KIGALI - President Paul Kagame has called on African countries to scrap the death penalty as it not only denies victims the fundamental right to life but is also not an effective form of punishment.
The President was speaking at the opening of the Regional Conference on the Abolition or Moratorium on the Execution of the Death Penalty yesterday.
The conference was co- organised by the government and Hands off Cain, an International NGO that advocates for the abolition of the death penalty.
“In my opinion, the answer to whether the death penalty should or should not be abolished lies in another question,” Kagame said.
“Does the legal taking away of life really provide the most effective deterrent, offering us enough substantial evidence to tie us to this form of punishment? I believe it does not.”
The Head of State said that Rwanda’s experience has demonstrated that abolishing the death penalty gave people a new lease on life – and this contributed to the healing of the society especially after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
He noted that despite bitterness in the hearts of the victims and their families, ‘historical circumstances’ meant that Rwanda took a definite stand on the subject and abolished the death penalty in 2007.
“Rwanda is committed to the protection of fundamental human rights for all. There was a time in our history when some Rwandans were denied these rights, including the right to life,” Kagame said.
“Over the years, this denial culminated in the death of more than one million people in the genocide of 1994.”
The President pointed that after the Genocide, the laws that existed then provided that those who killed should suffer the ultimate punishment – death, which would mean that more lives, in addition to the one million, would have been lost.
“Regardless of the extreme circumstances, there is no doubting the social consequences that would have accompanied such a mass execution,” he said.
“What we needed most was a way to punish crime, end impunity, heal the physical and emotional wounds of survivors of the genocide and deliver justice to all.”
The President added that after wide consultations and debate, Rwandans came to the conclusion that, under the then circumstances, execution of offenders was not the form of justice that the people needed.
“The government could not become a mass executioner in order to correct mass murder. So we chose to break with the past and abolish the death penalty in order to move forward.”
President Kagame pointed out that Rwandans have achieved an unimaginable degree of unity and reconciliation because a culture of forgiveness – not vengeance – has taken root.
Louis Michel, the co-chair of the African, Caribbean and Pacific-European Union Joint Parliamentary Assembly (ACP-EU), said that holding the meeting in Rwanda sets a good precedent, as it is among the few countries that have abolished the death sentence.
“Rwanda scrapping the death sentence, a short time after the 1994 Genocide, is something of great importance. Removing it did not only restore human values but it also ensured that people are accorded their full rights to life,” Michel said.
Michel commended 36 African countries, including those from Sub-Saharan Africa which have scrapped or suspended the death penalty, calling upon those that have not to expedite the processes.
He added that Rwanda decision to scrap the death penalty showed that the country’s leadership valued life.
The African Union (AU) Chairman, Dr. Jean Ping emphasised that the AU is committed to global efforts to abolish the death penalty.
“As you might know, all African countries are parties to the Banjul African Human and People’s Rights and therefore are aware that the death sentence is a violation of this charter,” he said
Aldo Ajello, the Honorary President of Hands off Cain, said that Rwanda, after the Genocide, set the pace by abolishing the death penalty and opting for justice that unites and reconciles the criminal and victim.
Ajello, who is also EU Special Representative for the African Great Lakes Region, hailed Gacaca traditional courts for delivering justice where many thought they would fail, observing that trying over one million cases successfully, in a short period, is something that cannot be matched anywhere.
The Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, said that the decision to abolish the death penalty was built on the principle that avenging death by death did not serve justice but rather increase the bitterness within the hearts of both the perpetrators of the Genocide and victims.