question. So we have Cambodians, Zambians, Guatemalans etc who are leading a movement of justice on behalf of their own people in their own countries and that takes away what otherwise might be a seen as interfering or foreign.

One of IJM’s goals is to encourage the Church to get involved in social justice. How successful has that been?

Well, I guess successful beyond what we thought we might be. I don’t think IJM can take credit for it, but there has been an extraordinary sea change that has taken place in the Church’s attitude toward social justice over the last 15 years. Now, for Christians 30 years old and under it’s hard to imagine a time when justice wasn’t part of the call of scripture. There’s a move of God in this which is a mystery in many respects, but I do think IJM has been successful in bringing to bear biblical teach ing and grounding for the work of justice. I lecture at seminaries and ask audiences how many of them have ever heard a full sermon on the biblical teachings on justice, and almost no one raises their I think God gives us the work of human rights and justice for our joy and to rescue our lives from fear and small things hand. The inspiring thing is that once Christians are exposed to the scriptural teaching in this they move with amazing alacrity to the task.

What divine interventions have you seen in IJM?

I’ve seen God show up in ways that were indisputably of his divine power, such as inexplicable rescues from dangerous situations where violent men were in a position to complete the violence they’d started and didn’t do so. I’ve seen authorities change their hearts in ways that were impossible via any human instrument. I’ve seen the ‘resurrection’ of girls who’ve been the victims of violence and sexual assault. When we first find them they’re in the foetal position, but over time they can look us in the eye, talk about their future and even work with us.

I was recently with Kumar in India whose parents died when he was five. At age seven he was taken into slavery working 12 or more hours a day making bricks and would be beaten if the overseers weren’t happy with his work. One day he was too sick to work but they kicked him in the head and dragged him back to the brick kiln. He was in literal slavery, and my IJM colleagues have been able to release him from that. Now he’s at school and he works with us as an intern. These are transformations that others can give alternative explanations for, but I’m satisfied they are from the hand of a very powerful and compassionate God.

Which of these transformations gives you the most satisfaction?

I think the greatest satisfaction is seeing the movement from being rescued to being a rescuer, such as Angel in the Philippines. She was horrifically raped by a police chief but saw him brought to justice and now counsels young girls in how to recover from sexual abuse and participate in the struggle for justice.

Also, it’s satisfying to see the rescue of Christians who come from very affluent communities and are well-educated and gifted, but who are dying on the vine from boredom, from spiritual dryness, rescued from a sense that God is remote and that their lives are not being put to any grand purpose. In IJM, they’re released from purposelessness and a trivial existence and find joy and hope in the work.

Some of your work for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines involved exhumation of victims. What was your personal coping strategy in these situations?

This was my introduction to technical human rights investigations of that nature. What we called a mass grave in the Philippines was where there may be just seven or eight corpses, as opposed to thousands in Rwanda [Haugen headed up the UN genocide investigation in Rwanda]. The way I was able to work through those situations was through a sense of purpose to what I was doing. I was participating in this exhumation with the professional intention of gathering technical evidence to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. That helped me deal with the emotional trauma of it. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d gone there merely to absorb the horror.

What did you witness at the mass graves and massacre sites in Rwanda?

The mass grave sites were places where people were buried by the thousands and so in some situations we would unearth the corpses which were in various stages of decomposition. The graves were so large we couldn’t do a proper individual forensic examination of each cadaver. All we were doing was trying to approximate the dimensions of it, to see how large and deep it was and whether the evidence that presented itself matched the testimony of witnesses. Then there were the actual massacre sites where the bodies had not yet been buried – those were simply piles and piles of decomposing human bodies. We could piece together how the actual killing had taken place, the horrors of those who cowered with their children as they watched the machetes coming closer and closer. The victims ran to the churches and stadiums for protection and were huddling for days waiting for some kind of rescue. We saw the things that people brought with them when they were fleeing their homes, objects of sentimental value such as a wedding photo or a little personal Bible. Even though the numbers presented themselves in hundreds of thousands, there was a story behind each precious human being, a story about days of great, great terror.

We also learnt how completely stoppable it was. It would have taken a very modest international military force to show up, secure the sanctuaries and defuse the violence. So that made a big impression on me. The victims weren’t crying out for a sermon or food, they wanted someone to restrain the hand of the oppressor, and who in the body of Christ does that?

If you could say one thing to the Church about human rights and justice what would it be?

I think God gives us the work of human rights and justice for our joy and to rescue our lives from fear and small things. It’s an opportunity to experience God that comes when you’re operating outside your own capacities and where you actually need him. The poverty of our spiritual lives in the West comes from our own self-adequacy. We don’t get to experience God very deeply perhaps because we don’t need him very deeply. But the work of justice requires God. I sense many Christians long to be engaged in great and glorious fights against evil. Those struggles can be theirs because the call of God is very open and inviting. I’m looking for those leaders in 2010 that have a burning desire for God to make great use of them and in that find their deepest satisfaction striving for human rights and social justice.


Gary Haugen grew up in California. He received a BA magna cum laude from Harvard University and a JD cum laude from the University of Chicago. He served on the executive committee of the National Initiative for Reconciliation in South Africa then worked for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights based in New York. He then became a senior trial attorney in the US Department of Justice and in 1994 was seconded to the United Nations Centre for Human Rights, serving as officer in charge of the UN’s genocide investigation in Rwanda. In 1997 he founded International Justice Mission.