In the absence of the 37 bodies, rights group risks losing credibility

Sunday October 22 2017

prison bars

A Human Rights Watch report titled “All thieves must be killed,” told the world that 37 individuals were executed by security forces... under a broader strategy to kill petty offender! PHOTO | FILE 

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Accusations and counter-accusations have been intensifying between Rwanda and Human Rights Watch (HRW) since the latter published a damning report in July alleging extrajudicial killings in the country.

Titled “All thieves must be killed,” the report told the world that 37 individuals were executed by security forces... under a broader strategy to kill petty offender!
Reading this was, to state the obvious, chilling and incredibly disturbing.

As a follow up, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) last week issued its own report dismissing HRW’s findings as fabrications.

The commission accounted for each of the 37 individuals allegedly executed, adding that, “Seven people reported killed in the HRW report are alive.” And that others died of natural causes, some as far back as 2009!

For evidence, the announcement was made in the presence of some of the individuals HRW informed us had been executed, among them a Mr Alphose Majyambere.

In response, HRW announced that it stood by its report and offered to meet with the commission to compare notes.

Beyond meetings however, unless circumstances under which individuals claimed to have been executed turned up alive are clarified, HRW’s credibility is in jeopardy for three reasons.

The first is the facts involved in the dispute; the second is the method used certifying death and finally what HRW stands for in relation to what it is accused of.

To followers of human-rights issues, what’s disturbing is not that there are disagreements between HRW and Rwanda Government — that has been the case since RPF took over power in 1994 and indeed, such disputes are common even with other governments since the rights organisation is not in the business of praising but exposing human rights violations.

At issue this time around is that not only did individuals purportedly executed turn up alive, but, beyond citing individual claims, there is no documentary evidence in the HRW report or any whistleblower from inside the system to certify the existence of a broader strategy to kill petty thieves nor does the rights body name any culprit in the executions despite asserting that some of the individuals were killed in public view!

And the main reason why the onus is on HRW to prove the authenticity of its claims is that while it relied on interviews, in announcing its own findings, the national human rights commission relied on presenting actual individuals allegedly killed to prove its point.

That HRW report had also provided names, photos and IDs of the individuals executed, it is easy to verify since the faces of the “resurrected” can be compared with those of the dead!

In addition, settling this matter is particularly important since not only has the government consistently accused HRW of milking the country’s unfortunate past for financial gain; being politically motivated and being sympathetic to groups fighting the government, but, on this occasion, even some diplomats have come out to give credence to this view.

For example, Peter Hahrenholtz, who was Germany ambassador to Rwanda until last year tweeted upon hearing the news: “They (HRW) describe the FDLR as a democratic liberation movement. Actually, they want to continue the genocide in Rwanda! I met them, I know.”

And former US State Department official, Richard Johnson, wrote in March 19, 2013 clarifying that the stand of Human Rights Watch “…can be summed up as follows: Blame the post-genocide Rwandan government for the continued existence of the FDLR, and demand that the Rwandan “political space” be expanded to make it more attractive to the FDLR; seek to disassociate the FDLR from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; do not advocate forceful action against the FDLR and when it occurs, demand that it be stopped, and treat the FDLR as a secondary issue compared to Tutsi-based armed group in Congo.”

In view of all this, as a defender of human rights, HRW has a duty to its international audience and people of goodwill to explain the authenticity of the executions and alleged existence of a strategy to kill petty thieves on sight.

That’s the only way it can remain credible on matters Rwanda.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba