Rwanda's children have seen the worst of humanity. Eight years after a group of politicians set in motion a genocide in an attempt to retain power, the devastating consequences for those who were left behind are unmistakable. Traditional protective structures for children including family networks, the judicial system, and the education system have been torn apart. As a result, children-many of whom survived unspeakable atrocities-are still the victims of systematic human rights violations day in and day out. In the face of the daunting challenge of rebuilding a society devastated by both war and poverty, protecting their rights has been sidelined. But this does not do Rwanda's children justice. The Rwandan government can and must do more to break the cycle of abuse and exploitation that affects tens of thousands of Rwandan children. Failure to protect their human rights is creating a dangerous legacy for them, and for the future of Rwanda. (Human Rights Watch uses the term "child" to refer to all persons under the age of eighteen.)
Those who planned and executed the genocide of 1994 violated children's rights on a massive scale. Not only did they rape, torture, and slaughter children along with adults in massacre after massacre around the country. Carrying their genocidal logic to its absurd conclusion, they even targeted children for killing-to exterminate the "big rats," they said, one must also kill the "little rats." Countless thousands of children were murdered in the genocide and war. Many of those who managed to escape death had feared for their own lives, surviving rape or torture, witnessing the killing of family members, hiding under corpses, or seeing children killing other children. Some of these children now say they do not care whether they live or die.
Some five thousand people were arrested on charges they committed crimes of genocide before they reached the age of eighteen. Although they garner less sympathy, children who took part in the genocide are also victims. Their rights were first violated when adults recruited, manipulated, or incited them to participate in atrocities, and have been violated again by the Rwandan justice system. One boy who confessed and was convicted of genocide said he had been given a choice of killing his sister's children or being killed himself. He was sixteen years old at the time. Large numbers of these children were in fact arrested unjustly. Another boy, arrested at age thirteen after the genocide, confessed to having killed in order to escape torture, although he now maintains that his confession was false. He had just witnessed other detainees being tortured at the hands of Rwandan government soldiers. His father, among others, had died as a result of torture the night before. He and a thousand others who were younger than fourteen in 1994, and thus too young to be held criminally responsible under Rwandan law, were freed after being transferred from detention facilities to reeducation camps in 2000 and 2001. The government had been promising to release them since 1995.
As many as four thousand children who were between fourteen and eighteen years old during the genocide continue to languish in overcrowded prisons. Their adolescence is gone. Despite repeated, hollow promises to give their cases priority within the over-burdened justice system, they have been subjected to the worst of a bad situation. Juvenile defendants have been tried at an even slower rate than adults. Few have enjoyed the right to adequate legal counsel and other due process protections guaranteed under Rwandan and international law. A few hundred, for whom prosecutors had not conducted investigations or made case files during their years of imprisonment, were provisionally released in 2001 after their neighbors cleared them of wrongdoing in public meetings. Ironically, now that the government has finally made some progress in dealing with the massive failures of the justice system-including organizing community-based courts to deal with the bulk of genocide cases and releasing most of those who had been below the age of criminal responsibility and some without case files-it has become even harder to draw attention to the thousands of young adults who remain in detention for crimes they allegedly committed as children. "We feel that justice has left us," one of them told Human Rights Watch.
Perhaps the most devastating legacy of the genocide and war is the sheer number of children left on their own, and the government's failure to protect them from abuse and exploitation. On Rwanda's green hills, up to 400,000 children-10 percent of Rwandan children-struggle to survive without one or both parents. Children who were orphaned in the genocide or in war, children orphaned by AIDS, and children whose parents are in prison on charges of genocide, alike, are in desperate need of protection. Many Rwandans have exhibited enormous generosity in caring for orphans or other needy children. Yet, because so many Rwandans are living in difficult circumstances themselves, to some, vulnerable children are worth only their labor and their property. Foster families have taken needy children in, but some have also exploited them as domestic servants, denied them education, and unscrupulously taken over their family's land. Government officials have done little to protect these children's rights, instead trusting that extended families will care for them. But traditional societal networks have been severely eroded by poverty, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and, not least, the consequences of the genocide and war.
Thousands of children-many of whom had been exploited for their labor or their property and denied the right to education at home-have migrated to city streets to fend for themselves. There, they face a near constant risk of harassment by law enforcement officials and arbitrary arrest. Municipal authorities continue to round children up by force in an effort to "clean the streets," despite promises to direct their efforts at protecting the children without violating their rights. Girls living on the streets are frequently raped, sometimes even by law enforcement officials, yet few of those responsible have been prosecuted.
The international community has provided billions of dollars to assist in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Rwanda and continues to donate tens of millions of dollars each year. Yet inadequate resources have been devoted to address the desperate needs of child protection. Donors have failed to ensure that money earmarked for speedy trial of those accused of genocide as children, for example, is actually used for that purpose. Likewise, donors have failed to ensure that funds allocated to pay school tuition for orphans are distributed fairly. In addition, the donors have repeatedly failed to denounce blatant human rights violations such as forcible roundups and beatings of street children, and failed to use their leverage to stop such violations.
This report-based on hundreds of interviews conducted between 1995 and 2002 with children, child rights experts, social workers, representatives and staff of local and international organizations, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and officials of the Rwandan government-documents widespread violations of the rights of the child in post-genocide Rwanda. The majority of Rwandan children have been victims of armed conflict. Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and denied prompt access to justice. Hundreds of thousands more living around the country have been abused, exploited for their labor, exploited for their property, or denied the right to education. Thousands have migrated to city streets in an effort to escape these abuses only to find themselves vulnerable to harassment by Rwandan law enforcement agents.
The Rwandan government can and must do more to protect their rights. The government claims to have embraced international standards and has put a partial legal framework for child protection in place. But laws are not enough without adequate enforcement mechanisms. Eight years of promises to protect their rights has meant little for children in practice. The government should take concrete measures to establish a system of juvenile justice in accordance with international standards. Officials at all levels must use their power to put a stop to the abuse and exploitation of children on the hills and on city streets. The future of Rwanda depends on it.