HRW – Human Rights Watch (Author)
Human Rights Developments
The Rwandan government and insurgents fought an increasingly brutal and costly war, killing thousands—probably tens of thousands—of unarmed civilians during 1998. Based largely in the northwest, the insurgents also led major strikes against other regions. They attacked jails to free prisoners and they slaughtered members of the Tutsi minority, government officials, and others who refused to support the rebellion. Soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), equipped with helicopters, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons killed unarmed civilians, sometimes in pursuit of insurgents, sometimes in places or at times where no rebels were present but where they suspected the population of supporting them. In an incident in late October that became known only near the end of 1997, RPA soldiers allegedly caused the deaths of hundreds and perhaps thousands of persons who had sought refuge in caves at Kanama.
Estimating the number killed in the course of the year was difficult. Investigators could not travel freely in the area and witnesses often refused to speak for fear of reprisals. Diplomats concluded that between 100,000 and 250,000 persons were unaccounted for out of a population of some 1,500,000 in the two prefectures of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri. Some 200,000 persons did not collect their required identity papers in Gisenyi, suggesting that they were either dead or living on the other side of the frontier, in the forest, or in areas controlled by rebels. Assessing responsibility for the slaughter of civilians was sometimes complicated by misinformation from witnesses or government sources. First reports said that thirty-four persons were slain by insurgents at Tare in July, for example, but eyewitnesses later said RPA soldiers were responsible for the crime.
Early in 1998, the army began gathering residents of the northwest in supervised camps which by the end of October held some 480,000 persons. In some regions, soldiers ordered people to destroy banana plantations and other crops that might provide cover to rebels, thus causing food production to fall. In addition, farmers were too afraid of attack—from one side or the other—to work their fields in some regions. Faced with food shortages and threats by insurgents, some persons willingly moved to the camps where they hoped to receive food and protection. Others were forced by soldiers to go there. In areas where the insurgency was strong, some residents moved close to rebel bases voluntarily and others were intimidated by the rebels into doing so.
Thus continues the war that seemed to have ended in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed largely of Tutsi refugees who had spent decades in exile, defeated the Rwandan government, made up primarily of Hutu, who form the great majority of the Rwandan population. The Tutsi had been driven from Rwanda during the 1959 Hutu revolution which ended longstanding Tutsi rule. In 1994 the government and army carried out a genocide of more than half a million Tutsi until they were stopped by the RPF.
The former government led some two million Rwandans into exile, more than half of them to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC). In refugee camps there, remnants of the defeated army rearmed, recruited new forces, and began incursions into Rwanda. In 1996, Rwandan troops helped Zairean Tutsi overthrow the Zairean government, in the process dispersing the camps, massacring tens of thousands of unarmed civilians, and killing thousands of soldiers and militia. Some 600,000 camp residents returned to Rwanda, some of them armed and ready to fight the current government. Insurgent attacks, launched originally from Zaire, were organized on an ever larger scale inside Rwanda during the early months of 1997, resulting in a serious threat to the current government by mid-1997.
Some of the insurgents, including several senior officers who led the 1994 genocide, seemed ready to continue annihilating the Tutsi. In December 1997, for example, they slaughtered hundreds of Tutsi at the Mudende refugee camp. Others say they seek to overthrow the RPF, not to continue the genocide. The rebels, backed by many Hutu in the northwest, have used brutal killings to intimidate others in that region and elsewhere into supporting them. The insurgents’ previously clandestine organization, People in Arms to Liberate Rwanda (Peuple en Armes pour Liberer le Rwanda, PALIR), made several declarations and even circulated a newspaper in 1998. Its armed wing was called the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (Armée pour la Liberation du Rwanda, ALIR).
The Rwandan government reportedly tried a more political response to the insurgency in early 1998 when military measures proved ineffective. Despite some success by the government, the rebellion continued to be strong enough to mount operations with hundreds of troops in September and October.
