Human Rights Developments

The speaker of the national assembly, the prime minister, and the president all quit their posts under pressure within the first three months of the year, leaving a shrinking circle of power holders in control of the Rwandan government. The former vice-president, General Paul Kagame, was elected president in April by the assembly, and for the first time openly presided over the government he had reputedly run from behind the scenes since 1994. Kagame, from the Tutsi minority, replaced a Hutu president, thus ending the practice of having a member of the majority ethnic group serve as titular head of the republic. A reshuffle of cabinet positions gave ten of eighteen seats to Kagame's party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), violating the arrangements made in the Arusha Accords of 1994.

The government announced that communal officials, now appointed, would soon be elected. Political parties exist in Rwanda, guaranteed by the Arusha Accords, but the government limited their importance by such measures as prohibiting public meetings. In the proposed elections, political parties will not present candidates.

Two of the three top officials who left their posts in early 2000 also left the country, saying they feared for their lives. The former prime minister was the latest of several important Hutu political leaders to chose exile. The speaker of the national assembly, Joseph Kabuye Sebarenzi, however, was the first leading Tutsi politician to flee. His departure highlighted the rift between Tutsi survivors of the 1994 genocide and the RPF over such issues as jobs in the administration, military promotions, aid to genocide victims, and justice for the genocide.

Sebarenzi, reportedly accused by President Kagame of "inappropriate" political ideas, was said to favor the return of the former king, Kigeri Ndahindurwa, ousted in 1961 and now in exile in the U.S. Another genocide survivor accused of encouraging Tutsi soldiers to "desertto the king" spent nearly a year in jail without trial before being released. In February 2000, two soldiers and three civilians, all genocide survivors suspected of ties to the king, were kidnapped in Burundi and Tanzania where they had fled. Their Rwandan military captors forced them to return to the country, although those taken in Tanzania had been under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some of them were reportedly tortured, but after months in jail without trial, all were released.

A presidential councilor linked to genocide survivors' associations was gunned down by men in military uniform in early March. No arrests had been made in the case by late in the year. When the brother of the deceased, vice-president of the survivors' association Ibuka, tried to leave Rwanda, police confiscated his ticket and passport and took him for questioning. After intervention by several foreign ambassadors, he was later permitted to leave the country. Other leading members of Ibuka also fled Rwanda, as did a number of Rwandan soldiers. Some forty university students, most or all of them Tutsi, left for Uganda in December 1999, denouncing the "dictatorial" nature of the government.

In the first part of the year, local authorities jailed dozens of persons in Ndusu and Bulinga communes on charges of supporting the king. Most were later released without trial.

Two leaders of the opposition Movement Democrat Republicain (MDR), the largest political party in Rwanda, were released from prison without trial: Bonaventure Ubalijoro, who had been detained since 1999, and Sylvestre Kamali, who was arrested in 1994. But a former member of the national assembly, Jean Mbanda, was jailed in June, shortly after publicly criticizing the RPF. He was accused of committing fraud six years before.

The Rwandan government fought armed opponents largely in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where its troops committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. (See section on Democratic Republic of Congo). Its soldiers suppressed an insurgency in northwestern Rwanda in 1998 and 1999, with enormous civilian casualties. But small groups of insurgents resurfaced in Gisenyi prefecture in December 1999 to massacre thirty-one Tutsi at Tamira and in May 2000 to kill nine persons at Rwerere. In May others killed three secondary school students and wounded three others in Kinigi and killed two Local Defense Force members in Ruhondo, both in Ruhengeri. Insurgents recruited adherents, supposedly including children, to serve as combatants.

Soldiers reportedly killed civilians suspected of being insurgents in Rubavu, Ruhondo, Giciye, and Karago communes and imprisoned many others, some of them in military facilities, like the Milpoc detention center in Gisenyi, where they suffered from harsh conditions and in some cases from torture.

In the southeast in midyear, several bodies were sighted floating down the Akagera River, and other persons were said to have "disappeared." Apparently reflecting fear of increased violence, more than three thousand mostly Hutu Rwandans from this region fled to Tanzania from April to July, twice the number for all of 1999.

Members of the Local Defense Forces – young people recruited, trained, and armed by the government supposedly to defend their communities – killed more than a dozen people and raped and robbed many others in different parts of the country. Nominally under the supervision of local authorities, they in many cases escaped punishment for their abuses.

The government reportedly forcibly recruited men and children for the army and the Local Defense Forces. Authorities freed some 300 military detainees and prisoners from Rilima and Kibungo prisons in mid-year, supposedly because they agreed to go fight for Rwanda in the DRC.

