We write in advance of the 72nd pre-session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regarding Rwanda’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This submission includes information on arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of disadvantaged people and children and the protection of education from attack.
Arbitrary Detention and Ill-Treatment of Disadvantaged People and Children (articles 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13)
Since 2006, Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of street vendors, sex workers, homeless people, people suspected to be petty criminals, and street children in so-called “transit centers” in Rwanda. The government argues that this is part of its rehabilitation strategy.
The practice was condemned during Rwanda’s review by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in February 2020. In December 2020, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights held that states’ laws enabling the detention of people who, often because of poverty, are forced to live on the street, violate human rights law. The opinion, issued in response to a request by the Pan African Lawyers Union, concluded that laws permitting the forcible removal or warrantless arrest of a person declared to be a “vagrant” violate the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights instruments.
For a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 former detainees who had been held at Gikondo transit center between 2011 and 2015; ten boys and three girls were aged 18 or under at the time they were interviewed. For a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 43 former detainees from Gikondo and three other transit centers in other parts of Rwanda: Muhanga (Muhanga district), Mbazi (Huye district), and Mudende (Rubavu district). Human Rights Watch spoke to 13 children, ages 10 to 18, who had been detained in Muhanga and Mbazi, between June 2015 and May 2016.
Human Rights Watch conducted more research into the detention of children at Gikondo transit center in 2019, ahead of Rwanda’s 2020 review by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Between January and October 2019, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 30 formerly detained children aged 11 to 17. Only two said they had spent less than two weeks detained at the Kigali Transit Center, the center’s official name. Twenty-eight of the children said they were beaten at Gikondo.
Between April and June 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed via telephone 17 former detainees from Gikondo. Interviews with nine people who identified as transgender or homosexual, three women who were detained with their babies, four men who worked as street vendors at local markets, and a 13-year-old boy living on the streets in Kigali, confirmed the ongoing patterns of abuse that Human Rights Watch previously documented.
None of the former detainees interviewed for these reports were formally charged with any criminal offense, and none saw a prosecutor, judge, or lawyer before or during their detention.
Gikondo Transit Center
Police roundups of poor people on the streets of Kigali are often the first step towards unlawful detention and inhuman and degrading treatment at Gikondo. The arbitrary way people are arrested is consistent with the absence of due process that continues once they are detained at Gikondo. Since 2017, a new legal framework and policies under the government’s strategy to “eradicate delinquency” have sought to legitimize and regulate detention in so-called transit centers. But in reality, this new legislation provides cover for the continuing arbitrary detention of, and violations against, detainees, including children.
During interviews conducted between 2015 and 2021, former Gikondo detainees told Human Rights Watch that several hundred people could be held at the center at one time, in several large rooms. The length of detention could range from a few days to several months. Detainees were not accorded necessities, such as a regular supply and reasonable quantities of food and clean water, and often slept on the floor. Mattresses, when provided, were shared by several detainees and were often infested with lice and fleas.
Human Rights Watch also reported that ill-treatment and beatings of detainees by the police or by other detainees, acting on the orders or with the assent of the police, are commonplace at Gikondo. Former detainees spoke of routine beatings for actions as trivial as talking too loudly or not standing in line to use the toilet. An 11-year-old boy who was held at Gikondo in 2019 explained to Human Rights Watch how he was accused of being a vagabond and beaten. “We were all beaten,” he said. “When you commit an involuntary fault, you can be beaten more than 20 times on the buttocks with a large club.”
The conditions at Gikondo are particularly unsuitable for young children. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that while young children were given extra food, the quantity was not sufficient. They were not provided with milk or baby food. One former female detainee told Human Rights Watch, “The kids are given porridge once a day, but it was bad and mixed with water. Sometimes there was no porridge, so they gave them water that was used to cook the beans.”
Female detainees with young children or babies were frequently beaten if the child defecated on the floor. Defecation on the floor by a detainee’s child was considered a serious offense at Gikondo. Detainees described not having access to water in the room and being allowed to go out of the room to use the toilet only at fixed times.
In the months before a planned June 2021 high-profile international conference, Rwandan authorities rounded up and arbitrarily detained in Gikondo over a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children, and others. In the past, round-ups have been connected to high-profile government events, ahead of which security forces may ramp up efforts to “clear up” Kigali’s streets. Sources in Kigali confirmed that fewer people were living or working on the streets in the month preceding the date for the meeting. Several former detainees said the conditions at Gikondo had worsened in the lead-up to the meeting due to severe overcrowding.
Human Rights Watch documented a similar round-up in 2016 before an African Union Summit held in Kigali.
Transit Centers in Mudende, Mbazi, Muhanga
According to research in 2016, most detainees in Mudende, Mbazi, and Muhanga centers were not allowed to leave their room, except to go to the toilet twice a day. In most cases, food was no more than one cup of corn a day, and several former detainees complained of the lack of drinking water or the opportunity to wash. Many said they had been beaten.
In Muhanga, children were held in the same center as adults, while in Mbazi they were held in a separate building, in slightly better conditions. They received more varied food, and a greater quantity, and could move around more freely, but adults who visited the children’s room said there was a lack of proper hygiene and no education.
Most said they were arrested because they could not show identity documents or were street vendors or street children. Two boys said they had gone to the Mbazi transit center voluntarily, looking for a better life. One ran away a few days after he arrived. A social worker took another boy out of the center, where there were no activities, to place him back in school.
All the people interviewed had been released after their most recent period of detention without being transferred anywhere. Most resumed their old habits or activities as soon as they were released, as they had no alternative way to earn a living.
The Rwandan Government’s Response
In 2015 and 2016, the National Commission for Human Rights and members of the Rwandan Parliament confirmed some of Human Rights Watch’s findings and endorsed a recommendation for an updated legal framework for all “transit centers.” The Kigali City Council adopted a new directive on the Kigali Rehabilitation Transit Center – the official name for the Gikondo transit center – containing provisions for improving conditions, and laying out certain rights, including the rights not to be subjected to corporal punishment, harassed, or discriminated against; access to hygiene and health care; and the right to visits.
However, the directive leaves the door open for continuous arbitrary and lengthy detention. Under the directive, the center is to receive people whose behavior disturbs public order and security– a broad and vague notion that could be applied to categories of people for whom arrest and detention are not an appropriate or lawful response. Many aspects of the directive have not been implemented and the situation in Gikondo has not significantly improved since 2015. While some former detainees described minor adjustments to the infrastructure and the provision of some activities, the center continued to be overcrowded, with bad conditions.
Establishment of the National Rehabilitation Service
Gikondo and other transit centers in Rwanda are now governed by the 2017 law establishing the National Rehabilitation Service and several subsequent government orders. Under the new framework, anyone exhibiting “deviant behaviors,” defined as “actions or bad behavior such as prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, informal street vending, or any other deviant behavior that is harmful to the public,” can be held in a transit center for up to two months, without any other further legal justification or oversight. According to the law, transit centers are “premises used for accommodating on a temporary basis” people who may then be transferred to a rehabilitation center. A rehabilitation center is defined as “premises used for the conduct of activities dedicated to reforming, educating and providing professional skills and reintegrate any person exhibiting deviant acts or behaviors.”
Under the new legislation, Gitagata Rehabilitation Center in Bugesera district, Eastern Province, is to provide vocational training and access to education and health care for children and women transferred by the district or the City of Kigali.
However, while the 2017 law and other steps taken by authorities have sought to legitimize and regulate transit centers, including Gikondo, they have not served to remedy the inherent illegalities of the detention practice. On the contrary, they provide legislative cover for abuses against detainees to continue.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Rwanda:
- What steps has the government taken to permanently close all unofficial places of detention and stop the arbitrary detention of economically vulnerable people and children?
