A decade after living through one of the most brutal genocides of the past century, Rwanda has not yet fully recovered from the legacy of its past. A report published by Human Rights Watch on October 10 describes hundreds of cases of illegal and arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and the use of torture on political opponents taking place between 2010 and 2017, in breach of domestic and international law.
Rwanda has come a long way, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in Central Africa and having significantly reduced poverty and inequality in the last decade. Yet the long-existing fractures within Rwandan society have well outlived the brutal 1994 genocide which resulted in an estimated death toll of 800,000. Led by President Paul Kagame since 2000, the country is currently in the grip of a political crackdown following the presidential elections of August 2017, in which Mr Kagame was reelected with nearly 99% of the vote. Kagame’s major potential challenger and the only female candidate, the independent Diane Rwigara, was not allowed to participate in the presidential race on dubious technical grounds. Ms Rwigara was later arrested on 5 September 2017 on charges of inciting insurrection and forgery, together with her mother and sister. Ms Rwigara’s mother has recently claimed in court that the three have been tortured during their time in prison. This is only the most publicized of the many cases of enforced disappearances, unlawful arrest and detention and ill-treatment against political opponents taking place in Rwanda in the past years.
The Human Rights Watch Report
On October 10, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report on illegal detention, enforced disappearance and torture which took place in four different military camps within the country between 2010 and 2017. The report is based on 230 interviews, including 61 of current and former detainees, as well as 10 of government and military officials, most of whom requested anonymity.
The report points out that 104 cases of illegal detention were documented between 2010 and 2016, and evidence shows that it is still ongoing. The victims were often captured in neighbouring Congo and forcibly brought into the country. They were subjected to torture and to other forms of ill-treatment by military personnel, so that they would confess their alleged links to the rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), or to other forms of opposition. Detainees were tortured withmetal bars, wooden sticks, hammers and other objects, and many of them eventually confessed to crimes which they had not committed just to end their suffering, or out of fear they would be killed. The Government of Rwanda has never replied to the numerous letters sent by Human Rights Watch to call for justice, and has formally reiterated that illegal detention does not take place in the country.
A Concise Legal Framework
Torture is prohibited in the Rwandan criminal code of 2012. Moreover, the prohibition of torture is widely considered a peremptory norm of general international law, one which gives erga omnes obligations to the whole international community to take measures against the perpetrator of the crime, inter alia, through domestic prosecution based on universal jurisdiction.
Rwanda ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on 15 July 1983, allowing individuals to submit a complaint in case of alleged violations of one or more rights protected in the Charter. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights may, therefore, issue a binding ruling on alleged violations.
On 15 December 2008 Rwanda acceded to the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and on 30 June 2015 ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). Rwanda has not accepted the individual complaint procedure and, therefore, individual complaints cannot be submitted to the Committee against Torture.
The OPCAT established the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), which works directly with Member States to prevent torture and ill-treatment. The Subcommittee visited Rwanda very recently, leaving on October 21, assessing the situation of prisons, police stations and other detention facilities, and will advise the Rwandan Government on the establishment of a National Prevention Mechanism (NPM), an independent monitoring body with full access to all places of detention.
For the time being, absent a political will of the Rwandan Government to halt impunity, the only available avenues are: domestic prosecution in foreign courts under the universality principle, or to resort to the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, both of which entail long proceedings and difficulties in the collection of evidence without the consent of Rwandan authorities.
The soon-to-be-released report of the SPT could bring situations of illegality in Rwandan detention centres to a more substantial degree of international attention and the establishment of the NPM is to be greeted as an important instrument to ensure accountability. However, it is essential that the Rwandan Government assumes responsibility and takes concrete action in order to comply with its domestic law and with its international obligations.