In 1999 and 2000 the government tried more persons accused of participating in the 1994 genocide than in the two years since trials began. The total tried by March 2000 was some 3,000, but more than 125,000 still languished in prisons. As in previous years, courts varied considerably in the regularity and thoroughness of their proceedings. Of those found guilty, some 14 percent were sentenced to death, a decrease from earlier years. The percentage of persons acquitted rose slightly to nearly 20 percent. The government repeatedly extended deadlines permitting the detention of persons without any case files, a practice otherwise forbidden by Rwandan law. In December 1999, a new deadline was set for June 2001. An estimated 18,000 persons were held without files, some of them detained since 1994.

In a case which drew international attention, Bishop Augustin Misago was acquitted of genocide charges in June. Arrested immediately after the former president accused him at a mass meeting in April 1999, the bishop was jailed for more than a year as the prosecution presented a flimsy case against him. Several persons acquitted of charges of genocide were attacked after their release and at least one of them was killed. Others were re-arrested soon after their release.

Three judges were arrested and charged with "genocide" – one of them for the second time – and a fourth was suspended from his post in November 1999 after having been previously arrested and freed for lack of proof.

Conditions in prisons were miserable and in some cases inhumane and life-threatening. The food supply was irregular in some central prisons and the government called upon families to bring food to detainees, a practice previously usual only for communal lockups. Delivering food to detainees imposed a substantial burden on households where there was only one adult, particularly where the prison was distant.

Throughout the year, the government promised an alternative form of communal justice, called gacaca, but late in the year the necessary legislation had not been passed. Although the program offered some hope of trying the accused more rapidly, it raised concerns about the rights of the accused, particularly because it provided no right to counsel. Although no gacaca law existed, authorities implemented a kind of gacaca in many prisons at the direction of the Ministry of Justice. There was no public explanation of how these sessions were conducted or what use would be made of their conclusions.

The government continued a program of forced "villagization." Although enforced less harshly than in preceding years, as late as midyear, authorities still required people to move against their will to government-designated settlements. Some homeowners were forced to destroy their houses before moving. Lacking the necessary resources to build new houses, hundreds of thousands of people lived in temporary shelters made of tree limbs, leaves, and pieces of plastic. Some cultivators were forced to cede their fields to serve as settlement sites. Many village residents had to walk miles further each day to reach their fields or sources of water and firewood than when they lived in their previous homes. Difficulty in reaching fields and insecurity over land tenure resulting from villagization caused a decline in agricultural production, which was further cut by drought. Toward the end of the year, serious food shortages threatened regions where villagization was most advanced.

The government permitted considerable press criticism on certain questions, but balked at negative comment on others. Three journalists fled the country in 2000, saying their lives were at risk because of reports they had published. One foreign journalist was threatened with expulsion for having filed a dispatch that displeased authorities, and several Rwandan journalists were questioned by police after publishing information critical of the government.

Defending Human Rights

The Rwandan League for Promoting and Defending Human Rights (La Ligue Rwandaise pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits de l'Homme, LIPRODHOR) effectively documented abuses, particularly outside the capital, and monitored judicial proceedings related to the genocide. It also conducted a poll showing that 93 percent of the respondents favored the proposed gacaca system. LIPRODHOR, as well as other local human rights organizations, prepared to assist the gacaca process, both through training programs and by monitoring the sessions. The Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Public Liberties (Association pour la Défense des Droits Humains et des Libértés Publiques, ADL) carried out a useful study of villagization. The regional umbrella group, League for the Defense of Human Rights of the Great Lakes (La Ligue des Associations de Défense des Droits de l'homme des Grands Lacs, LDGL), began a campaign among its member organizations to end impunity in the region and to extend the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda into Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The National Human Rights Commission, elected in mid-1999, organized widespread public education efforts and worked quietly to resolve several problems concerning property and, most notably, to protect and secure the release of jailed Tutsi genocide survivors.

The Rwandan government made a detailed response to reports published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, an initiative that would have been more promising had the responses been cooler in tone and more factual in content.

The Role of the International Community

International Justice

At the end of 1999, a United Nations investigative commission reported how and why the United Nations and its member states failed to halt the 1994 genocide. Six months later, a commission of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) made the same critical conclusions and particularly condemned the United States for impeding action by the U.N. and France for supporting the genocidal government. The OAU report also examined alleged RPF crimes against humanity committed in 1994. President Kagame initially welcomed the OAU publication as "a good report," but two months later, Rwandan authorities attacked it as "biased."

