Rwanda Democracy and Rights
Democracy and rights
Since Paul Kagame became president in 2000, Rwanda has gradually become increasingly authoritarian. Nowadays it is difficult to oppose the country at all. The media is controlled by state power and freedom of assembly is heavily circumscribed. However, Rwanda is one of Africa’s least corrupt countries.
Many restrictions on citizens’ freedoms and rights are made on the grounds that contradictions in society must be avoided to prevent future genocide. The 2003 Constitution also attaches great importance to national unity.
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A Rwandan law punishes what one calls “genocide ideologies” with between 10 and 25 years in prison. The law is vaguely worded and, according to Amnesty International, can be used to silence regime criticism and also limit an accused person’s ability to defend himself.
Elections are held regularly and free party formation should prevail. But the rules of national unity open up for the regime to make restrictions here as well. In 2003, the Hut-dominated party was banned from the MDR (see Political system), which in practice meant that almost all real opposition was injured. Other parties, such as the United Democratic Forces (UDF), have been refused registration and therefore unable to stand in elections. UDF politicians have been harassed by the authorities and the leader Victoire Ingabire was sentenced in 2012 to a long prison sentence, among other things, for impairing the genocide.
The ruling party Rwanda’s Patriotic Front (FPR or RPF) completely dominates politics, even though it is itself strongly associated with a people group, the Tutsis. Criticism of the Tutsi dominance can lead to harsh penalties for “expression of genocide ideology”. Since 2000, Kagame and FPR have won all elections without any real opposition. The opposition is very much in the country’s escape. Freedom House describes Rwanda as a “non-free country”, the worst of three categories.
President Kagame’s reelection 2017 was heavily questioned. Opposition politician Diane Rwigara was harassed by police and other authorities and later rejected by the electoral authority, which is considered government friendly. The freedom of assembly for Kagame’s opponents was limited. In addition, the constitution was changed so that Kagame could stand up at all. Previously, a president could only be re-elected once, but that changed in 2015 to allow Kagame to run for a third term. Election observers commented on irregularities in the counting of votes.
Abbreviated as RWA by Abbreviationfinder, Rwanda has the world’s highest representation of women in parliament. In the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house), women must hold at least 24 seats (30 percent of seats). In addition, the women who are elected.
Even for civil society organizations, freedom of assembly and association is restricted. Their activities are hindered, among other things, by a complicated registration process.
Rwanda is not as affected by corruption as many other countries in the region. In Transparency International’s index of corruption in the world, in Rwanda in 2019 was ranked number 51 out of 180 countries. This means that Rwanda is Africa’s fourth least corrupt country. Only the Seychelles (place 27), Botswana (34) and Cape Verde (41) were ranked higher (see the full list here).
Freedom of expression and media
In Rwanda, the media is monitored by the FPR and the state power and journalists are at high risk of being badly hit. According to Reporters Without Borders, eight journalists have been killed or disappeared since 1996 and 35 have been forced to flee abroad.
Although there is no official censorship, the authorities’ attitude towards critical journalism is so negative that even independent media is intimidated into extensive self-censorship.
Media freedom and freedom of information are guaranteed in the Constitution – but with a number of reservations. Among other things, laws that prohibit insulting the head of state, state officials and the army are often used to arrest journalists, who are sometimes beaten by the police.
President Kagame has been designated by Reporters Without Borders as one of the political leaders who have the least respect for media freedom. He himself justifies it with the necessity of preventing dangerous contradictions in society.
On the organization’s list of media freedom in the world, Rwanda was ranked 2019 and 2020 as number 155 out of 180 countries (see full list here). This is a slight improvement since 2014 when the country gained 162.
The government controls the media in several ways. It has happened that government-critical newspapers have had their publishing licenses temporarily suspended before elections. It received some 30 media experiences before the 2010 election, including the leading privately owned newspapers Umuseso and Umuvugizi. Many employees fled the country and one of Umuvugizi’s editors was shot dead later that year. Shortly thereafter, his colleague was subjected to an assassination attempt, forced into exile and sentenced in his absence to 2.5 years in prison for, among other things, insulting the president.
It has also happened that journalists were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for “calling for civil disobedience” or for “overthrowing activities”.
Foreign journalists are often denied the accreditation and visas required to work in Rwanda. In 2015, the British media company banned the BBC’s broadcasts in Kinyarwanda after the company’s English-language television show a documentary described by the Rwanda government as “history revisionist”. In the film, researchers interviewed claimed that far more Hutus were killed during the 1994 genocide than the government, formed by the then Tutsiger guerilla, admitted. The film also featured the deadly violence perpetrated by the Tutsigilla, led by Paul Kagame, as it marched towards Kigali in 1994.
During the period before and during the 1994 genocide, some mass media carried racist propaganda against the Tutsis. Particularly notorious was “The Radio of the Thousand Hills” (Radiotélévision Libre de Milles Collines). The propaganda created an atmosphere that made it possible to persuade tens of thousands of Hutus to participate in the massacres. Some of those responsible for these media have been sentenced to prison at the UN Criminal Court for Rwanda.
Judicial system and legal security
The judiciary should be independent of state power, but political pressure exists. This applies in particular to cases involving politically dissimilar thinking and regime-critical media.
Political murders occur, as do people who disapprove of the regime. Amnesty International reports of arbitrary killing.
The country’s prisons were heavily overcrowded for many years after the genocide, but the situation has improved in recent years. Life sentences in isolation cells are allowed, which is criticized by human rights groups. Information about torture in detention and prisons is found, as well as other inhuman treatment, performed by the police, the military or the security service.
In a statutory supplement from 2010, former presidents guarantee lifetime immunity, even against prosecution for international law.
Legal processes after the genocide
During the 1994 genocide, the justice system broke down and afterwards the prisons were filled with suspected murderers and fellow runners. By 2000, about 120,000 people had been imprisoned. New lawyers were trained quickly, but at the pace of the trials, they would have lasted for over 100 years. From 2001, local courts of traditional model, gacaca, were set up to speed up the work. The Gacacad courts often received criticism for lack of legal certainty. In June 2012, they were closed after handling nearly two million cases.
During the time that the gacaca courts functioned, the ordinary judicial system was largely rebuilt and many prosecutors and judges received thorough training.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), set up in Arusha, Tanzania, established 93 people for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. More than 80 convictions were given legal force before the court was closed in December 2015. The most common sentence was life imprisonment.
In 2010, the UN Security Council created a new judicial body, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), to deal with backlog cases from both the Rwanda Tribunal and the International Court of Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for example, if wanted persons are arrested after the special courts are closed..
Former Mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu became the first in history to be convicted of genocide by an international court in 1998. Among the others convicted in Arusha are ministers from the genocide government, church leaders and those responsible for media that spread hate propaganda against Tutsis.
In June 2011, for the first time, ICTR agreed to transfer a case to the Rwandan judiciary. The Court considered that Rwanda implemented sufficient reforms to ensure a fair trial. One of the basic requirements was that the death penalty had been abolished, which happened in 2007.
Suspected war criminals at a lower level than ICTR handled have also been investigated and convicted in other countries, including in Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Canada.
A few cases have, with the UN’s approval, been transferred from ICTR to countries whose laws allow the trial of genocide and crimes against humanity, regardless of where the crimes have been committed. In 2019, a court in Brussels sentenced Rwandan Fabien Neretse to 25 years in prison for genocide in his home country in 1994. Neretse was the first person to be convicted under so-called universal jurisdiction for the Rwanda genocide in a court in Belgium.