Batwa: Human Rights Experts Concerned
While Rwanda's recent history was stained by "massive violations of civil and political rights", a system based on the rule of law had been painstakingly constructed to tackle forces seeking to sow division, Rwandan Ambassador Joseph Nsengimana said today [19 March 2009], responding to a panel of experts concerned by persistent reports of the lack of political space and press freedom in that country, as well as the Governments' marginalization of minority groups.
As the 18-member Human Rights Committee wrapped up its two-day examination of the third periodic report on Rwanda's adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Mr. Nsengimana said that, since the horrific 1994 genocide, his country was steadily becoming more politically aware and, as with any political system, some fine tuning would be necessary.
Nevertheless, and contrary to lingering misconceptions about Rwanda, a power-sharing Government of both Hutus and Tutsis was indeed in place. " Rwanda wants the rule of law," he said, adding that it was determined to build a State governed by those rules, aimed at ensuring fundamental civil and political rights for all. The Government wanted to allow as much press freedom as possible, but it was ever watchful, especially since the forces that had sparked the genocide were hovering close by in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and even inside Rwanda.
Krister Thelin, expert from Sweden, said the international community was aware of Rwanda's sad history and that the call for "never again" had been reverberating since the end of the Second World War. In order not to repeat another tragedy in Rwanda, however, he urged the delegation to pay particular attention to Covenant articles 14 (right to fair trial/independent judiciary) and 19 (freedom of expression). It was incumbent upon the Government to ensure and monitor such freedoms.
For her part, Ruth Wedgwood, expert from the United States, said there appeared to be a different view of freedom of expression inside and outside the Rwandan Government. Free expression was considered a fundamental right by most societies, and the press, "however annoying they are", was a check on Governments. Further, it appeared virtually impossible to set up a political party in Rwanda. If that were true, she reminded the delegation that the reason Hutu factions had been able to foment the 1994 genocide had precisely been because they had fed the supposed fear that the Hutu population would be oppressed and marginalized.
Similarly, Zonke Zanele Majodina, expert from South Africa, was concerned that the compliance report did not mention the Batwa people by name, only citing "minority groups". She was familiar with the situation of the Batwa, even though they were nearly extinct in Southern Africa. They were still disadvantaged and poorly integrated into society. That being the case, the Batwa people were less likely to be aware of their human rights in general and the tenets of the Covenant in particular. She was concerned the Rwandan Government had been "pretty repressive" when it came to the Batwa and its refusal to recognize them as a minority group or indigenous group might create, rather than solve, problems.
Responding to some of those comments, Mr. Nsengimana said that, as a member of an opposition party, he had never felt that he had been denied free expression. Rather, he believed such accusations were often a way to sow divisions. Nevertheless, as Rwanda could attest, the media could be used to undermine national unity, and he stressed that, through education and raising awareness, a nation could harness the power of the press to promote reconciliation.
Regarding the political situation, he said the problem was in the comparison of systems; democracy had "many colours and flags", and Rwanda's way of managing democracy was different than that of other democracies. The press was a strong pillar in society, and that proved democracy was working. "We have to hear noise," he said. But, there was also a law.
He recalled that the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR) party in 1972 had encouraged systematic division in Rwanda. The single-party system had been dismantled in 1991, and that party had participated in the genocide. He stressed the need for first-hand knowledge, to know whether to "build your country with new bricks or with old bricks".
The Human Rights Committee will meet again at 10 a.m., Monday, 23 March, when it will consider the fifth periodic report of Australia on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On participation of the Batwa indigenous group in political life, he reiterated that article 9 of the Constitution paid particular attention to marginalized and excluded groups. As that was the case, the Batwa were allowed to stand for election and participate in all aspects of public and political life. They held district-level offices, and the President had the power to appoint certain members of the Senate to ensure that all indigenous groups could participate in the highest legal and judicial bodies. Indeed, the Senate had a Batwa representative.