In August, Rwanda lent its troops to a new rebellion against the DRC government, citing its own security needs and the need to protect Congolese Tutsi from genocide. The Rwandan government had demobilized some of its soldiers but after mid-year, it recruited more, some forcibly, to meet the need for troops both in the DRC and in northwestern Rwanda. Human Rights Watch received accounts in August and September of young men taken by force, trained briefly, and then sent to the Congo.
The government, citing the need for self-defense against the insurgency, organized civilians to monitor purportedly anti-government activity in their neighborhoods and to participate in night patrols, sometimes in the company of soldiers. These activities—implemented also by the previous government, supposedly for the same reason—caused serious concern to someRwandans and foreign observers. In one case in Umutara prefecture in late December 1997, Tutsi attacks on Hutu, tolerated by and perhaps incited by a local official, killed or drove into exile dozens of people. In other cases in the northwest, RPA soldiers reportedly directed Hutu to pillage crops and other property of Hutu who were thought to back the rebels. In September, residents of the capital chose neighborhood representatives to receive firearms training. Officials had already distributed firearms in various parts of the country, particularly to survivors of the genocide and to former RPA soldiers.
The mid-May assassination of Seth Sendashonga in Nairobi eliminated one leader who bridged the gap between Hutu and Tutsi. An early member of the RPF, Sendashonga resigned as minister of interior in 1995 to protest military abuses of civilians. After a previous attempt to assassinate him, a member of the Rwandan embassy in Nairobi was arrested, gun in hand, in the immediate vicinity, but he was released when he claimed diplomatic immunity. Three persons were charged in the second and fatal attack, but the case against them seemed weak.
Military, police, and some civilian officials took thousands of persons into custody during large-scale security sweeps, residential inspections, and verification of identity papers on the roads. Some of these persons were subsequently released after interrogation that was sometimes accompanied by physical abuse. Some persons who “disappeared” were found murdered but most have never been located. Many of the 11,000 Rwandan refugees who were registered in Tanzania between January and June said they fled because of unexplained “disappearances” caused by soldiers.
An increasingly active military justice system tried soldiers for indiscipline and common crimes, sentencing several to prison and even to death after conviction for charges such as theft and murder. Early in the year army officials summarily and publicly executed soldiers in two separate alleged incidents of common crime. Investigations were begun and soldiers arrested in several cases of massacres of civilians, but few of the accused were brought to trial or seriously punished for human rights abuses in the course of military operations. In one noteworthy trial, a major was sentenced to life in prison and a subordinate to a term of forty-five months for having massacred more than thirty civilians in July 1994. Following a report by the Secretary-General’s Investigative Team that implicated RPA soldiers in massacring civilians in the DRC in 1996 and 1997, the Rwandan government was charged with investigating these allegations. A mid-October deadline passed without any significant report on the investigation.
In the crucial domain of civilian justice, the government continued to make arrests but made little progress in trials. Near the end of the year, more than 126,000 prisoners were held in jails and an unknown number in irregular facilities, the vast majority charged with genocide. Thousands were jailed without regard to due process or credible evidence against them. In May 1998 the prosecutor of Ruhengeri prefecture estimated that 15 percent of detainees were falsely accused. In the last months of 1997, judicial officials pressed investigations in order to meet a December deadline for regularizing the files of all detainees. When a law was passed extending the deadline to 1999, the work slowed considerably. Several hundred detainees were released during the year, some of them because they were elderly or ill. The minister of justice announced in October that 10,000 detainees would be provisionally released, but as with similar earlier statements by authorities, no date was set. In some cases, persons released or acquitted were intimidated or attacked in their home communities. Twelve persons were slaughtered in the household of one person who had been recently acquitted of genocide.
During 1997, 322 persons were judged on charges of genocide, a rate which if unchanged would result in fewer than 5 percent of the detainees being tried within their lifetimes. Authorities set a goal of 5,000 persons to be tried in 1998 and began prosecuting larger groups of defendants together, including one group of fifty-one persons. This practice speeded disposition of cases, but also produced confusion and logistical problems that seemed likely to prejudice the rights of some defendants. By the end of October 1998, it appeared that the courts would fall short of the goal of 5,000. Even after numerous training programs had increased the number of personnel, the judicial system still lacked the staff needed to try all those detained. Authorities proposed alternatives, such as community-based mediation to settle cases involving only damage to or theft of property.
