(New York) - President Paul Kagame will be in Washington today to present his government's program of democratization, justice and reconciliation. He and his supporters claim substantial progress in restoring a nation devastated by a genocide that killed at least half a million Tutsi and thousands of Hutu opponents of the genocide. In fact, the situation is less impressive than it seems and any advances on the domestic front must also be put in the context of the government's record of egregious violations of the laws of war.

Military Record

In 1994 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) defeated and drove from Rwanda the government responsible for the genocide. In 1997 and 1998, the RPA suppressed an insurgency in the Rwandan northwest, led in part by soldiers and militia of the defeated government. In 1996 and again in 1998 Rwanda invaded the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and continues a war there today, citing as pretext the need to protect itself against the remnants of soldiers and militia from the former government. The Rwandan armed forces number more than 50,000 while combatants linked to the former government number some 10,000 or 15,000, although their ranks have been swelled by other Rwandans not involved in the genocide and by other Congolese allies.

In the meantime, RPA troops have taken control of a resource-rich territory approximately fifteen times the size of Rwanda itself. In its military operations from 1994 on, RPA soldiers killed tens of thousands of civilians, some inside Rwanda, some in the Congo. These violations of international humanitarian law were documented by the U.N. Secretary-General's Investigative Team, by the U.N. Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda, and by international and local human rights organizations.

The Rwandan government acknowledges that its soldiers have committed war crimes but insists that it has not authorized them and that it has tried and punished the guilty. Several dozen soldiers have been convicted for crimes committed in Rwanda, but the number punished represents only a small part of those responsible for these crimes. In most cases, superior officers have received minimal sentences and ordinary soldiers have been punished most heavily.

Democratization and Elections

The Rwandan government names decentralization of the administration and democratization of the political process as among its chief objectives. It has made little progress towards these goals. President Kagame heads one of the most intensively administered states in the world, presides over its only functioning political party, and controls in fact, if not in name, the armed forces. His party, the RPF, nominally shares power with others at the national level but it is the only political organization to operate at the local level. During the last few months, the RPF has been activelyâ€"sometimes aggressivelyâ€"organizing in communities throughout Rwanda, but other parties cannot hold local meetings or other activities essential to being an effective political force.

As part of its move towards "democratization," the government points with pride to election of local officials. In elections in March 1999, there were few reports of irregularities but the system itself inhibited free choice.

Political party activity was prohibited and voters did not use secret ballots, as in elections under previous governments, but instead signified their vote by lining up publicly behind the candidates. In elections planned for March 6 this year, the government has again carefully structured a system which will likely operate without any apparent irregularities and yet may fall far short of accurately indicating the popular will. A six person electoral commission acted by administrative order to establish a complex system of indirect voting: in each sector, voters choose one general representative, one representative of women, and one for young people. The groups of representatives of women and young people then choose one third of their members to sit with the general sector representatives as the district council. This council in combination with those officials chosen in 1999 elect the mayor and four others to form the executive council of the district.

Some Rwandans who publicly questioned why they could not chose mayors by a direct, one person-one vote system were told that the decision came from above and could not be challenged. The complexity of the system and the large voice given to officials who have served the government for two years leaves the process open to behind-the-scenes manipulation. In addition, only candidates approved by the electoral commission may run.

In several cases reported to Human Rights Watch, persons who chose not to run were coerced into doing so by local electoral officials. Political parties are barred from any electoral activity. Campaigning is limited to a fifteen day period and may take place only under conditions set by the electoral commission or its subcommissions. Anyone who violates the restrictions on campaigning, including mentioning affiliation with a political party, is liable to be fined between U.S. $1500 and $2250 and imprisoned between three and five years.

Justice

The Rwandan government rightly claims that delivering justice for a genocide represented a daunting task, particularly when it was undertaken with scant material and human resources. In 1994 the government was short of money, burdened with crumbling courthouses, and confronted with a serious lack of police, prosecutors, and udgesâ€"some having been victims, others perpetrators of genocide. But lack of political will as much as logistical difficulties slowed the relaunching of the judicial system. The investment of millions of dollars of aid and the contribution of considerable international expertise in the years since 1994 have failed to move the process ahead rapidly. After six and a half years, the government has some 119,000 persons in jail, fewer than 4,000 of them tried and convicted. Of the 115,000 others, a substantial number have not been interrogated and do not have judicial case files. In recent trials, approximately twenty percent of the accused have been found not guilty, an indication that there are large numbers of persons detained who may well be innocent.