Regarding the Batwa indigenous peoples, she said their suffering had begun because they were associated with the Tutsi, and they had thus lost their place in the forest homelands. Today, they were itinerant. She conceded that many countries were reluctant to suppose that they had minorities, but there now was increased interest in making reparations to indigenous groups. It would be "forthcoming" for Rwanda to ensure that those peoples were able to take part in society -- and to restore their traditional way of life.
CHRISTINE CHANET, expert from France, focusing on article 190 of the Constitution and the direct implementation of the Covenant, said she was perplexed by the Covenant's implementation. She was "rather astonished" by the Gacaca courts, and their compatibility with article 14 of the Covenant.
She also asked about "proximity justice", which could be explained when used in minor cases, but in such cases in the Gacaca system it gave rise to problems. The delegation had said nothing about those courts' compatibility with article 14, notably on the issue of impartiality -- that a judge not be too close to those accused. She said the delegation's discussion of judges' training had been rather brief. In addition, on the rights of the accused, she wondered, if so many people had been judged in so little time, how was a person informed of the charges against him? It was a person's right, under a-rticle 14, to prepare a defence and to have a lawyer; yet, in the Gacaca system, legal representation appeared to be a sort of "zombie" that was not very present at trial. She also had information from non-governmental organizations that a person would have higher sentence if he refused to say he was guilty.
Regarding community service work, she wondered who had that right, and whether it constituted forced labour. The service listed was "hard work" -- was there any health monitoring or time limit on it?
Next, ZONKE ZANELE MAJODINA, expert from South Africa, said she was concerned that Rwanda's compliance report did not mention the Batwa people by name, only citing "minority groups". She was familiar with the situation of the Batwa, even though they were nearly extinct in Southern Africa. They were still disadvantaged and poorly integrated into society.
That being the case, the Batwa people were less likely to be aware of their human rights in general and the tenets of the Covenant in particular. In all this, she was afraid the Rwandan Government had been "pretty repressive" when it came to the Batwa and its refusal to recognize them as a minority group or indigenous group would tend to create rather than solve problems. She asked the delegation to further clarify the Government's position on the status of the Batwa in Rwanda and whether they were indeed allowed to participate fully in all aspects of Rwandan society.
IULIA ANTOANELLA MOTOC, expert from Romania, was also concerned about the situation of the Batwa and asked the Rwandan delegation to clarify the Government's position on indigenous groups. She also asked for further information on human rights training programmes for judges and other judicial officials.
Next, BOUZIB LAZHARI, expert from Algeria, asked about the Government's characterization in the report of "political groupings", rather than "political parties". What was the reasoning behind that? He also asked for more information on the country's electoral commission.
PRAFULLACHANDRA NATWARLAL BHAGWATI, expert from India, was also concerned about pre-appointment and in-service human rights training for judges. Did such training extend to all levels of the judiciary? On legal aid, he said that Rwanda was a poor country and, as such, many people would not have access to legal literacy. What measures were being undertaken to provide such information? Were there programmes or funds set aside to ensure easy access to legal aid or other administration of justice mechanisms?
Next, KRISTER THELIN, expert from Sweden, said the Committee, and indeed the entire international community, was aware of Rwanda's sad history. The call for "never again" had been reverberating since the end of the Second World War. In order not to repeat another horrific incident in Rwanda, he urged the delegation to pay particular attention to Covenant articles 14 (right to fair trial/independent judiciary) and 19 (freedom of expression). It was incumbent upon the Government to ensure and monitor such freedoms.
Mr. NSENGIMANA, taking up questions about conscientious objectors, said there was a "problem of information", as some of it was not in line with reality and that given by non-governmental organizations was "quite contradictory".
Turning to the question on indigenous peoples, he recalled the era when Rwanda had been occupied, and could not say that the Batwa today were among those who had originally occupied the land. When they said the forests belonged to them -- that did not make sense. They no longer lived in the forests. However, because of history, the Government recognized that they were marginalized and needed incentives, like other populations that had problems progressing.
There also was a problem of identity, and over the definition of an ethnic group. Many peoples qualified as tribes after 1990, as viewed by the "German school"; however, Rwandans had devised different categories to define themselves. Rwanda was a nation that had been demolished by the classification theories of 1990. Denominations would continue to exist, but not so as to divide the State.