An independent United Nations human rights expert has urged the Rwandan Government to lift undue restrictions on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association so that the country can expand its economic achievements since the 1994 genocide to the fields of multiparty democracy and human rights.
“I commend Rwanda for its remarkable progress in developing infrastructure, building institutions and ensuring stability and security over the past 20 years,” said Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
“The next step is to build upon that foundation by developing a true multiparty democracy and allowing space for peaceful dissent,” stressed the expert, following his first official visit to the country.
This year marks 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda, where nearly one million people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutu militia and Government forces over a period of just 100 days.
Mr. Kiai noted that the Rwandan Constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, but he found that in practice, peaceful protests criticizing Government policies were generally not allowed. He also noted a “contradiction in requiring both prior notification and authorization, paving the way for arbitrary decisions by the authorities.”
“Let me emphasize that peaceful assemblies should not be feared,” he said. “Rather they should be encouraged. There is value in expressing disagreement and differences peacefully and publicly.”
Rwanda’s Constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of association, but Mr. Kiai said that in practice, there are “onerous obstacles” to registration, limits on civil society’s freedom to operate in certain fields, and Government interference in the internal affairs of groups deemed too critical of official policy.
The expert also noted concern from many people that the body charged with regulating local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), interfered in the internal affairs of some groups.
“The independence and ability of associations to run their internal affairs without external interference is of paramount importance in the exercise of the right to freedom of association,” he said. “I see no justification for RGB involving itself in leadership wrangles within local NGOs.”
He drew attention to the “striking difference between the registration process for NGOs and businesses.” Civil society groups can take months to register, while businesses can be formed in six hours or less.
“The ease with which businesses can be registered and operate in Rwanda is notable. It is one reason for the country’s economic transformation,” Mr Kiai said. “A similar approach to the civil society sector would yield significant economic, social and political dividends, allowing for innovation and creativity.”
Mr. Kiai also observed “a lack of space” for individuals to express dissenting views in the political realm, due to the Government favouring a type of “consensus politics” that strongly discourages public criticism.
Registration of political parties, he said, is also “long, laborious and, in far too many instances, arbitrary.” The Green Party, for example, spent four years securing its registration. Other key opposition parties remain unregistered.
“Every dissenting political leader who rejects this consensus approach appears to get into legal trouble, with the most common charges being denying the genocide, sectarianism, corruption, and even spreading rumours,” Mr. Kiai said. “In all such cases, these politicians are accused of violence or having links with violent groups. This sends a chilling and unacceptable message that peaceful public disagreement with the Government is equivalent to criminality.”
Special Rapporteurs serve in an independent and unpaid capacity and report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, by whom they are appointed. Mr. Kiai, who has served in his post, since May 2011, will present his report on Rwanda to the Council’s session this June.