Backlash against individual access to the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights

Paul Rusesabagina spoke at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy, March 27, 2014, as part of the IPC commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. Source: University of Michigan / Flickr.

The US-Africa Leaders Summit, held on December 13–15, 2022, brought public awareness to the detention of Paul Rusesabagina, the celebrated hero of the 1994 Rwandan genocide portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda, who is also a permanent resident of the United States. 

A Rwandan court recently sentenced Rusesabagina to 25 years’ imprisonment. Despite widespread calls for his release, the government of Rwanda has retained him in prison, and the US government has officially declared Rusesabagina’s status as “wrongfully detained.” At the sidelines of the summit, Rwandan President Paul Kagame declared that he would not comply with demands for Rusesabagina’s release unless the US launched an invasion of Rwanda.

The Rwandan government’s utilization of the judicial system to jail political opponents like Rusesabagina and its oppressive stance toward dissent has drawn international attention to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR). However, Rwanda’s withdrawal of individual access to the ACtHPR on March 1, 2016, has also raised concerns about the protection of human rights and the authority of the ACtHPR. 

Rwanda’s withdrawal of access has encouraged a trend of similar withdrawals, with Tanzania, Benin, and Ivory Coast following suit, which makes it increasingly challenging for victims of human rights violations to seek justice through the ACtHPR. Although indirect avenues of recourse exist through referrals by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, such referrals have been limited in scope and efficacy.

Numerous cases filed by Rwanda’s political opponents before the court prompted Rwanda’s withdrawal. For example, the Kayumba and Ingabire cases significantly threatened President Kagame’s control over the country and his desire to maintain power. These cases cast a spotlight on the Rwandan government’s suppression of dissent and elicit increased international condemnation of the regime. 

In light of this, the withdrawal can be viewed as the government’s calculated maneuver to protect its interests and stifle any opposition that challenges its hold on power. This strategic move reflects the government’s determination to maintain control and prevent the exposure of its repressive practices.

The Kayumba case, filed on July 22, 2015, concerns allegations that the Rwandan government’s proposed constitutional amendment through a referendum violated the petitioners’ right to participate in government and the ban on altering presidential term limits. The petitioners sought interim relief and asked President Kagame to observe term limits and drop the proposed referendum, arguing that the Rwandan judiciary was partial and thus incapable of ruling on the validity of any amendments. However, the case was dismissed because the referendum occurred before the matter was resolved.

The Ingabire case deals with the applicant’s conviction for minimizing genocide and terrorism in Rwanda. The ACtHPR ruled that her arrest, detention, and trial violated her right to a fair trial and that the conviction for minimizing genocide violated her right to freedom of speech. The ACtHPR acknowledged the importance of freedom of expression but stated that it is not absolute. It further validated the law against genocidal ideology but ruled that the punishment imposed on the applicant was disproportionate and that less severe measures could have accomplished the same objectives.

Rwanda’s withdrawal was driven by the government’s increasing discontent that cases were being heard outside its borders, catalyzed by the filing of the Ingabire case. The ACtHPR declared the withdrawal legally sound, citing a state’s prerogative to allow or revoke access to the court. 

However, to ensure fairness, the ACtHPR provided individuals with a one-year grace period, ending on March 1, 2017, during which they could file new cases against Rwanda. The Mugesera case was one such example, in which the applicant brought allegations of human rights violations, including violations of the right to a fair trial, legal assistance, and an impartial court, before the ACtHPR.

The ACtHPR found that Rwanda subjected the applicant to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, violating his rights to physical and mental integrity and communication with his family. The court concluded that the applicant’s physical and mental integrity was severely compromised based on the evidence, which included death threats from the Rwandan police and poor prison conditions. Additionally, the court determined that the applicant’s restricted phone access violated his right to communicate with his family.

Mugeseara’s situation parallels that of Rusesabagina, who claims to have been deprived of the right to consult with his preferred lawyers, including foreign counsel, and to communicate privately with his legal team. Thus, the Mugesera ruling provides insight into Rusesabagina’s conditions, as it indirectly characterizes and previews his circumstances.

However, as opposed to Mugesera, who was able to obtain a ruling at the ACtHPR, Rusesabagina’s potential access to the court was terminated by the Rwandan government, raising questions about the significance of human rights and the ACtHPR’s authority. The Rwandan government’s position that certain individuals, including political opponents and those unjustly convicted, are ineligible to access the ACtHPR contravenes the African Charter and international human rights laws that guarantee fair trials and freedom of expression for all individuals.

Rwanda’s withdrawal also has consequences for African states, as it has sparked a trend of similar withdrawals that weaken the court’s ability to provide justice for victims of human rights violations. This trend highlights the need to safeguard international courts and effective mechanisms to hold states responsible for human rights violations. The challenge calls for improving the functioning of international human rights courts to ensure their viability and efficacy.

The implications of the withdrawals extend beyond African states, questioning the responsibility of states to adhere to international human rights law. The trend undermines trust in the international legal system and threatens states’ commitment to human rights protection. Furthermore, it is part of a broader trend of resistance to international courts, and it underscores the pressing need to tackle the hurdles confronting international courts in safeguarding human rights. Addressing these challenges is essential to guaranteeing the functionality and effectiveness of international human rights courts and preserving the universal commitment to the protection of human rights.