By Jennifer Fierberg, MSW
In their most recent move to stop the Cessation of Protection of Rwandan Refugees, Fahamu stated the following in their petition to their supporter; “On December 31, 2011, the UN High Commissioner for the Refugees and several states hosting Rwandan refugees are considering invoking the ‘cessation clause’ of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This is a very unusual and dangerous move that could cause revocation of the refugee status of tens of thousands of people who fled ethnic and political persecution in Rwanda, stripping them of basic rights and exposing them to forcible repatriations and possible persecution. Cessation is premature and should be stopped.”
In their most recent petition to stop this, Fahamu has this to say: “Cessation is a drastic measure that would strip refugees of their legal rights and expose them to forcible repatriation and the risk of persecution. It can also split up families and break economic and social ties of years duration and put those whose ‘political opinion’ differs from that of their government at serious risk. It should therefore only be invoked rarely and with extreme caution when there has been 1) a fundamental and profound change in country conditions such that they no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution, 2) the change is demonstrably enduring and not merely transitory, and 3) the change enables refugees to enjoy the protection of the government.”
Rwanda is second on to Uganda in their pursuit to bring refugees home. On the surface, to many non-refugees, this move may appear positive and hopeful but to the many refugees who fled persecution and death this move is quite unsettling. The majority of the developed world will never know what life is like as a refugee. Many have been imprisoned for no legal reason upon arrival in safe-haven countries prior to being able to obtain refuge. Some have been held for up to a year without just cause. For refugees, the term “guilty until proven innocent” is a common experience. One refugee told this writer that being a refugee often feels like being no better than a used piece of toilet paper. While these emotions may beg the question “why not go home”? In Rwanda, however, this question is a complex set of deadly and problematic circumstances that history has proven over and over again.
Rwanda has sought out many avenues to return refugee’s home in the past including prison sentences of exiled political leaders in exile, offers of money, prosperity and land. One such specific case is that of Olivier Rukundo, a Rwandan PhD student in China. He is studying on a Rwandan Scholarship and is being sought after to return to Rwanda to falsely testify against Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza who is currently on trial in Rwanda. Mr. Rukundo claims that Rwandan Embassy in China argued him to cooperate otherwise, without his new passport, China, which takes no refugees in its territory and does not hold much respect to human rights, would deport him back home. He was one of the two aides accompanying opposition leader, Mrs Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza in January 2010, during her return to Rwanda for presidential election campaign (source: http://www.jambonews.net/en/news/20110102-rwanda-former-aide-to-victoire-ingabire-refuses-to-falsely-testify/).
The pressure Rwanda is applying their refugees home should make one wonder what the motives are for such an action and how did the UNHCR come to this decision? Below is a press release and call to action on the dangers of this action produced by Fahamu:
Embargoed September 22, 2011
Fahamu Mounts Petition Drive, Releases Report
Opposing Cessation of Protection for Rwandan Refugees
Fahamu Refugee Programme has mounted a campaign to oppose States and UNHCR withdrawing the protection of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees from tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees currently in exile. “These are not people escaping retribution from the 1994 genocide,” said Director Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond OBE. “They are those who have been fleeing Rwanda since, some quite recently, including large numbers of genocide survivors, who were never refugees before, as well as government officials and army officers, because of instability, ethnic strife, arbitrary judicial procedures, indiscriminate retaliation, and political violence, intolerance of dissent, impunity, and lack of accountability.”
Fahamu has been gathering the endorsements of hundreds of individuals and organizations in Africa and around the world to a petition opposing exercise of the Convention’s “cessation clause,” and will present the statement and advocate for them at the upcoming meeting of the UNHCR’s Executive Committee October 3-7, in Geneva. Today, Fahamu released a Memorandum of Fact and Law compiling devastating conclusions from major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the general human rights situation in Rwanda, dozens of specific recent examples of persecution of various targeted groups in the Country, the stringent requirements of international law for cessation, and compelling personal testimonies of several Rwandan refugees and their protectors.
Cessation is a drastic measure that would strip refugees of their legal rights and expose them to forcible repatriation and the risk of persecution. It can also split up families and break economic and social ties of years’ duration and put those whose ‘political opinion’ differs from that of their government at serious risk. It should therefore only be invoked rarely and with extreme caution when there has been 1) a fundamental and profound change in country conditions such that they no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution, 2) the change is demonstrably enduring and not merely transitory, and 3) the change enables refugees to enjoy the protection of the government.
Rwanda has made much progress since the genocide but it did not do so through reliable constitutional, democratic, and peaceful means. It remains a fragile, volatile, authoritarian regime with little tolerance for dissent, freedom of speech, or independent human rights observation, reporting, or advocacy. Social and political fissures remain unresolved and the Government of Rwanda maintains an overtly hostile attitude toward its citizens who have fled. Positive changes need time to consolidate and genuine national reconciliation remains untested.
Now, as both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned, is not the time to revoke protection from Rwandan refugees.
The petition can be found here: http://frlan.tumblr.com/post/9881489868/please-act-now-sign-on-to-statement-protecting
In a call to John Karuranga, President of the Rwanda Peoples Party in London he had this to say about the UNHCR decision, “The decision wasn’t right because it is violation of the UN 1951 charter. You don’t force people to go back to a country where their lives are in danger. For the UNHCR to go against their own charters is a dangerous move.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the following in response to this action by the UNHCR:
A longstanding pattern of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders by Rwandan officials, including threats to their security, administrative obstacles, public and personalized attacks, and allegations that they are complicit with political opponents. Several human rights organizations, once active in Rwanda, have also been silenced through infiltration by people close to the government who have taken over these groups’ leadership.
Amnesty International states this on the same subject:
Rwanda’s vague and sweeping laws against “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” under “sectarianism” laws criminalize speech protected by international conventions and contravene Rwanda’s regional and international human rights obligations and commitments to freedom of expression. The vague wording of the laws is deliberately exploited to violate human rights. …
These broad and ill-defined laws have created a vague legal framework which is misused to criminalize criticism of the government and legitimate dissent. This has included suppressing calls for the prosecution of war crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In the run-up to the 2010 elections, legitimate political dissent was conflated with “genocide ideology”, compromising the freedom of expression and association of opposition politicians, human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government.
This move brings about more questions than reassurances. For those in exile much fear arises at the thought of returning home safely. