I read Frank Kagabo’s article in this week’s issue of The East African ‘Why Human Rights Watch reports, opinion matters in Rwanda’ with a lot of interest. Not only because I found the topic rather thought-provoking but also because he’s someone I worked with for a few years at this very publication. I know I promised not to react to any more foreign reports, but something he said in his article raised my hackles.
He states that “HRW reports have the institutional credibility to influence court decisions in international jurisdictions, especially in the West’”. He goes on to say that that credibility was displayed during a recent US State Department press briefing where Jen Psaki referred to a Human Rights Watch report alleging continued Rwandan support for the M23 rebels in war torn East DRC.
While I will not argue with his point that HRW has a certain credibility in western capitals, rightly or wrongly, there must be an acknowledgment that this credibility is strictly political and not legal. Currently, whenever HRW or any advocacy group publishes a report, very often the majority of western media and political elite take it as the truth. Voices challenging the findings are either ignored or called bias.
Kagabo writes that HRW focuses on a need that is largely unmet. That is true and I respect the fact that they try to do their job. The late Alison Des Forges, who passed away in a 2009 air crash, was one of the first people to document and warn the international community about the MRND government’s plan to exterminate the Tutsi.
However, just because they are doing a thankless task doesn’t mean that they have ironclad credibility that cannot be questioned and challenged. The recent report quotes a witness, allegedly a former RDF soldier, stating that Rwandan troops operated as peacekeepers in Somalia. But as anyone with a slight interest in Rwanda peacekeeping affairs know, Rwanda doesn’t have any peacekeepers in that east African nation. While HRW said that that was a simple mistake, and that the organisation stood behind the rest of the report, it certainly put in question their fact checking and editorial control.
HRW’s credibility is strictly political, not legal. The difference between political corridors of power (where weak nations and individuals are excluded from discussions) and courts of law is that defendants are not only allowed to examine the entirety of the evidence against them, but they are allowed to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.
In December 13, 2009, HRW published a report titled “You will be punished’ which highlighted FDLR abuses and its chain of command. This report became the basis of ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo’s prosecution of FDLR’s Executive Secretary Callixte Mbarushimana in 2010. The FDLR bigwig was allegedly criminally responsible for five counts of crimes against humanity including murder and rape, and eight counts of war crimes. Sadly, on 16 December 2011 the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Hague-based court in a majority decision declined to confirm the charges against him. Mbarushimana’s attorney poked so many holes in the prosecution’s evidence (evidence that HRW helped gather) that the judges had no choice but to throw out he case before it even got to trial phase. HRW evidence could not stand up in a courtroom, rendering it legally ‘no-credible’. Perhaps if Mr Ocampo had done the legal grunt work himself, this criminal would have faced justice. Sadly the FDLR leader is now untouchable in France and able to wage war in comfort.
As Mr. Kagabo states, HRW reports have been used by captured genocidaires in court to fight extradition to Rwanda. But as Leon Mugesera and others have learnt, Western courts have repeatedly pooh-poohed HRW reports alleging unfair court systems and deadly prison conditions.
Western courts have repeatedly ignored HRW reports. Sadly however, politicians don’t always hold themselves to the same standards of hard evidence and facts. And that is why HRW is still able to throw its weight around. Let’s not think any different.