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In 2001, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) maintained its predominant role in the country's governing structures. Nonpartisan municipal elections, a controversial step in the country's political transition, took place. The use of the traditional justice method of gacacca helped to reduce the backlog of court cases against alleged perpetrators of genocide. With the exception of some scattered violence, Rwanda remained peaceful, despite continued instability in neighboring Burundi and Democratic of Congo and tensions with Uganda.
Rwanda's ethnic divide is deeply rooted. National boundaries demarcated by Belgian colonists led to often violent competition for power within the fixed borders of a modern state. Traditional and Belgian-abetted Tutsi dominance ended with a Hutu rebellion in 1959 and independence in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi were killed or fled the country in recurring violence during the next decades. In 1990, the RPF launched a guerrilla war to force the Hutu regime, led by General Juvenal Habyarimana, to accept power sharing and the return of Tutsi refugees. The Hutus' chauvinist solution to claims to land and power by Rwanda's Tutsi minority, who constituted approximately 15 percent of the pregenocide population, was to pursue the complete elimination of the Tutsi people.
The 1994 genocide was launched after the suspicious deaths of President Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira in a plane crash in Kigali. The ensuing massacres had been well plotted. Piles of imported machetes were distributed, and death lists were broadcast by radio. A small United Nations force in Rwanda fled as the killings spread and Tutsi rebels advanced. French troops intervened in late 1994, not to halt the genocide, but in a futile effort to preserve a territorial enclave for the crumbling genocidal regime that was so closely linked to the French government.
International relief efforts that eased the suffering among the more than two million Hutu refugees along Rwanda's frontiers also allowed retraining and rearming of large numbers of former government troops. The UN, which had earlier ignored specific warnings of an an impending genocide in 1994, failed to prevent such activities, and the Rwandan army took direct action, overrunning refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly three million refugees subsequently returned to Rwanda between 1996 and 1998. Security has improved considerably since 1997, although isolated incidents of killings and disappearances continue.
The government, led by the Tutsi-dominated RPF, closely directs the country's political life. In 1999 it extended the transition period after which multiparty national elections could be held for an additional four years, arguing that the move was necessary because the poor security situation in the country did not permit elections to be held. Carefully controlled nonparty local elections were held in 1999. The region continued to be highly unstable as Rwandans and Ugandans remained deeply implicated in the civil strife of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. This climate of unrest greatly complicated efforts to improve the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In 2000, there were a number of important changes in the nation's senior leadership. President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in March and was replaced by Vice President Paul Kagame, who had already been the de facto leader of the country. A new prime minister, Bernard Makuza, was appointed. The president of the national assembly fled into exile in the United States and was replaced. The security situation remained generally peaceful, with refugee reintegration continuing to take place.
Rwandans have never enjoyed their right to democratically choose their government. The government announced in 1999 that national multiparty elections would not take place until 2003 at the earliest. The current, self-appointed government is dominated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), but also includes several other political parties. The legislature is unicameral. Comprising 70 members, it was appointed in 1994 for a five year term by the RPF-dominated government. Its mandate was extended by the government in June 1999 for a further four years. To date, parliament has not passed legislation regarding the national electoral process or the future status of political parties.
Municipal elections that had been scheduled for October 2000 took place in March 2001, due to legal and administrative delays. Candidates were elected to councils, which in turn chose 106 district town mayors who previously had been appointed by the central government. Political parties were forbidden to campaign; candidates could only present themselves as individuals. About three million voters cast ballots in generally peaceful balloting. Independent observers, including Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group (ICG), were critical of the lack of pluralism permitted. Only one candidate for each of almost half the seats appeared on the ballot. The ICG concluded that "by constricting political freedom under the motto of national unity and reconciliation, the RPF risks eroding the very foundations of its own policies and dampening hopes for Rwanda's recovery."
Rwanda's basic governance charter is the Fundamental Law, an amalgam of the 1991 constitution, two agreements among various parties and groups, and the RPF's own 1994 declaration of governance. Rwanda has appointed a legal reform commission to examine all existing laws in the country as part of ongoing preparation for the end of the transition period in 2003. The country's constitution is also under review.
Political parties closely identified with the 1994 massacres are banned, as are parties based on ethnicity or religion. Several parties participate in government, although they are constrained from campaigning or otherwise engaging in partisan activities. There is some Hutu representation in the government, including Prime Minister Makuza, who is from the mainly Hutu Republican Democratic Movement (MDR) party.
In recent years, a number of leading government critics have fled the country. They include two former prime ministers, Faustin Twagiramungu and Pierre Celestin Rwigema; Alphonse Nkubito, a former minister of justice; and Jean Baptiste Nkuliyingoma, a former minister of information. Others include Sebarenzi Kabuye, a former speaker in parliament, and Seth Sendashonga, a former minister of the interior who was assassinated in Nairobi in 1998. Former president Bizimungu was placed under house arrest for announcing that he intended to set up an independent political party.
Constitutional and legal safeguards regarding arrest procedures and detention are unevenly applied. The near destruction of Rwanda's legal system and the death or exile of most of the judiciary has dramatically impeded the government's ability to administer postgenocide justice. About 120,000 suspects are incarcerated in jails built for 10,000. It is estimated that to deal with them using current standard legal bodies would take 200 years.
To help address this problem, the government has moved ahead with preparations to revive a traditional court system, the gacaca, wherein elders will preside over community trials dealing with the less serious genocide offenses. Some observers expressed concern about the potential for partiality or the application of uneven or arbitrary standards. In October Rwandans went to the polls to choose 260,000 judges for the gacaca process.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, continues its work. The tribunal, similar to that in The Hague dealing with those accused of crimes against humanity and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, is composed of international jurists. As the ICTR cannot impose the death penalty, as many in Rwanda oppose it, and for that reason some of those accused of serious crimes have attempted to have their cases heard there.
Rwandan media are officially censored and constrained by fear of reprisals. Journalists accused of abetting or participating in genocide have been arrested. The state controls the broadcast media. The role of the media in Rwanda has become a contentious test case for media freedom and responsibility. During the genocide, 50 journalists were murdered, while others broadcast incitements to the slaughter. A September report by the Reporters sans Frontieres press watchdog group concluded that press freedom is not assured in Rwanda. Journalists continue to suffer threats and pressure. Journalists interviewed admitted that they censure their own writing and that the authorities have made it clear that certain topics cannot be discussed. As a result, Rwandan newspaper coverage is heavily pro-governmental.
In 2001, Rwanda's parliament was debating the Media Bill, which would impose a minimum jail term of 20 years, or even death, for any local journalist found guilty of using the mass media to incite genocide. Among its other provisions, the draft bill proposes that journalists be compelled to reveal their sources.
Local nongovernmental organizations such as the Collective Rwandan Leagues and Associations for the Defense of Human Rights operate openly. International human rights groups and relief organizations are also active. Numerous clerics were among both the victims and perpetrators of the genocide. Religious freedom is generally respected.
There is serious de facto discrimination against women despite legal protection for equal rights. Economic and social dislocation has forced women to take on many new roles, especially in the countryside. Constitutional provisions for labor rights include the right to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike. The Central Union of Rwandan Workers, which was closely controlled by the previous regime, now has relatively greater independence.