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Rwanda: Independence of Civil Society Undermined

The Rwandan authorities should allow civil society to operate independently, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project said today. On 21st July 2013, the leadership of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LIPRODHOR) was transferred to an unlawfully elected new executive committee with the apparent support of the government body responsible for civil society oversight.

Human rights defenders in Rwanda operate in an extremely challenging environment and their ability to carry out their work has been progressively weakened over several years. The loss of LIPRODHOR as one of the few remaining independent and credible Rwandan human rights organisations is a huge blow to civil society in the country.

“LIPRODHOR has been a long-standing and respected member of our Network,” said Hassan Shire, Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. “We stand in solidarity with those courageous HRDs working in the face of many challenges to uphold respect for human rights in Rwanda.”

On 21st July 2013, a group of LIPRODHOR members held an unauthorised extraordinary general meeting at which the executive committee of the organisation was replaced. In contravention of LIPRODHOR’s statutes, the meeting was held without informing the executive committee, including the President and Vice-President, or the conflict resolution committee. LIPRODHOR’s statutes require eight days’ written notice to be given before the holding of a general meeting. LIPRODHOR’s regulations also require an absolute majority of active members for the holding of a general assembly at which decisions such as the election of an executive committee may take place; the meeting of 21st July was reported not to have reached quorum.

The meeting followed the withdrawal of LIPRODHOR and two other human rights organisations, the Association for the Defence of Human Rights and Public Liberties (ADL) and the Maison de Droit (MDD), from the national collective of human rights organisations, CLADHO, on 3rd July 2013, as a result of government interference in its internal affairs. This decision was also cancelled during the meeting of 21st July.

The newly elected committee was recognized by the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) despite complaints from the ousted committee, including a 23rd July decision by the conflict resolution committee declaring the general assembly to have been illegally held. LIPRODHOR’s ousted president has since filed a legal challenge to the decisions taken at the 21st July meeting, namely to replace the executive committee and to rejoin CLADHO, and has sought a temporary injunction to suspend those decisions. The injunction hearing is scheduled to take place at 8am this morning, Monday 19th August at the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Nyarugenge in Nyamirambo, Kigali.

The independence of CLADHO’s leadership has repeatedly been called into question. In 2010, CLADHO was part of a smear campaign against the joint NGO report submitted for the Universal Periodic Review of Rwanda. The then executive secretary of LDGL (the Great Lakes Human Rights League) was forced to leave the country as a result of intimidation and threats linked to his leadership of the UPR coalition. In October 2010, LIPRODHOR expressed its concern about such actions on the part of CLADHO and denounced any actions that compromised its mission to promote and protect human rights.

On 8th July 2012, the General Assembly of CLADHO, the Collective of Human Rights Leagues and Associations, elected a new steering committee.  On 13th July 2012, however, the Office of the RGB issued a directive suspending the handover of the leadership from the old committee, whose mandate was expiring, to the newly elected committee. The RGB then proceeded to name an interim committee made up of non-members to lead CLADHO, with powers to modify the Collective’s statutes and to admit new members. The steering committee and supervisory committee elected by the General Assembly were also dissolved. In their letter of 3rd July 2013, the leadership of LIPRODHOR, ADL and MDD denounced the interim committee’s role in escalating disagreements and failing to protect its members.

Article 10 of the 2012 Law Governing the Organisation and Functioning of National Non-Governmental Organisations provides that “without prejudice to provisions of other Laws, national non-governmental organisations shall enjoy financial, moral and administrative autonomy.” The right to the freedom of association is protected in the Rwandan Constitution, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which have been ratified by Rwanda. The role of human rights defenders is also widely recognized, including in the 2003 Kigali Declaration of the AU Ministerial Conference on Human Rights in Africa which “underscores the need for CSOs to be independent and transparent.”

The current problems facing LIPRODHOR are the latest in a series of threats and challenges to the independent work of human rights defenders in Rwanda. In recent years, many HRDs have faced intimidation and reprisals due to their work. Some have been imprisoned or forced into exile. Investigative journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage was murdered shortly before the 2010 elections. More commonly, however, human rights defenders have been the target of administrative harassment, smear campaigns and undue interference in their internal affairs.

The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project calls on the Rwandan authorities to ensure that human rights organisations are allowed to carry out their work autonomously, in safety, and in accordance with the law.

For more information, please contact:

Hassan Shire, Executive Director on +256 772 753 753 or +256 778 921 274