Africa’s human rights discourse: Lessons from Rwanda

During the first week of September, 2008 a conference was organized by the Konrad Adenhauer Foundation in Kigali, Rwanda’s neat capital. Under the theme, “Human Rights in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities in the New Millennium.”

During the first week of September, 2008 a conference was organized by the Konrad Adenhauer Foundation in Kigali, Rwanda’s neat capital. Under the theme, “Human Rights in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities in the New Millennium.”

Kigali was not an accidental choice of venue. The 1994 Tutsi genocide, in Rwanda serves as a stark reminder of the consequences in human terms of the failure to inculcate a culture of human rights and responsibility.

A visit to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial Museum, which has highly informative displays of other genocides around the world, underlined this.

During the deliberations the point was made by Dr Klaus Paehler, of the Foundation that genocide can occur at any time, anywhere in the world.

He pointed to recent examples in the Balkans and East Timor (now called Timor Leste); the Holocaust in Germany during the World War II and the current disaster in Darfur.

He urged that the shame and guilt that this brings upon the nations responsible for such catastrophic events be turned into positive steps to prevent the recurrence of atrocities of this kind anywhere.

The ultimate nightmare for those committed to the promotion and protection of a culture of human rights and responsibility in Africa is that Rwanda’s 1994 experience be replicated either in Africa, or elsewhere.

The Executive Secretary of Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Ms Fatuma Ndangiza, presented a paper in which she gave an analysis of the causes of the genocide in her country.

There is much to be learned from the factors she identified as the reasons for the genocide. As it is by properly addressing the societal dysfunctions identified that the causes of genocide are best addressed in a pro-active fashion before the bloodshed, loss of life, trauma, dislocation and destruction.

Ms Ndangiza identified the following factors as the causes of the Rwandan genocide: bad governance, a culture of impunity, with widespread poverty and inequality in society.

The chilling insight this analysis gives is that all of the factors so identified are present, to a greater or lesser degree, in many countries across Africa.

Bad governance is endemic, (in Rwanda’s case it was ethnic favouritism) and liberation movements cling to power long after they have served their noble purpose. Corruption and careerism among politicians are rife – those who enter politics to serve their people, rather than to make a “comfortable” living, are the exception rather than the rule.

The nationalists see material wealth as an entitlement, the spoils of their victory over colonialism, racism and ethnic domination. In this way there has been a usurpation of the struggle for peoples’ freedom by the hijacking of unlimited power by the corrupt among the politicians in Africa. All too often the peoples’ freedom remains a distant dream.

Government power remains unchecked in most countries; not as a consequence of an inadequate legal structure, but rather of an inadequate machinery to enforce the limitations on government power, a culture of impunity tends to take root.

The idea that “might (or the majority) is right” has currency, the fundamental difference between party and state is often blurred and the rule of law is hobbled by the irresponsible exercise of unbridled power.

This leads to impunity for those involved in illegal activities perpetrated in the name of the ruling elite. The cause of the party is perceived to trump the requirements of the law and the fine sounding rules set out in the constitutions adopted in the first flush of freedom, when idealism still trumped corruption. In this way ordinary people remain oppressed, sometimes more so than during the colonial era.

Proper steps towards sustainable equality, which necessarily involve improving the lot of the poor, are necessary preconditions to the achievement of a lasting state of peace and prosperity in Africa.

Those without food or proper shelter do not readily relate to the notions of the rule of law nor do they embrace a culture of human rights; they are too pre-occupied with survival and easily fall prey to radical notions of revolution.

This is a given in a continent in which the harsh realities of daily life are dissonant with the ideals of human dignity, equality and the various freedoms guaranteed (but not always delivered) to the people of Africa by their governments.

The international instruments and institutions in place to foster the promotion and protection of human rights are too often regarded as an irritation rather than a means of holding governments to the rules by which they ought to function.

Rwanda itself has cleaned up its constitution. The same applies to its streets, in which all participate to clean, on a monthly basis during Umuganda, with the help of the President himself.

There is a universal determination in all organs of government, civil society and the NGO sector to ensure that “Never Again, will genocide occur.

There is an acceptance that everyone is a Rwandan (not a Hutu, not a Tutsi) with equal rights under the rule of law with genuine progress towards the attainment of a thriving human rights culture.

Asked by a delegate what the secret to this outstanding reversal of history is; the Deputy Chief Justice of Rwanda, Sam Rugege, explained that there is no secret. Everybody in the Rwandan society respects the rule of law because there is a first hand experience of what occurs when there is a break-down in the limitation of state power after the rule of law is discarded as a “foreign” notion that has no place in Africa.

There is a lesson in this for all who live in Africa: peace and prosperity can only be realized when the rule of law and human rights are accorded their proper place by the people and governments of the nations of Africa. Without the rule of law the conditions for genocide fester under the surface of Joseph Conrad’s “dark” continent.

Paul Hoffman SC
Director Centre for Constitutional Rights
Cape Town

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