Last updateSam, 31 Jan 2015 4pm

Rwanda: Rights expert tasks on freedom of assembly

UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr. Maina Kiai, on Tuesday urged the Rwandan government to lift 'undue restrictions' on the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Mr. Kiai, who briefed UN reporters in New York following his official visit to the country, said that, 'doing so would enable the country to expand its economic achievements since the 1994 genocide to the fields of multi-party democracy and human rights'.

He, however, commended Rwanda for its remarkable progress in developing infrastructure, building institutions and ensuring stability and security over the past 20 years.

'The next step is to build upon that foundation by developing a true multiparty democracy and allowing space for peaceful dissent,' he said.

Mr. Kiai stated that the Rwandan constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, but he found that in practice, peaceful protests criticizing government policies were generally not allowed.

The expert also noted that, 'a contradiction in requiring both prior notification and authorization, paving the way for arbitrary decisions by the authorities'.

'Let me emphasize that peaceful assemblies should not be feared, rather they should be encouraged. There is value in expressing disagreement and differences peacefully and publicly,' he said.

He said: 'Rwanda’s Constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of association, but in practice, there are onerous obstacles to registration, limits on civil society’s freedom to operate in certain fields, and government interference in the internal affairs of groups deemed too critical of official policy.'

The expert also noted concern from many people that the body charged with regulating local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), interfered in the internal affairs of some groups.

According to him: 'The independence and ability of associations to run their internal affairs without external interference is of paramount importance in the exercise of the right to freedom of association.'

'I see no justification for RGB involving itself in leadership wrangles within local NGOs,' Mr. Kiai added.

He also drew attention to the 'striking difference between the registration process for NGOs and businesses', saying that, 'civil society groups can take months to register, while businesses can be formed in six hours or less'.

'The ease with which businesses can be registered and operated in Rwanda is notable. It is one reason for the country’s economic transformation.

'A similar approach to the civil society sector would yield significant economic, social and political dividends, allowing for innovation and creativity,' he stated.

Mr. Kiai also observed 'a lack of space' for individuals to express dissenting views in the political realm, 'due to the government favouring a type of consensus politics that strongly discourages public criticism'.

'Registration of political parties, is also long, laborious and, in far too many instances, arbitrary. The Green Party, for example, spent four years securing its registration. Other key opposition parties remain unregistered,' he noted.

'Every dissenting political leader who rejects this consensus approach appears to get into legal trouble, with the most common charges being denying the genocide, sectarianism, corruption, and even spreading rumours,' the expert said.

He further said: 'In all such cases, these politicians are accused of violence or having links with violent groups. This sends a chilling and unacceptable message that peaceful public disagreement with the government is equivalent to criminality'.

Mr. Kiai, who has served in his post since May 2011, will present his report on Rwanda to the UN Human Rights Council in June.

Pana 28/01/2014