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda completed trials of a factory director and a leader of the Interahamwe militia and found them guilty of genocide. The court found a third person guilty after he confessed to his role in inciting to genocide over the radio. Still plagued by lengthy proceedings, the appeals and trial chambers adopted reforms meant to speed trials. An internal audit found that all branches of the tribunal needed to become more efficient, both in terms of time and money.

In November 1999, the appeals chamber ordered the release of Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza on the grounds of procedural errors by the prosecution. The Rwandan government immediately suspended cooperation with the court and for a brief period refused a visa to the chief prosecutor. In early 2000, the appeals chamber reheard the case. The prosecutor argued for reversal on legal grounds but also stated that prosecutions for genocide could not continue without cooperation from the Rwandan government. The appeals chamber reversed its decision, allowing Barayagwiza to be tried. In late 1999, the tribunal decided to receive an official and permanent representative of the Rwandan government, and in 2000, judges of the trial chamber visited Rwanda where they were received by President Kagame. These developments, together with the absence of any prosecutions of RPF members for alleged crimes, raised questions about the impartiality of the tribunal.

Such doubts were fueled by publication of a confidential U.N. memorandum suggesting that the previous prosecutor had halted an investigation into RPF involvement in downing the airplane of President Juvenal Habyarimana, the catalytic event which set off the genocide.

Another press account revealed, however, that the tribunal was investigating possible RPF crimes. In August, a Belgian investigating magistrate opened a similar inquiry following a complaint filed by several Rwandans.

In judicial proceedings elsewhere related to the genocide, a Swiss appeals court reduced to fourteen years the life sentence of a Rwandan burgomaster condemned in 1999 for violations of the Geneva conventions. French judges investigated the downing of Habyarimana's airplane and a case of genocide against a Rwandan priest. In Canada, an appeals court deliberated on the motion of Leon Mugesera to avoid expulsion from the country for having incited to genocide in Rwanda in 1992. In Belgium, a trial began for two religious sisters and two others accused of genocide.

United Nations

The U.N. Security Council acknowledged human rights abuses committed by all sides in the war in the DRC. It asked both Rwanda and Uganda to make reparations for the loss of life and property damage inflicted on civilians when they fought each other in the Congolese city of Kisangani. In another resolution, the council deplored the deterioration of human rights in the eastern DRC, including attacks on civilians in which Rwandan troops presumably were involved.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission remarkably enough showed less concern than the Security Council for such combat-related abuses. Both the commission and the special representative of the high commissioner for human rights, Michel Moussalli, commended the Rwandan government for its progress, ignoring its abuses in the DRC and minimizing those inside Rwanda.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) and its member states said little about Rwandan human rights abuses and contributed generously to government funds. Unlike 1999 when the E.U. expressed concern about abuses related to villagization, in September 2000 it adopted a common position that criticized nothing and encouraged "the ongoing processes...of protecting and promoting human rights." In March, the E.U. resumed development aid which had been interrupted in 1994.

The United Kingdom continued its ten-year program of assistance, with grants of some U.S. $70 million, with Cooperation Secretary Clare Short enthusiastically supporting the Rwandan government and initially denouncing critical human rights reports as "political propaganda." The Dutch, initially hesitant to list Rwanda among its privileged aid recipients, did so in 2000 in consideration of economic progress and promised implementation of the Lusaka Accords. Belgium proffered an official apology for its conduct at the time of the genocide and promisedincreased assistance, particularly in the area of health. Germany gave some U.S. $6 million for education and legal assistance. Even France, seen as hostile since 1994, sent its minister of cooperation to Rwanda.

While governments at home generally kept silent on human rights issues, diplomats from the Belgian, German, Swiss, and Dutch embassies intervened locally during the year to assist persons whose rights had been abused.

United States

Generally viewed as strongly supportive of the Rwandan government, the U.S. this year helped it acquire the only advanced radar in central Africa and cut the Rwandan debt to the U.S. by 67 percent. It also signed three grants totaling U.S. $15.1 million for assistance in establishing the rule of law, transparency in governance, and health and social services.

Like their European colleagues, U.S. embassy staff followed individual cases of human rights abuse and intervened several times.

Ambassador for War Crimes David Scheffer worked to end impunity in central Africa, a goal supported at least nominally by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As the year ended, administration officials were considering possible ways to bring violators of international humanitarian law to justice.

The U.S. supported the international tribunal for Rwanda, although in May 2000 it pointed out the need for better use of funds. Senator Russ Feingold sought to encourage the arrest of suspected perpetrators of genocide by asking the U.S. Senate to establish a rewards program similar to that set up for the international tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports

The Search for Security and Human Rights Abuses, 4/00

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

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.