UN rights experts voice concerns about Rwanda, Australia and Sweden

3 April 2009

A group of independent United Nations experts today expressed concern over the judicial system in Rwanda, the terms of Australia’s Anti-Terrorist Act and violence against women in Sweden, after reviewing the state of civil and political rights in the three countries.

The Human Rights Committee – in charge of monitoring compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which has been signed by 164 States – made its observations as it concluded a weeklong session in New York.

Among the Committee’s concerns over the situation in Rwanda were the numerous cases of persons, including women and children, reported to have been killed during and in the wake of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) uprising against the 1994 genocide, in which over 800,000 people were massacred for being Tutsis or Hutu moderates during a period of less than 100 days.

The Committee urged the Rwandan Government to investigate the deaths and to ensure that those responsible were prosecuted and punished.

“The one thing the Committee was cognisant of was that in making suggestions to Rwanda one should take as the starting point that they had a terribly difficult and unhappy and tragic and unworldly chaos to resolve,” Committee member Ruth Wedgwood, a law professor at John Hopkins University in the United States, told reporters.

Ms. Wedgwood said the Committee had recognized positive developments in the country, including the adoption of a new constitution in 2003 that helped to establish the rule of law and reconciliation, the abolition of the death penalty and the significant representation of women in parliament.

However, the Committee called on Rwanda to end the practice of sentencing perpetrators of crimes to life imprisonment in solitary confinement as a replacement to the death penalty.

Also, the Committee voiced concern about reports that Kigali authorities often arrest persons belonging to vulnerable groups, such as street children, beggars and sex workers, on the grounds of vagrancy.

“Such persons are reported to be held in detention without any charges being brought against them and in precarious material conditions,” the experts stated in their written observations on Rwanda’s report on compliance with the landmark treaty.

Ms. Wedgwood characterized the conditions in some Rwandan prisons as “deplorable” in regards to access to health care and food, as well as the separation of adults from children, and accused from convicted prisoners.

Among its concerns over provisions under the Anti-Terrorism Act in Australia, Nigel Rodley, Vice-Chair of the Committee, highlighted the vagueness of the definition of the term “terrorist act,” as well as the reversal of the burden of proof contrary to the right to be presumed innocent.

“Another concern is legislation that provides for the Australian Security Intelligence Organization [ASIO] to be able to detain people for up to seven days and for rolling periods,” without access to a lawyer and in conditions of secrecy, said Mr. Rodley.

On Sweden, the Committee was concerned about “violence against women, including honour killings,” said Ms. Wedgwood, underscoring the importance of providing and financing shelters for women who need refuge.

“We worry about female genital mutilation; though not a traditional part of Swedish culture, there may be immigrant communities where this is still practised…[we] urge that there be further education of the police, prosecutors, family members and the girls themselves,” she added.

During its next session in July in Geneva, the Committee will consider the reports of Azerbaijan, Chad, the Netherlands and Tanzania, as well as review responses to a list of issues submitted to Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, New Zealand and Uzbekistan.

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