Polity: Dominant party (military-dominated)
Population: 7,400,000
GNI/Capita: $943
Life Expectancy: 39
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (56.5 percent), Protestant (26 percent), other (17.5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Hutu (84 percent), Tutsi (15 percent), Twa [Pygmy] (1 percent)
Capital: Kigali

Political Rights Score: 7
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free

Ratings Change
Rwanda's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to the introduction of the gacacca justice system to deal with alleged genocide perpetrators.


The official transition period under which the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its allies have ruled since the 1994 genocide is due to end in July 2003. Carefully controlled discussions about a new constitution continue. The RPF continues to maintain its predominant role in the country's governing structures. The beginning of the use of the traditional justice method of gacacca in 2002 posed the prospect of a reduction in the backlog of court cases against alleged perpetrators of genocide.

With the exception of some scattered violence, Rwanda remained peaceful internally. As part of a broad peace agreement, Rwandan troops left the Democratic Republic of Congo. Continued instability in the region, however, including tensions with neighboring Uganda, posed considerable challenges to the country's peaceful development and complicated efforts to improve the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Rwanda's ethnic divide is deeply rooted. National boundaries demarcated by Belgian colonists led to often violent competition for power within the fixed borders of a modern state. Traditional and Belgian-abetted Tutsi dominance ended with a Hutu rebellion in 1959 and independence in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were killed or fled the country in recurring violence during the next decades. In 1990, the RPF launched a guerrilla war to force the Hutu regime, led by General Juvenal Habyarimana, to accept power sharing and the return of Tutsi refugees. The Hutus' chauvinist solution for claims to land and power by Rwanda's Tutsi minority, which constituted approximately 15 percent of the pre-genocide population, was to pursue the complete elimination of the Tutsi people.

The 1994 genocide was launched after the suspicious deaths of President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira in a plane crash in Kigali. The ensuing massacres had been well plotted. Piles of imported machetes were distributed, and death lists were broadcast by radio. A small UN force in Rwanda fled as the killings spread and Tutsi rebels advanced. French troops intervened in late 1994, not to halt the genocide, but in a futile effort to preserve a territorial enclave for the crumbling genocidal regime that was so closely linked to the French government.

International relief efforts that eased the suffering among more than two million Hutu refugees along Rwanda's frontiers also allowed retraining and rearming of large numbers of former governmental troops. The UN, which had earlier ignored specific warnings of an impending genocide in 1994, failed to prevent such activities, and the Rwandan army took direct action, overrunning refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly three million refugees subsequently returned to Rwanda between 1996 and 1998. Security has improved considerably since 1997, although isolated incidents of killing and "disappearances" continue.

The government, led by the Tutsi-dominated RPF, closely directs the country's political life. In 1999 it extended the transition period after which multiparty national elections could be held for an additional four years, arguing that the move was necessary because the poor security situation in the country did not permit elections to be held. Carefully controlled, nonparty local elections were held in 1999. In 2000 there were a number of important changes in the nation's senior leadership. President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in March and was replaced by Vice President Paul Kagame, who had already been the de facto leader of the country. A new prime minister, Bernard Makuza, was appointed. The president of the National Assembly fled into exile in the United States and was replaced. The security situation remained generally peaceful, with refugee reintegration continuing to take place. In 2001, nonpartisan municipal elections, a controversial step in the country's political transition, took place.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Rwandans have never enjoyed the right to democratically choose their government. Rwanda's current interim basic governance charter is the Fundamental Law, an amalgam of the 1991 constitution, two agreements among various parties and groups, and the RPF's own 1994 declaration of governance. The current, self-appointed government is dominated by the RPF, but also includes several other political parties. The legislature is unicameral. Composed of 70 members, it was appointed in 1994 for a five-year term by the RPF-dominated government. Its mandate was extended by the government in June 1999 for a further four years.

