Human Rights Watch Should Know that Victims’ Rights Are Human Rights

Human Rights Watch has betrayed its professed mandate.

‘The September [2021] conviction and 25-year sentence of critic and political opponent Paul Rusesabagina on charges including murder and membership in a terrorist group after a flawed trial was emblematic of the government’s overreach and the manipulation of the justice’. This is a statement in the Human Rights Watch’s summary of 2021 events in Rwanda. The use of “emblematic” suggests that, in the view of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the case of Paul Rusesabagina in relation to other alleged abuses is the most serious human rights violation representing Rwanda’s unfairness. If HRW meant this literally, then it is very easy to defend Rwanda’s human rights record, and here is why.

There are three indisputable facts about Paul Rusesabagina’s case: first, that between 2018 and 2019, 9 civilians were mercilessly murdered, and people’s property destroyed by the National Liberation Front (FLN, French acronym); second, that Paul Rusesabagina is one of the leaders and founders of the FLN, a fact he freely and openly acknowledged in court; and third, that it is on record that Rusesabagina openly called people to join the group.

Keeping these three indubitable facts in mind, justice is – and should be – about balancing conflicting interests, and in this case, it is about balancing the rights of the suspects, those of the government to meet its constitutional obligation of providing security to the people, and those of the victims to receive justice. An objective analysis should not dismiss or ignore these competing rights. These are rights in their true sense; they are universal, inherent to human dignity, and are legally protected in Rwanda. Simply put, all three branches of government have a constitutional obligation to protect and enforce them.

The 1985 UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power is clear on victims’ right to access justice and fair treatment, and it encourages states to establish and strengthen mechanisms that allow victims to obtain justice. According to the Rwandan Criminal Procedure Code, a victim has a right to civil damages, and, under its provisions on private prosecution, a victim has a right to have the offender(s) punished. Therefore, if we understand injustice as doing something wrong against someone, certainly an argument that skews the facts to exclude the victims from the analysis is unjust. It is even more unjust and worrisome that, in this case, a supposedly human rights organization is clearly sidestepping the victims’ justice, which shows that they are up to no good.

The Rwandan government cannot participate in an international conspiracy that denies its citizens their rights to receive civil damages and have offenders punished. However, HRW’s never-ending hostility towards the Rwandan government simply dismisses victims’ rights and considers the rights of only one of the 21 co-accused in the FLN trial as worthy of their protection. Ironically, HRW’s advocacy, which stubbornly denounces the method of the arrest of Rusesabagina, would not stand to scrutiny in the very western “democracies” upon which the organization rely to pressure Rwanda into releasing him. These governments have, for instance, repeatedly argued that victims’ rights to justice and citizens’ rights to protection against recurrence justify more extreme methods than mere luring. In this regard, the remarks made by former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, on December 5, 2005, speak for themselves, as shown below.

“Rendition is a vital tool in combating transnational terrorism. Its use is not unique to the United States, or to the current administration. Last year, then Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet recalled that our earlier counterterrorism successes included “the rendition of many dozens of terrorists prior to September 11, 2001. Ramzi Youssef masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and plotted to blow up airlines over the Pacific Ocean, killing a Japanese airline passenger in a test of one of his bombs. Once tracked down, a rendition brought him to the United States, where he now serves a life sentence. One of history’s most infamous terrorists, best known as “Carlos the Jackal,” had participated in murders in Europe and the Middle East. He was finally captured in Sudan in 1994. A rendition by the French government brought him to justice in France, where he is now imprisoned. Indeed, the European Commission of Human Rights rejected Carlos’ claim that his rendition from Sudan was unlawful,” Condoleezza Rice said. 

“Renditions take terrorists out of action, and save lives,” Rice added, making no secret of the US government’s intention to continue using rendition as a foreign policy tool.

Therefore, HRW’s advocacy for Rusesabagina would make sense to observers if and only if they disregard the three aforementioned undisputable facts and deny Rwandan victims and citizens the same kind of inalienable rights to justice, human dignity and protection that western citizens enjoy. The fact that European courts, the European Commission of Human Rights and US courts have repeatedly dismissed the objections raised by suspected terrorists who were brought before them through abduction and rendition only proves that in any functioning country, the three branches of government act in a concerted manner to protect these rights for their own citizens. They do this regardless of the methods used in bringing elusive suspects to courts. People around the world generally support this stance because the crime of terrorism is deemed too despicable and its threat to national interests too high when balanced with the rights of suspected terrorists. This confirms, in such instances, that the rights of the victims should not be ignored while considering those of the accused. HRW, as an activist organization, is free to oppose both national and international practices, but we cannot allow it to manipulate international public opinion by claiming that Rwanda acted abnormally. Therefore, we can only hold HRW credible when it is applying the right reasoning to correct facts based on the same standards applied in dealing with all governments, whether western or African.

It is worth noting that there is an ongoing appeal process. The prosecution, civil parties, and some co-accused appealed against the decision of the High Court Chamber for International Crimes. Generally, one may argue that there is nothing interesting to discuss about this appeal since the law allows all those that appealed to do so. However, the issue that needs some reflection is whether the Public Prosecution needed to appeal. In other words, since the prosecution had obtained convictions for all the accused persons, was it necessary for it to engage more public resources in this case. In response, I would like to highlight some plausible ideas a prosecution may have put into consideration before filing for the appeal.

It is important to recall that the prosecution has a mandate of impartiality and service to the law. In order to achieve this mandate, two considerations may come into play. First is the fact that the prosecution has a duty to ensure that those responsible for serious crimes are given proportional sentences. This goes well together with the obligation to prevent crimes through punishment. The prosecution may have seen this as an opportunity for deterrence, a warning to potential future perpetrators. Second is the fact that the court of appeal is believed to be more competent with more experienced judges capable of providing a more nuanced interpretation and sounder judgement.

It is also worth stressing that the suspect that forfeits their right to participate in the court proceeding, as Rusesabagina did, should understand that they are undermining the court’s ability to access the truth and administer justice. The law is clear on the fact that the trial should proceed. The criminal procedure was never intended to create a situation where justice can be hijacked through stubborn dilatory tactics. Neither should HRW’s constant bullying undermine its precepts. This is exactly what we expect from an independent judicial system, as one American lawyer noted, ‘”judicial independence” embodies the concept that a judge decides cases fairly, impartially, and according to the facts and law, not according to whim, prejudice, or fear, the dictates of the legislature or executive, or the latest opinion poll.’

The prosecution serves best its mandate of impartiality and service to the law when those responsible are given appropriate punishments based on correct charges using the correct interpretation of laws, including respecting victims’ rights. Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, has betrayed its professed mandate.

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