While it might seem very harsh of me to summarily dismiss Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based NGO, and all they do as irrelevant, they have to admit that they make it extremely easy to do so. Yesterday, the human rights organization called a press conference and with a lot of smoke and thunder launched their latest report on Rwanda, ‘Justice Compromised: The legacy of Rwanda’s community-based Gacaca Courts’, inviting members of the press, local NGO’s, members of the diplomatic corps and the Rwandan government. I couldn’t resist attending the press conference because, truth be told, I wanted to see just how the organization would handle the question and answer session. I was shocked when the moderator told the gathered journalists that recording the press conference was prohibited for some reason. For a human rights organization that puts itself at the forefront of press freedom asking the press not to use their tools was a strange call. Even Paul Kagame, ‘press predator’, allows recorders during his monthly press conferences. But I digress.
The report was quite an interesting read. On one hand they criticized the Gacaca court system, and then on the other hand commended it. It was rather confusing.
The gist of the report was this: Gacaca imposed limited international fair trial rights, it was used to silence opposition, it failed to address Rwandan Patriotic Front crimes, the judges were often influenced, corrupt and not impartial, and the process was used to settle personal grievances. If they had left it at that I would have respected them more. But HRW’s ambiguity was revealed when a member of Haguruka asked Leslie Haskell, the report’s author, if she thought Gacaca was a failure. She simply refused to answer the question dodging the question so adroitly she’d put a trial lawyer to shame.
The Dutch ambassador to Rwanda Frans Makken asked the next question. ‘Did the NGO think that the report was unfair, especially because it got its conclusions after only reviewing 350 cases out of the 1.2 million cases that the Gacaca courts tried? Wasn’t the title misleading? And why didn’t Human Rights Watch pre-empt the more detailed government review that the donors were involved with?’
The HRW researcher refused to tackle the majority of the questions, saying that the title was open to different interpretations, that although the report made its conclusions based on a tiny number of cases the researched cases showed a ‘trend’ that made a conclusions viable, and that although they knew about the more detailed government review being compiled they wanted to write their own as well.
The HRW recommendation confused me a great deal. The biggest recommendation that the report made was the establishment of a separate judicial mechanism in the Ministry of Justice to review all the cases pinpointed in their report. This ‘review board’ of sorts would look through as many dossiers as possible, fixing the mistakes that the various Gacaca courts in the country made. So, how many cases did the HRW researcher suggest that this new review board look at? Not more than 100.
So, let me get this correctly. Did HRW publish a report titled ‘Justice Compromised’ because of 100 shady cases out of 1.2 million? Let’s be honest here. I will not say that none of these issues raised in the report are without just cause, but there is absolutely no justice system, traditional or not, that can say that it isn’t partial to little corruption, witness tampering and other shenanigans? At the end of the day I have to ask, have Gacaca Courts helped reveal the truth about what happened, accelerate genocide trials, eradicate the culture of impunity, reconcile Rwandans and prove that Rwandans can solve their own problems? Even HRW cannot deny that they’ve lived up to their billing. So, why then write such an alarmist report? Is it possibly because HRW is biased? Or maybe they are simply trying to hog the headlines after such a long silence?