More than one hundred persons were condemned to death for genocide. Twenty-two were executed, the first to suffer the death penalty, at the end of April. Many international leaders and organizations opposed the executions, both on general principle and because some of the trials had failed to meet international standards of due process. In several, the accused had no access to counsel and presented no witnesses in their defense. In the case of former prosecutor Silas Munyagishari, political considerations may have influenced the verdict. The executions were carried out in several towns before large and often festive crowds.
Some trials conducted in 1998 showed improvement over those of the previous year in that the accused were represented by counsel, had adequate time to prepare, and called witnesses in their own defense. Prosecutors also more often presented witnesses to substantiate their cases. Lawyers—most of them foreigners provided by a small nongovernmental organization—would not travel to regions threatened by the insurgency and defendants in such areas stood trial without legal assistance. Witnesses, both for the defense and the prosecution, were threatened and many were increasingly reluctant to testify.
Some 7,000 persons expressed the intention to confess to various crimes as part of the genocide, the first sizable numbers to take advantage of a plea-bargaining arrangement offered since 1996. Judicial officials expended considerable effort in achieving this result. At several prisons, they established separate quarters so that those who confessed would not be harassed by others.
By March 1998, various donors had provided more than U.S. $17 million for the administration of justice and were in the process of disbursing grants amounting to another $13 million. Despite this considerable investment, the judicial system functioned poorly and personnel often lacked the equipment and means of transport to carry out their tasks efficiently.
More than U.S. $3 million was provided for expanding prisons, but conditions in most remained inhumane due to continued overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities. Local jails were even more crowded and filthy. Detainees in central prisons received one meal a day from the government, aided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but detainees in local jails supposedly were fed by their families, many of whom lacked the people to prepare and deliver food to the jails. In the early monthsof 1998, U.N. monitors found that about two thirds of the detainees in local jails were receiving no food from their families. Nongovernmental organizations provided food in several jails and the ICRC delivered high-protein biscuits, but not cooked meals, in three of the eleven prefectures.
In March, the government suspended the president of the court of cassation, who was also a vice-president of the supreme court. He later resigned under pressure. Soon after, five other leading magistrates or counselors attached to the highest courts were also suspended or otherwise removed. They included the highest ranking magistrates in place before 1994 and their removal or suspension left the judiciary largely in the hands of Tutsi, many of whom were recent returnees. In other cases that suggest the risks of attempting to deliver justice, the prosecutor in Gisenyi “disappeared” in January and remained unaccounted for; a Rwandan lawyer was murdered just after agreeing to defend persons accused of genocide; and the president of the tribunal of first instance in Kigali, a Tutsi survivor of genocide, chose exile in Canada.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, much criticized in its first years, worked more effectively and finished 1998 with over thirty leaders of the genocide in custody. One, Jean Kambanda, interim prime minister in 1994, pleaded guilty to genocide and was sentenced by the tribunal to life in prison. Jean-Paul Akayesu, a local official, was pronounced guilty of genocide on September 2, the first person so judged by an international court, and also sentenced to life in prison. Among the nine charges of which he was convicted was that of rape, the first time that this crime had been recognized as an act of genocide.
Defending Human Rights
Rwandan authorities suspended the activities of the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda in May and in July refused to allow it to continue monitoring human rights. The Rwandan government wanted the field operation to limit itself to delivering technical assistance. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who had firmly condemned abuses during a visit at the end of 1997, insisted that the monitoring was essential to the operation. Rather than continue with the mere semblance of a U.N. human rights presence, she ended it altogether.
In 1997, five members of the U.N. field operation were murdered in southwestern Rwanda. Several persons, described as
insurgents, were found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death in April 1998.
U.N. regulations prevented staff of the field operation from working in the areas of greatest insecurity. Until their activities were suspended, however, they managed to gather significant data on abuses by insurgents and the RPA. Their presence had also reassured Rwandan activists who were threatened by a general hostility towards critics of the government.