A constitutional drafting process initiated by the government began in 2002. The draft constitution foresees a semi-presidential regime which gives strong powers to the president, who has sole power to appoint the prime minister. Presidential powers would be somewhat limited, however, as the president could not sign international treaties, start or stop war, give a general amnesty or declare a state of emergency without approval from parliament. The president can dissolve parliament, but only once during a five-year term. Only two succeeding presidential terms are allowed. According to the draft constitution, only parties receiving at least 4 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections would be allowed to function. The International Crisis Group (ICG) issued in late 2002 a report on the process stating that "there are multiple restrictions on political and civil liberty and no sign of any guarantee, or even indication, in the outline of the constitutional plan that the political opposition will be able to participate in these elections on an equal footing with the RPF."

Municipal elections, which had been scheduled for October 2000, took place in March 2001, because of legal and administrative delays. Candidates were elected to councils, which in turn chose 106 district town mayors who previously had been appointed by the central government. Political parties were forbidden to campaign; candidates could only present themselves as individuals. About three million voters cast ballots in generally peaceful balloting. Independent observers, including Human Rights Watch and the ICG, were critical of the lack of pluralism permitted. Single candidates appeared on the ballot for almost half the seats.

Political parties closely identified with the 1994 massacres are banned, as are parties based on ethnicity or religion. Several parties participate in government, although they are constrained from campaigning or otherwise engaging in partisan activities. There is some Hutu representation in the government, including Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, who is from the mainly Hutu Republican Democratic Movement (MDR) party. In recent years a number of leading government critics have fled the country. Seth Sendashonga, a former minister of the interior, was assassinated in Nairobi in 1998. Former president Pasteur Bizimungu is under arrest for announcing that he intended to set up an independent political party.

Constitutional and legal safeguards regarding arrest procedures and detention are unevenly applied. The near destruction of Rwanda's legal system and the death or exile of most of the judiciary have dramatically impeded the government's ability to administer postgenocide justice. About 120,000 suspects are incarcerated in jails built for 10,000.

To help address this problem, in 2002 the traditional justice system of gacacca, was reinstated. In this system, local notables preside over community trials dealing with the less serious genocide offenses. Some observers have expressed concern about the potential for partiality or for the application of uneven or arbitrary standards.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, continues its work. The tribunal, similar to that in The Hague dealing with those accused of crimes against humanity and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, is composed of international jurists. Relations between Rwanda and the court in Arusha in northern Tanzania have deteriorated in recent years, with Rwanda accusing the ICTR of incompetence, while the court has accused Rwanda of refusing to cooperate in war crimes investigations on its army. The ICTR has filed a complaint of noncooperation before the UN Security Council, to which Rwanda has responded, but the Security Council has not yet acted on the complaints.

Rwandan media are officially censored and constrained by fear of reprisals. The role of the media in Rwanda has become a contentious test case for media freedom and responsibility. During the genocide, 50 journalists were murdered, while others broadcast incitements to the slaughter. A September 2001 report by Reporters Sans Frontieres, a press watchdog group, concluded that press freedom is not assured in Rwanda. Journalists interviewed admitted that they censor their own writing and that the authorities have made it clear that certain topics cannot be discussed. As a result, Rwandan newspaper coverage is heavily pro-government. In 2002 journalists continue to suffer intimidation, arrests, or deportation. The broadcast media are government controlled, although a media bill passed in June 2002 paved the way for the licensing of private radio and TV stations. There are a growing number of newspapers.

Local nongovernmental organizations, such as the Collective Rwandan Leagues and Associations for the Defense of Human Rights, operate openly. International human rights groups and relief organizations are also active. Numerous clerics were among both the victims and perpetrators of the genocide. Religious freedom is generally respected.

There is ongoing de facto discrimination against women in a variety of areas despite legal protection for equal rights. Economic and social dislocation has forced women to take on many new roles, especially in the countryside. Constitutional provisions for labor rights include the right to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike. There are 27 registered unions under two umbrella groups. The larger group is the Central Union of Rwandan Workers, which was closely controlled by the previous regime, but which now has relatively greater independence.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.