Rwanda | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Rwanda received a downward trend arrow due to government restrictions on the functioning of political and civil society.


In 2004, the government of Rwanda continued to use the legacy of the 1994 genocide as grounds for limiting dialogue between Rwandans. It took several actions that had the effect of further constricting political space, including restricting non-governmental organizations. The leading opposition party remained inactive after threats to ban it. Steps were taken to reduce the backlog of legal cases resulting from the genocide.

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 Tutsis were killed or fled the country in recurring violence during the next decades. In 1990, the Tutsi-dominated RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) launched a guerrilla war to force the Hutu regime, led by General Juvenal Habyarimana, to accept power sharing and the return of Tutsi refugees.

President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed in a plane crash near Kigali in April 1994. While the perpetrators of this act have never been identified, many observers believe that Hutu extremists, angered by Habyrimana's negotiation with the RPF, committed the act. The Hutus' chauvinist solution to claims for land and power by Rwanda's Tutsi minority, which constituted approximately 15 percent of the population, was to pursue the complete elimination of the Tutsi people. The ensuing genocide was well plotted, with piles of imported machetes distributed and death lists broadcast by radio, but it did not stop the RPF from successfully taking over the country.

The Hutu-dominated army and militia, along with as many as two million Hutu refugees, fled into neighboring countries, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo. International relief efforts that eased the suffering of these refugees also had the effect of allowing retraining and rearming of large numbers of the former army and militia forces. The United Nations, which had earlier ignored specific warnings of an impending genocide in 1994, failed to prevent such activities, and the RPF took direct action, overrunning the refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nearly three million Rwandan refugees subsequently returned to Rwanda between 1996 and 1998. Security has improved considerably since 1997, although isolated killings and "disappearances" continue. The government, led by the RPF, closely directs the country's political life. In 2000, President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned 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.

Rwanda's extended postgenocide political transition period officially ended in 2003 with the holding of national elections. The RPF's preeminent position in Rwandan political life, combined with a short campaign period, the material advantages of incumbency, and the continuing effects of the genocide, which inhibit free expression of political will, ensured Kagame's victory and that of the RPF and its allies in August presidential and September parliamentary elections. The largest opposition party, the Hutu-based Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), was declared illegal by the authorities for allegedly sowing "divisionism," a code word for the fanning of ethnic hatred. In a sign of the extent of the RPF's influence, even the MDR parliamentary delegation voted to ban the party. A new constitution that officially permits political parties to exist, under certain conditions, was unveiled in 2003.

In early 2004 a parliamentary commission issued a report criticizing a number of non-governmental organizations with propagating "genocide ideology". Subsequently, under the threat of banning, these organizations significantly limited activities that involved criticism of the government and its policies. In June, Bizimungu, a Hutu who was the first president after the genocide, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of inciting civil disobedience, creating a criminal gang, and embezzling state funds, although Amnesty International and other independent observers questioned the fairness of the trial. In July, the entire judiciary was fired, and the government appointed new magistrates. Many elected local officials have also been forced out of office on charges of incompetence and corruption.

Continued instability in the region, including tensions with neighboring Uganda, pose considerable challenges to the country's peaceful development and complicate efforts to improve the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Rwandans cannot change their government democratically. The 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections gave Rwandans a limited amount of political choice. The 2003 constitution includes provisions that give strong powers to the president, who has sole authority to appoint the prime minister and who can dissolve parliament. The constitution provides for a 26-member indirectly elected senate in addition to an 80-member directly elected lower house. Senators serve eight-year terms of office while members of the lower house serve maximum five-year terms.

The constitution officially permits political parties to exist, under certain conditions. Political parties closely identified with the 1994 massacres are banned, as are parties based on ethnicity or religion. The cabinet must consist of representatives from several different parties, and the largest party is not allowed to occupy more than half of the cabinet seats. The constitution also provides that the president, prime minister, and president of the lower house cannot all belong to the same party. Hutus have some representation in the government, including Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, who was from the MDR prior to its banning.

The constitution restricts political campaigning at the grassroots level. Its emphasis on "national unity" as a priority and a provision outlawing the incitement of ethnic hatred could be interpreted to limit the legitimate exercise of political pluralism. The constitution also includes a "forum" of parties that is ostensibly designed to foster communication between parties, but which could also serve to control party actions.

The government has undertaken a number of anticorruption measures. Government institutions particularly focused on the corruption issue include the Office of the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, and the National Tender Board. Rwanda was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media reflect the RPF's predominant role and are constrained by fear of reprisals. During the genocide, 50 journalists were murdered, while others broadcast incitements to slaughter. The 2004 Annual Report by Reporters Sans Frontieres, a Paris-based press watchdog group, concluded that press freedom is not assured in Rwanda, and the group's Third Annual Press Freedom Index ranked the country 113 out of 167 countries rated. Journalists interviewed for the report's section on Rwanda admitted that they censor their own writing and say that the authorities have made it clear that certain topics cannot be discussed. As a result, newspaper coverage is heavily pro-governmental. The broadcast media are government-controlled, although a media bill passed in June 2002 paved the way for the licensing of private radio and TV stations. There are a growing number of newspapers in the country, and limited, although increasing, Internet access.

Religious freedom is generally respected in Rwanda. Clerics had been among both the victims and the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. The fact that several Catholic clerics have been implicated in the genocide has complicated relations between the government and the Catholic Church. Academic freedom is generally respected.

Although the Constitution codifies freedoms of association and assembly, in reality they are limited. For example, activities that the government defines as "divisive" are prohibited. In June, parliament accepted the recommendations of a parliamentary commission created to investigate the existence and spread of a "genocide ideology" in Rwanda. As a result, the parliament recommended that five nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and several religious groups be banned and also called for action against several international NGOs operating in Rwanda. These include groups such as CARE International and Norwegian People's Aid. International human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed serious concern that these decisions were based on overly broad interpretations of the law, vague allegations, and insubstantial research. In September, the executive branch decided not to ban implicated organizations outright, but to refer cases to the court system for prosecution.

Constitutional provisions for labor rights include the right to form trade unions, engage in

collective bargaining, and strike. There are 27 registered unions under two umbrella groups. The larger group is the Central Union of Rwandan Workers, which was closely controlled by the previous regime, but which now has relatively greater independence.

The near destruction of the legal system and the death or exile of most of the judiciary have dramatically impeded the government's ability to administer post-genocide justice. In July, 503 judges were fired in a reform intended to improve the performance of the judiciary. Constitutional and legal safeguards regarding arrest procedures and detention are unevenly applied.

About 120,000 genocide suspects are incarcerated in jails built for 10,000. To help address this problem, the traditional justice system of gacaca was reinstituted in 2002. In this system, local notables preside over community trials dealing with the less serious genocide offenses. Some observers have expressed concern about the potential for partiality or for the application of uneven or arbitrary standards. The process, which moved slowly in previous years, gained momentum in 2004 as thousands of gacaca courts began to formally try suspects.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, has taken several measures in an attempt to speed up its work. The tribunal, similar to that in The Hague dealing with those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia, is composed of international jurists. Relations between Rwanda and the court in Arusha have deteriorated in recent years, with Rwanda accusing the ICTR of incompetence and the court accusing Rwanda of refusing to cooperate in war crimes investigations involving its army. As of November 2004, the ICTR had rendered 20 guilty verdicts, with 20 suspects on trial and 23 suspects awaiting trial.

Despite legal protection for equal rights, there is ongoing de facto discrimination against women in a variety of areas. Economic and social dislocation has forced women to take on many new roles, especially in the countryside. Rwanda's parliament is composed of an unusually high percentage of women - 49 percent.