Rwanda haunted by human rights abuses

Rwanda’s suitability for Commonwealth membership this year has been questioned because of its human rights record.

Harsh laws banning ”genocide ideology”, harassment of independent journalists and military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo make Rwanda’s accession ”ill-advised”, says a report released this week by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an NGO.

Rwanda’s application to join the 53-member English-speaking organisation will be considered at the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago in November. Its bid is being strongly supported by the United Kingdom and African countries. Historically a Francophone country, Rwanda was colonised by Belgium and later enjoyed close ties with France.

That changed after the 1994 genocide, when the new Rwandan government accused France of providing weapons and training to the Hutu militia responsible for the 100-day massacres.

Relations soured further after a French judge accused the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, of downing the plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the former president, sparking the genocide.

Besides cementing the separation from France, Kagame believes Commonwealth membership will offer economic, cultural and political benefits.

Most members have historical ties to the UK but exceptions have been made, as in the case of Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony, which was admitted in 1995.

The CHRI gives Rwanda’s government credit for spending on health and education in the past 15 years. Half the legislature is female — the highest rate in the world — corruption is low and the work ethic of government officials puts neighbouring countries to shame.

Kagame’s admirers include former British prime minister Tony Blair, who acts as an unpaid adviser on governance and has described Rwanda as ”one of Africa’s most remarkable success stories”.

But the CHRI report, which was prepared by Professor Yash Pal Ghai, a Kenyan constitutional expert, said Rwanda’s governance was wanting and its human rights record was ”very poor”.

The organisation said Rwandan troops had been guilty of abuses during three incursions into Congo and that the gacaca (community justice) courts established to try genocide suspects violated international norms.

Rwanda, which has promoted cricket and introduced English into schools to push its Commonwealth credentials, has rejected the accusations.

”We have made phenomenal progress that surpasses many Commonwealth countries that did not go through a small fraction of what Rwanda went through,” said Joseph Kabakeza, an official in the foreign affairs ministry. —

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