- What steps has the government taken to ensure that implementation of the Law on National Rehabilitation Services is in line with its international human rights standards, and does not result in unlawful detention?
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Rwanda to:
- Immediately close all unofficial places of detention, including Gikondo transit center, and end arbitrary roundups, arrests, detention, and beatings of disadvantaged people and children.
- Release all child detainees at Gikondo.
- Release all adult detainees at Gikondo or immediately bring those against whom there is sufficient credible evidence to charge with a legitimate criminal offense before a judge to determine whether they should be held in pretrial detention.
- Except in prescribed, limited circumstances, eliminate detention of children in conflict with the law and develop and implement non-custodial solutions, including counseling, educational and vocational programs, non-custodial sentences, community services, and restorative justice (such as mediation). Ensure that anyone deprived of their liberty is detained only on grounds explicitly provided for in law and in accordance with full respect for the right to health and an adequate standard of living, as well as due process rights.
- Ensure that all child detainees facing criminal charges are tried by juvenile courts and transferred to official rehabilitation centers specifically for juveniles where they can be detained separately from adults. They should be deprived of liberty only in exceptional cases, and for the shortest period of time.
- Ensure members of the Rwanda National Police and other individuals responsible for unlawful detention, ill-treatment, and other abuses in all unofficial and official places of detention, are subject to appropriate sanctions, including commensurate with the gravity of the abuse and scope of responsibility, held criminally accountable in fair and credible trials.
- Take measures to fight discrimination and stigma against disadvantaged people and children such as street children and vendors, sex workers, vagrants, and beggars, and support them through social protection schemes, education, and reliable vocational training.
- Ensure that training programs for police officers incorporate obligations on respecting human rights of all citizens, including vulnerable groups who may particularly come into contact with law enforcement officials, such as street children, sex workers, drug users, and other disadvantaged people.
- Ensure that rehabilitation of street children through social protection schemes, education, and vocational training does not include nor result in arbitrary detention.
- Ensure that all rehabilitation facilities are subjected to proper oversight and that independent bodies are able to access them for regular monitoring and public reporting on their conditions.
Protection of Education from Attack (article 13)
The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict, the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict, and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. As of December 2022, 116 countries have endorsed the Declaration, including the majority of Rwanda’s fellow African Union members, but not yet Rwanda.
In October 2020, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child issued a general comment on children and armed conflict in Africa, in which they stated that “[t]he use of schools and other education institutions by peacekeeping forces can be equally negative for children’s right to education. For this reason, the African Union and other relevant African inter-governmental organizations that authorize peace support operations should adopt an explicit ban on the use of schools in their operations.” In January 2021, the African Union began requiring countries contributing troops to its peace operations to “ensure that schools are not attacked and used for military purposes.”
As of September 2022, Rwanda provides 5,752 personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, ranking fourth in contributions by country. Rwanda has deployed a significant number of peacekeeping troops in Sudan, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan— all countries where the military use of schools by either domestic government forces or non-state actors has been documented as a problem. The 2017 Child Protection Policy of the UN Department of Peace Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes: “United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children’s access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore … United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.”
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of Rwanda:
- What steps has Rwanda taken to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration?
- Do any Rwandan laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?
- Does pre-deployment training for Rwandan peacekeepers include the ban on using schools in military operations?
Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to call on the Government of Rwanda to:
- Endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.
 “Rwanda pledges to eradicate delinquency, demands security forces to intervene,” Top Africa News, June 2018, https://www.topafricanews.com/2018/06/07/rwanda-pledges-to-eradicate-all-forms-of-delinquency-demands-security-forces-to-intervene/ (accessed December 15, 2022).
 Concluding observations on the third and fourth periodic reports of Rwanda, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, July 8, 2013, CRC/C/RWA/CO/3-4, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2FC%2FRWA%2FCO%2F3-4&Lang=en (accessed January 6, 2023).
