Rwanda Withdraws Access to African Court for Individuals and NGOs

Credit: Wouter Engler via Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wouter Engler via Wikimedia Commons

The government of Rwanda has announced it will no longer allow individuals and non-governmental organizations to directly file complaints against it with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR). [Ministry of Justice Press Release] The decision comes as the African Court is set to decide a claim against Rwanda by a leading opposition politician, Victoire Ingabire, who alleges her imprisonment for genocide denial was unfair and politically motivated. [AfCHPR Press Release; HRW] Rwanda deposited the withdrawal on February 29, just over three years after it first deposited the declaration under Article 34(6) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The government asserts that the withdrawal is intended to prevent exploitation of the individual complaint procedure by criminals, particularly individuals who took part in the 1994 genocide and have subsequently fled the country. [Ministry of Justice Press Release] The Protocol does not outline a withdrawal process, and the Court has yet to make a decision on the validity of the withdrawal or how it will affect pending cases against Rwanda. Only eight African Union (AU) countries have submitted declarations allowing individual complaints to the Court, and Rwanda is the only State to withdraw, potentially reducing the number of AU countries where individuals and NGOs have direct access to the Court to seven.

Rwanda’s Withdrawal

Rwanda submitted its declaration accepting the competence of the African Court to receive cases brought by individuals and NGOs in January of 2013. It had agreed to the Court’s jurisdiction over claims presented by States, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and African intergovernmental entities nearly a decade earlier. A press release from the Ministry of Justice asserts that while Rwanda’s acceptance of the Court’s expanded jurisdiction was initially intended to allow for the resolution of human rights disputes between individuals or groups of individuals and the State, it was exploited by genocide fugitives with the intent of gaining “a platform for re-invention and sanitization” of the genocide. [Ministry of Justice Press Release] Rwandan Minister of Justice Johnston Busingye said the timing of the withdrawal in relation to the case of Victoire Ingabire was a coincidence. [ISS Africa; New Times]

Local news sources frame the issue as relating to the case of Stanley Safari, a former Rwandan senator who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by a Gacaca court on many counts of murders of ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, but he escaped and fled the country before the trial was over. [New Times; ISS Africa] However, Safari’s claim is not included in the Court’s list of pending cases.

The Case of Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza

The submission of the instrument of withdrawal coincides with the ongoing case of Ms. Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, whose case was scheduled for a hearing before the African Court on March 4, less than a week after the government’s submission of its withdrawal. [HRW] Ms. Ingabire lived outside of Rwanda for 16 years and was politically active throughout that time, working with a variety of Rwandan opposition groups. She returned to Rwanda in April 2010 with the purported aim of creating an opposition movement to counter the leading Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the 2010 elections. See Amnesty International, Rwanda: Justice in Jeopardy: The First Instance Trial of Victoire Ingabire (2013) 10. Ms. Ingabire was arrested after publically speaking at the Genocide Memorial Centre about reconciliation and ethnic violence. Id. at 6. She was accused of a number of serious crimes, including spreading genocide ideology, complicity in acts of terrorism, sectarianism and divisionism, and engaging in terrorism in order to undermine the authority of the State. Id. at 14. Ms. Ingabire was initially sentenced by the High Court to eight years in prison for the crimes of conspiracy to harm the existing authority and for grossly minimizing the genocide. Id. at 7, 15. She appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, who then denied her appeal and extended her sentence to fifteen years. [East African]

Ms. Ingabire submitted her complaint to the African Court in October of 2014, alleging violations of her rights to a fair hearing, freedom of expression, and equal protection under three human rights treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. She also asks that the Court order Rwanda to review her case, repeal with retroactive effect the specific laws under which she was convicted, annul all the decisions that had been made against her since the preliminary investigation up until her sentencing, and demand her release on parole. See AfCHPR, Application No. 003/2014, Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza v. The Republic of Rwanda, Case Summary, paras. 13 and 14. The government alleges that Ms. Ingabire failed to exhaust domestic remedies and that all of her rights were respected throughout the process of her arrest and trial. Id. at paras. 15-19.

Validity and Scope of the Withdrawal

In determining whether to move forward with Ms. Ingabire’s case, the African Court will have to decide if Rwanda’s withdrawal is valid. Neither the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights nor the Protocol to the African Charter contain a provision on denunciation, and, therefore, whereas the European Convention on Human Rights allows States to withdraw after six months’ notice under Article 58 and the American Convention on Human Rights requires one year’s notice under Article 78, no such procedure currently exists with regard to the African Court’s jurisdiction.

The 1956 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to which Rwanda acceded in 1980, provides under Article 56 that treaties that do not contain a denunciation clause are not subject to denunciation or withdrawal unless it is established that the parties intended to admit this possibility or the nature of the treaty implies a right of denunciation of withdrawal.

Rwanda is reportedly not seeking to withdraw from the entire treaty, but only aiming to limit the direct access of individuals to the Court. [Ministry of Justice Press Release] States accept the African Court’s jurisdiction over individual and group complaints by submitting a separate declaration; governments can accept the Court’s jurisdiction – by ratifying the Protocol to the African Charter – without authorizing it to hear individual and group communications. Regardless, the African Court may also hear cases involving individual complaints against State parties to the Protocol when they are referred to the Court by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Additional Information

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights began operating in 2006 and complements the role of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in protecting fundamental rights across the continent. To date, 30 States have accepted the African Court’s jurisdiction, although only eight have additionally agreed to allow the Court to hear complaints by individuals and groups. Benin became the eighth State to accept this procedure when it deposited its declaration just last month. [AfCHPR Press Release: Benin]

For more information about the African Human Rights System or the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.