UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ends visit to Rwanda

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, issued the following statement today:

Kigali, 25 May 2007: I end today my visit to Rwanda, a country taking decisive steps on the road to democracy and reconstruction. I would like to thank President Kagame, the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs and the Director of the National Service of Gacaca Courts for the time they set aside for me during the last two days in Kigali. I would also like to express my gratitude to the members of the National Human Rights Commission and the representatives of the different civil society organizations I met during this visit.

Rwanda's dynamism is a tribute to a people determined to lift itself up and even flourish despite the genocide that decimated its people hardly more than a decade ago. In coming to terms with that horrendous crime, the Rwandan people has shown courage and imagination, as evidenced by innovations like the Gacaca courts, an adaptation of traditional jurisdictions established to cope with the enormous number of people who took part in the genocide. The Gacaca process aims to deliver a measure of justice to victims and promote reconciliation.

In the same way, I welcome the initiative to abolish the death penalty. As I understand from discussions with the authorities, work is well underway for the adoption of legislation to outlaw capital punishment. Abolition in Rwanda, a country still recovering from its recent tragic past, will constitute a powerful endorsement of the need to pursue justice while repudiating violence in all its forms.

My interlocutors in Kigali also informed me of Rwanda's intention to ratify the Convention against Torture. I salute this commitment and encourage the authorities to also ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention and thereby allow independent international and national bodies to visit places where people are deprived of their liberty in Rwanda in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In our talks, Rwandan authorities demonstrated great lucidity regarding the challenges the country still faces. One of these is related to the Gacaca process. Designed to respond to a critical and unprecedented situation, the system is producing consequences that are contrary to the objectives it sought to achieve. Indeed, the intention to try some 750,000 defendants within a year or so implies worrisome haste that might jeopardize the integrity of the process. Moreover, a large number of these defendants could face sentences of up to 30 years in prison, generating a number of prisoners that the country cannot possibly sustain. Gacaca court judges possess little legal training, yet they can hand down such long sentences. The trials must therefore strive to conform to all guarantees of due process, in accordance with national and international standards. In this respect I welcome the willingness of the Government to work with all partners, including civil society actors, to find appropriate responses to these challenges.

In Kigali I was also informed of legislative initiatives related to the media. This may be an important step in addressing the concerns expressed about the space available to the media to carry out its work and, more generally, about the scope of freedom of expression in Rwanda. Inclusiveness, free flow of information and broader participation of civil society and political parties in public debate are essential to democratic reconstruction and development.

As I leave Rwanda, I reiterate the commitment of my Office to assist in any way we can the remarkable effort underway in Rwanda towards the reconstruction of a just, inclusive and peaceful society and a prosperous country for the greater wellbeing of its entire population.