 Lewis Mudge, “Rwanda Should Stop Locking Up the Poor,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, December 21, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/21/rwanda-should-stop-locking-poor.
 Human Rights Watch, “Why Not Call This Place a Prison?” Unlawful Detention and Ill-Treatment in Rwanda’s Gikondo Transit Center (New York: Human Rights Watch, September 2015), https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/09/24/why-not-call-place-prison/unlawful-detention-and-ill-treatment-rwandas-gikondo#.
 “Rwanda: Locking Up the Poor,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 21, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/21/rwanda-locking-poor.
 Human Rights Watch, “As Long as We Live on the Streets, They Will Beat Us”: Rwanda’s Abusive Detention of Children (New York: Human Rights Watch, January 2020), https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/01/27/long-we-live-streets-they-will-beat-us/rwandas-abusive-detention-children.
 “Rwanda: Round Ups-Linked to Commonwealth Meeting,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 27, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/27/rwanda-round-ups-linked-commonwealth-meeting.
 Human Rights Watch phone interviews with former detainees, February 2019.
 Human Rights Watch interview with former detainee at Gikondo, Kigali, February 16, 2014.
 “Rwanda: Round Ups-Linked to Commonwealth Meeting,” Human Rights Watch news release.
 Human Rights Watch, “Why Not Call This Place a Prison?” Unlawful Detention and Ill-Treatment in Rwanda’s Gikondo Transit Center.”
 Human Rights Watch, “Rwanda: Locking Up the Poor.”
 Directive of Kigali City Council (N°001/2015) concerning the Kigali Rehabilitation Transit Center, in the Official Gazette 44 bis on November 2, 2015, as cited by Human Rights Watch, “Submission by Human Rights Watch to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on Rwanda,” March 25, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/25/submission-human-rights-watch-committee-rights-child-rwanda#_ftn22 (accessed December 15, 2022).
 Law no. 17/2017 of 28/04/2017 establishing the National Rehabilitation Service and Determining its Mission, Organisation and Functioning, Article 32, https://www.nrs.gov.rw/fileadmin/Laws_and_Regulations/Laws/Law%20establishing%20the%20National%20Rehabilitation%20Service%20and%20determining%20its%20mission%2C%20organisation.pdf (accessed January 9, 2023).
 Ministerial Order Nº001/07.01 of 19/04/2018 determining Mission, Organization and Functioning of Transit Centers, Article 2.2 http://nrs.gov.rw/fileadmin/Laws_and_Regulations/Laws/Ministerial%20Order%20determining%20mission%2C%20organization%20and%20functioning%20of%20transit%20centers.pdf (accessed January 9, 2023).
 Presidential Order no. 100/01 Of 02/06/2018 establishing Gitagata Rehabilitation Center, http://nrs.gov.rw/fileadmin/Laws_and_Regulations/Laws/Presidential%20Order%20establishing%20Iwawa%2C%20Gitagata%20and%20Nyamagabe%20Rehabilitation%20Centers%20.pdf/ (accessed January 9, 2023).
 Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed December 8, 2022).
 GCPEA, Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed December 8, 2022).
 GCPEA, “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements,” 2022, https://ssd.protectingeducation.org/endorsement/ (accessed December 8, 2022).
 African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, General Comment on Article 22 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, “Children in Situations of Conflict,” September 2020, para. 77.
 African Union, Peace and Security Department, “International Day to Protect Education from Attack: Joint Statement by African Union Commission’s Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS); Department of Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development and Save the Children International,” September 9, 2021, https://www.peaceau.org/en/article/international-day-to-protect-education-from-attack-joint-statement-by-african-union-commission-s-department-of-political-affairs-peace-and-security-paps-department-of-health-humanitarian-affairs-and-social-development-and-save-the-children-international (accessed December 5, 2022).
 United Nations Peacekeeping, “Troop and Police Contributors,” https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors (accessed December 8, 2022).
 UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.