The govt embarked on the changes to make the law easier to use and more effective in deterring crime.
Rwandan lawmakers have tasked the government to explain the rationale behind unharmonised sanctions against war crimes despite provisions by different international conventions.
During ongoing discussions to review the penal code, members of the parliamentary committee in charge of political affairs and gender voiced their concern over the harsh penalties imposed on people convicted of war crimes during interstates conflicts, even when they should be regulated by global war conventions.
“Why should we severely penalise an individual for crimes committed in the interest of their country during an armed conflict?” said Elizabeth Mukamana.
Article 100 and 102, which are under review, propose life in prison and sentences ranging between 10 to 15 years to soldiers who committed crimes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that impacted the lives of civilians.
Article 99 of the law, states that any extensive destruction and appropriation of property, which is not justified, is carried out unlawfully or intentional attacks against civilian population, or action that is deemed excessive in relation to military advantage is punishable by life imprisonment.
“We can’t only punish the soldiers on the frontline. There are others who work behind the scenes, those who supply weapons and the law does not clearly say how they should prosecuted,” said Pelagie Mukantaganzwa.
“International conventions define and qualify war crimes, but let respective countries determine appropriate penalties. We don’t think the sentences are as severe as argued by some lawmakers,” said Evode Uwizeyimana, State Minister in charge of Constitutional and Legal Affairs.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions were drafted shortly after the World War II and sought to define the basic rights of wartime prisoners (civilians and military personnel) and establish protections for the wounded, sick and civilians in a war-zone.
Part of the reason why the government imposed harsh sentences is because the Geneva Conventions deal with interstate conflict, without looking at new trends of crimes against humanity and intra- or interstate terrorism.
Article 99 of the proposed law looks at crimes committed during armed conflict like those directed against persons or property protected under the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and their additional Protocols I and II of June 8, 1977.
According to the Bill, the crimes include willful killing, torture, extensive destruction, and appropriation of property not justified by military action. It also talked about depriving and mistreating prisoners; forced deportation; systematic detention; among others.
The draft penal code seeks to replace the current one adopted in 2012 and the government has sought amendments to address a number of legal voids including existing red tapes to conduct accepted abortion, criminalisation of adultery, defamation among others.
While defending the Bill in parliament, State Minister Uwizeyimana told MPs that the government embarked on the changes to make the law easier to use and more effective in deterring crime, punishing convicts and rehabilitating offenders.