It’s been over 20 years since the Rwandan Genocide and, while this event is how most know of the small African nation, a reexamination of human rights in Rwanda is well past overdue. In 1994, over the course of a hundred days, nearly a million Rwandans were executed in an ethnic conflict. However, over the next two decades an exemplary justice and reconciliation process unfolded. Due to these efforts, Rwanda’s reputation for human rights violations no longer fits the reality of human rights in Rwanda today. Here are some important facts regarding human rights in Rwanda:
Seven Facts About Human Rights in Rwanda
- The 1994 genocide was largely drawn on ethnic lines. Following the overthrow of the Tutsi Monarchy in 1959, the Hutus (who had an 85 percent majority in the country) ruled for the next three decades. In April of 1994, however, the Hutu president was killed in a plane crash prompting Hutu extremists and ruling party officials to begin the systematic execution of the Tutsis. One hundred days later, between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis were killed and 250,000 women had been raped by militia forces.
- By the close of 1994, following the genocide, the U.N. Security Council established The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Over the next decade and a half, The ICTR oversaw the sentencing of 61 people and received thousands of hours of witness testimony. The ICTR is now regarded as one of the preeminent mass violence tribunals and has been used as a model for similar events since. Seeing as The ICTR was so widely and successfully implemented across Rwanda, it is not surprising to learn the attitudes of those leading Rwanda still reflect the lessons learned from The ICTR. Today, human rights in Rwanda is treated with the utmost efficiency with a serious consideration for truth-seeking.
- In order to ensure the remaining fugitives were held accountable following the completion of The ICTR, The U.N. Security Council established The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT). MICT oversaw what remained of both the Rwandan and Yugoslavian criminal tribunals. One of those sentenced by MICT was former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda – the first head of government to be convicted of genocide. This was a clear signal sent that human rights in Rwanda were now being taken extremely seriously by the international and Rwandan community.
- The ICTR and MICT have not been the only judicial bodies present in Rwanda. The Rwandan National Court System has tried over 10,000 suspects accused of violating human rights relating to the genocide and has remained committed to trying human rights abusers. Interestingly, in the midst of these genocide trials, Rwanda abolished the death penalty, which reflects the growing divide between the former Rwanda, ravaged by genocide, and the Rwanda of today. The Rwandan national court system today strikes this balance well. While they no longer utilize the death penalty, judges continue to strike harsh sentences against human rights abusers to set the precedent that such actions will not be tolerated in contemporary Rwanda.
- An essential factor in restoring peace and reconciliation in Rwanda to avoid further human rights troubles was the need to rectify the fates of low-level participants in the genocide. To accomplish this task, the national government reestablished traditional Gacaca Courts. There, community members were tasked with hearing the confessions of those involved in the human rights violations. Confessions were important to the community as they allowed many families to learn of the fates of many of their missing loved ones. While the Gacaca courts held thousands of trials, some of the confessing suspects were permitted to return home with mandated community service, others were sentenced to hard labor. Gacaca courts today continue to play an integral role in maintaining a free and fair Rwanda. Contrary to popular belief, human rights violations seldom begin as a national level conspiracy, but rather those in the communities feel drawn to participate through local influences. Gacaca courts fight this by addressing and prosecuting the instigators at the local level – before it becomes a national crisis.
- During the Rwandan genocide, human rights violations spread to Burundi and The Democratic Republic of Congo. This spread was largely due to the influx of fleeing Tutsi refugees across the Great Lakes region and the subsequent pursuit of those attempting to execute the Tutsis. Those intending harm to the Tutsis took advantage of Burundi and DRC’s own internal strife to sew chaos across the region. Today, however, Rwanda works closely with its neighbors, playing an active role in monitoring for and preventing human rights violations. This is one of the biggest lessons learned from the genocide. Rwanda, while a small inland country, is nevertheless an integral regional partner. As such, human rights abuses within the country can spread outward and external abuses can spread inward. Seeing as this is the case, Rwanda has put forth an incredible effort to stymie human rights abuses in its neighboring countries.
- While in 1994, the Rwandan government was the sponsor of the genocide, the government today is not only one of the freest and fairest governments but also the most diverse in the region. In fact, women make up a majority of the legislature in Rwanda with 49 out of 80 seats in the lower house and 10 of 26 in the upper house.
While Rwanda is internationally known for the horrific 1994 genocide, this picture does not clearly paint the reality of human rights in Rwanda today. Following the genocide incredible strides were made to bring not only justice but reconciliation to Rwandans. While no reconciliation process is perfect, Rwanda was successful in not only starting to heal the wounds of the past but also ensuring that human rights in Rwanda are taken seriously, so that there is no chance of such tragedies happening again.
– Sam Kennedy