On March 9, 1998, the Rwandan human rights movement lost one of its earliest and most effective leaders. Abbé André Sibomana, formerly editor of the largest newspaper in Rwanda, a crusader against official repression since before the genocide, and one of the founders of the Rwandan Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Public Liberties (Association rwandaise pour la défense des droits de la personne et des libertés publiques ADL), died of a massive allergic reaction to an unknown substance. Because his earlier efforts to obtain a passport had failed, he was unable to leave Rwanda immediately for medical treatment that might have saved his life.
Father Vjecko Curic, a Croatian priest who had served in Rwanda for years and worked with Sibomana to document cases of human rights abuse, was shot to death in central Kigali on January 31. Although the alleged assassin, who was himself wounded by Father Vjecko, was reportedly treated soon after the attack in a Kigali hospital, he was never arrested.
Four Rwandan human rights activists went into exile in 1998, judging their lives to be at risk. Several were intimidated into leaving staff positions, but others persevered in their commitment to human rights and new recruits promised to add strength to the movement. Divisions within and among the local organizations over the appropriateness of open criticism of the government reduced their effectiveness.
A national human rights commission established by the government had not acted publicly at the time of writing.
The International Community
Guilt over inaction during the 1994 genocide continued to influence the behavior of the international community towards Rwanda. During visits in late 1997 and early 1998, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan all acknowledged that the rest of the world had failed Rwanda. The Belgian Senate published a massive report at the end of 1997 detailing Belgian failings during the genocide. The French National Assembly began inquiring into French responsibilities in early 1998. The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights attempted to examine the role of the U.S. government during the genocide, but representatives of the State and Defense Departments declined to testify at the May hearing.
Aware of the grave allegations by a U.N. commission and human rights organizations that Rwandan soldiers were implicated in massacres of unarmed civilians in the DRC, international actors failed to follow through on initial demands for a complete investigation of the crimes and punishment of the guilty. Most of them privately acknowledged the enormous loss of life in northwestern Rwanda, but they made no public mention of it. Unprepared themselves to act against insurgents, some of whom continue a genocide of the Tutsi, international actors hesitate to criticize openly the RPA which is combating them. They say they have pressed Rwandan authorities discreetly for an end to abuses and punishment for those responsible. They made no effective protest when the U.N. field operation was obliged to leave Rwanda.
During 1998, international donors treated Rwanda as a special case that needed “exceptional financing” and agreed to provide$250 million over three years for economic reform. The Paris Club of creditor nations agreed to write off 67 percent of Rwandan debt and to permit the conversion of 20 percent more into investment and aid.
The most important donors, the nations of the European Union, failed to find a common ground among themselves for demanding improvements in the human rights situation. During 1998 both Germany and the Netherlands moved toward sharper criticism of Rwandan abuses. The United Kingdom remained a stalwart supporter through mid-year, but reportedly began to question Rwandan policies after the second DRC invasion.
The U.S., the most influential actor in Rwanda, provided relatively little financial aid, $7.6 million in development assistance and $500,000 for military training in 1998. But it gave steady political support that was highly valued by Rwandan authorities. U.S. soldiers were training Rwandan troops just before the RPA crossed into the DRC in 1996 and again in 1998. When the RPA moved into the DRC in August 1998, a high-ranking U.S. military assessment team was in northwestern Rwanda examining greater U.S. aid, including lethal aid, against the insurgency. Apparently only coincidental, these instances symbolized U.S. support of Rwanda for many critics. The U.S. withdrew the trainers and assessment team because of the DRC invasion, but muddled the message by carrying forward an October training mission in Rwanda on military administration even after other African governments canceled their participation. It criticized the Rwandan violation of the DRC territorial integrity, but failed to link military aid to accountability for abuses. The administration paid little heed to criticism of its Rwandan policy in Congress and in the press. Embassy staff were unsupportive of—and at times hostile to—the work of international human rights organizations in Rwanda. The failure of the U.S. to take a firm, public stand on abuses wasted the opportunity to strengthen moderates and to move Rwandan authorities towards improving human rights.