In some cases, persons acquitted after trial remain in prison or have been arrested again shortly after their release. Local officials often explain this as a measure necessary for the safety of the detainees. Conditions in Rwandan prisons are deplorable and in some cases inhumane. According to the special representative for Rwanda of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, some prisoners receive nothing to eat for three or four days at a time. The ministry in charge of prisons has received less than half of the amount budgeted for the purchase of food for prisoners. Until late 2000 more than 400 children were detained on accusations of having committed genocide although they had been under the age of criminal responsibility, fourteen years old, at the time of their alleged crime. The special representative for Rwanda of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights described their plight to the General Assembly in November 2000 and most of these children were released for training in a solidarity camp (see below) the following month.

Gacaca

In the past gacaca was a community-based practice for resolving conflicts, but the term now refers to a highly structured, state-organized form of popular courts meant to deliver justice for the genocide. The new process will reflect the local political dynamics in each community, producing credible judgments in some cases but not in others. The system provides few safeguards for the accused in those communities where the system does not work as it should. Arguing that the usual court system would take hundreds of years to try all those now accused, the government has spent more than two years discussing gacaca. Although the law establishing the system has been passed by the legislature, it has not yet been officially published, presumably because the constitutional court still has it under review. Far from a spontaneous gathering of community elders, the current gacaca system will include more than 250,000 "judges" serving in some 11,000 jurisdictions, modeled on the current administrative hierarchy, and supervised by authorities from the Supreme Court.

The introduction to the draft legislation stresses that justice will be rendered within the local community by those who witnessed the crimes. Yet in many communities, the current population is significantly different from that in place at the time of the genocide. Many Rwandans no longer live where they did in 1994, either because they have moved of their own volition or because they have been forcibly relocated by the government. In addition, hundreds of thousands of persons of Rwandan origin who lived outside the country before 1994 have taken up residence inside the country. Certainly not eyewitnesses and perhaps previously unacquainted with either victims or perpetrators, they will be allowed to participate in the gacaca jurisdictions.

The electoral procedure is not detailed in the law but it is specified that "politically active" persons and members of "managing bodies of political parties, religious sects, or nongovernmental organizations" may not serve as judges.

In the past, gacaca operated independently of the state with neither contending party enjoying the advantage of official support. The new gacaca jurisdictions can be provided with the "assistance of legal advisers," appointed by the Supreme Court. In addition, the public prosecutor participates by investigating cases, providing files to the jursidictions, and appearing as a witness against the accused, if requested to do so. Faced with this power of the state, the accused has no defense but his or her own wits and the support of family and friends. He or she has no right to legal counsel.

Gacaca jurisdictions may punish the convicted with prison terms, half of which can be transmuted into some form of labor for the public good. The conditions of this labor are to be determined by the President of the Republic. There is apparently no requirement that judges take account of jail time already served in pre-trial detention, which can amount to as much as six and a half years.

Gacaca jurisdictions may judge accusations of crimes against humanity as well as of genocide. Soldiers of the former government accused of genocide will apparently be judged in gacaca jurisdictions, but not RPF soldiers accused of crimes against humanity. Rwandan authorities said that RPF soldiers will continue to be judged only in military courts.

Reconciliation

Genuine reconciliation on a large scale may have to await the establishment of a functioning judicial system. In the meantime, various groups, particularly of women, have found ways to cooperate at the local level for shared, concrete objectives, such as earning money to pay school fees or health expenses for their children. In some of these groups, women who have survived the genocide work together with women whose husbands or sons are imprisoned on accusation of genocide.

The National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation has organized a number of activities, including a national conference in late 2000 which drew few of those invited from outside Rwanda. The highly structured program included many long presentations and offered few opportunities for spontaneous exchanges among participants.

The National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation also organizes "solidarity camps," training sessions that vary in length from one to three months. Originally used to "re-educate" returnees who had fled into exile when the RPF took over, the camps have since been required for many administrative officials and university students. Combatants from armed opposition groups captured by the government or who have surrendered voluntarily are re-educated at the camps, as were the children released from detention in December 2000. Ideological training figures importantly in the program at the camps but participants also undergo physical training and some of them, military training. In many camps participants wear military uniform and learn to shoot. According to children released from detention who participated in the camp, they were not given arms training because they were too young. But, as one child commented, "They teach us things so that it will be easy for us to join military service later."

Challenged about the appropriateness of including weapons training among reconciliation activities, Rwandan authorities said that it is important "demystify" the "myth about the army and the gun" for the "self-defence and benefit of all Rwandese."