May 18, 2009
Downloadable Resources: 

Rwanda’s state-owned newspaper published an article by one its editorial staff, Grace Kwinjeh, on May 8, 2009. The article accused Human Rights Watch of (among other things) sanitizing those attempting to negate the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, Georgette Gagnon, wrote a response and Human Rights Watch submitted it to the New Times on May 9, 2009. As of yet, the New Times has chosen not to publish it, denying Human Rights Watch right of reply. So Human Rights Watch is publishing its rebuttal letter and encouraging readers to read it together with Ms Kwinjeh’s original article (link above).

Grace Kwinjeh’s article in The New Times of May 8, 2009, takes issue with a recent article by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in the Los Angeles Times. Ms Kwinjeh should explain why an article in this state-owned newspaper did not mention the points that Mr Roth made before “rebutting” them. This would seem to prove his point about the Rwandan government’s censorship of alternative views and its intolerance of any form of dissent.

Mr Roth observed that even a government that does many good things does not have license to ignore human rights when it finds them inconvenient. Political pluralism, free expression, and genuinely competitive elections are not optional in a genuine democracy, but essential. He argued that no one should be allowed to manipulate the 1994 genocide to play on the heartstrings of the international community and thereby justify repression. In particular, he outlined how both the new crime of “genocide ideology” and gacaca trials have in recent years gone beyond the well-intentioned and become tools of repression. He challenged world leaders to push President Kagame to build a more lasting peace in the country. Allowing meaningful and open discussions about the genocide, its aftermath, and current government policies is the only way to achieve true long-term unity and reconciliation in Rwanda, he explained.

Ms Kwinjeh attacked a series of arguments that Mr Roth did not make. For example, Human Rights Watch does not dispute the horror of the 1994 genocide, in which around 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives. It was a horrific chapter in the country’s history, and the international community bears a heavy responsibility for having failed to stop it. Human Rights Watch did more than most though, in attempting both to prevent the genocide and to stop it once the slaughter began. While many in the international community were dismissing the genocide as a manifestation of “age-old animosities” about which nothing could be done, HRW’s senior Africa adviser Alison Des Forges, issued warnings before and during the genocide that the killings were organized, calculated, and directed by a small group that could be pressured and stopped if the world took action. Sadly, global leaders were not prepared to act.

When the genocide ended, Human Rights Watch was determined not to let the world forget – and to respect the victims by demanding that the murderers be brought to justice. Dr Des Forges and her colleagues spent months roaming the countryside, interviewing survivors, reconstructing events, translating what first seemed to be chaos into a series of impeccably researched events that could form the basis of prosecutions. The result was her 800-page book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” the most important historical record that exists of the genocide and its origins during and after Rwanda’s period under colonial rule. Dr. Des Forges later assisted the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) by testifying as an expert witness in 11 separate cases. HRW also documented war crimes by elements of the Rwanda Patriotic Army and continues to press the ICTR to prosecute the accused in accordance with its mandate. All victims of serious crimes deserve redress. That is also why Human Rights Watch has supported international efforts to secure justice for the 300,000 African victims of crimes in Darfur.

Human Rights Watch has never espoused the notion of a double genocide or claimed that the genocide did not happen. To the contrary. So Ms Kwinjeh’s attempt to paint HRW as genocide “revisionist/negationists” is just plain wrong. Being a critic of Rwandan government policies when those policies violate basic rights does not make one a proponent of so-called genocide ideology. It just makes one a proponent of human rights.

Human Rights Watch is not trying to undermine the current Rwandan government. We merely believe that human rights principles apply to all. We have worked in – or on – Rwanda for nearly 20 years. We fought for the rights of those who suffered prior to 1994 under the Habyarimana regime and we continue to do so for the disadvantaged and oppressed today, even though others may be afraid to do so, perhaps out of guilt for past failings. Anyone who wants to see our record can visit our website: www.hrw.org/en/africa/rwanda.

Human Rights Watch has also monitored the gacaca process closely since its inception in 2001 and has observed hundreds of trials. So, Roth’s conclusion that gacaca courts have over the years been exploited as a tool for silencing dissident voices and a forum for settling person disputes is based on specific and documented evidence, not “hearsay” or “bar gossip,” as Ms Kwinjeh claims.

Ms Kwinjeh is right that the human rights agenda on a global level is contested. It is, between those – like Human Rights Watch - who stress the universality of human rights and others, like the Rwandan government, who seek to limit them. She mentioned the traumatic experience of Alice Ishimwe growing up without the parents who brought her into the world in 1994. There are many like Alice Ishimwe with a stake in a future Rwanda that is secure and that respects the rights of all. The best way of achieving this is not government control and censorship, but steady progress toward dialogue, tolerance and free expression.

It is sad testament to the difficulty of dissenting from the current government’s policies that Ms Kwinjeh cannot mention alternative points of view and relies on false allegations. Censorship, and the repressive policies behind it, is not the way to build a peaceful future. It certainly is no way to pay respect to the genocide victims of the past.

Georgette Gagnon
Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
New York

More reporting on: