Rwanda’s ’genocide ideology’ laws: threatening freedom of expression and the rule of law

In many post-conflict societies, a delicate balance must be struck between safeguarding rights and freedoms and taking measures to prevent future conflict.  Rwanda is often cited as a case where this debate is particularly relevant, given the severe ethnic conflicts resulting in the 1994 Genocide, and the subsequent passing of post-conflict “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” laws. In theory, these laws were created to stifle the kind of hate speech broadcasted during the 1994 genocide, but in practice they have been used to silence critics of the current government, as reported in Amnesty International’s 2011 Report, Unsafe to speak out: Restrictions on freedom of expression in Rwanda.

In the specific case of Rwanda, is it better to have a law intended to prohibit hate speech but which threatens several other forms of free expression? Is the argument that Rwanda risks plunging back into conflict, with the possibility of far more serious human rights violations occurring feasible? Is this a debate over peace v. democracy?  

Amnesty International’s recent report urges Rwanda to conclude a review of laws restricting free speech and to stop applying them to legitimate critics of the government and its policies. Human Rights Watch voiced similar concerns in an oral statement at last week’s UN Human Rights Council session.

In response, the government of Rwanda dismissed the concerns as “unsubstantiated” and “highly partisan,” citing the threat of a return to the divisionism of the past as a justification for these laws. However, the threat of a return to divisionism is disputed. The question of whether the threats to peace are still great enough to justify stifling democracy is complicated, and there is no clear answer.

What human rights lawyers are more concerned with in this case is the rule of law, claiming that the genocide and sectarianism laws are too vague as stated, and too arbitrary as applied. It is one thing to prohibit by law the kind of radio-broadcasted hate speech that advocated the killing of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda in 1994, but freedom of expression watchdogs and advocates criticise these laws as sweeping far more broadly.

In Rwanda, the government and courts have considerable discretion in how the genocide ideology law and the law against sectarianism are applied.  For example, these laws have been used to imprison an opposition politician and two journalists, and suspend two newspapers; all for their open criticism of government policies ahead of the August 2010 elections.

Regardless of where Rwanda falls on the peace v. democracy spectrum – in other words, regardless of whether the threat of conflict in Rwanda is still sufficient to justify restrictions on freedom of expression- the message from human rights and freedom of expression groups is clear: Rwanda has a duty to uphold the rule of law. If certain kinds of expression must be restricted, justifications must be provided, and measures must be taken to ensure that the law is not applied arbitrarily. If the Rwandan government is committed to expanding and guaranteeing these freedoms, it must complete its on-going review of the genocide and sectarianism laws, repealing them if they are no longer necessary or revising them to make them clear and fair.

Elizabeth Raulston

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