Rwanda: UN rights chief lauds progress, warns of pitfalls

Rwanda: UN rights chief lauds progress, warns of pitfalls

Louise Arbour
Praising Rwanda’s initiatives to heal the deep wounds of its 1994 genocide, the top United Nations human rights official today cautioned that the local trials of hundreds of thousands of defendants in the mass murders must conform to international standards.

“In coming to terms with that horrendous crime, the Rwandan people has shown courage and imagination,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said in a statement issued upon completion of her 12-day mission to Africa's Great Lakes Region, which previously took her to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

As evidence of Rwanda’s innovative recovery measures, Ms. Arbour pointed to the Gacaca process, an adaptation of traditional local courts established to cope with the enormous number of people – estimated at 750,000 – who took part in the crimes.

The violence took the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, many of whom were felled by machetes or clubs.

“The Gacaca process aims to deliver a measure of justice to victims and promote reconciliation,” she said.

However, the haste in which the defendants are to be tried and the possibility that many of them could receive long sentences of up to 30 years from judges with little legal training was worrisome, she said.

“The trials must therefore strive to conform to all guarantees of due process, in accordance with national and international standards,” Ms. Arbour said, welcoming the willingness of the Government to work with all partners, including civil society, to respond to the challenges.

During her two-day visit to the tiny East African country, Ms. Arbour met with President Paul Kagame, the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs and the Director of the National Service of Gacaca courts as well as members of the National Human Rights Commission and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

In addition to her comments on the judicial process, she said she was pleased with Rwanda’s initiatives to abolish the death penalty and to ratify the Convention against torture, as well as pursuing legislation to expand freedom of expression in the media.

She reiterated her Office’s commitment to assist in all these areas, as part of “the remarkable effort underway in Rwanda towards the reconstruction of a just, inclusive and peaceful society.”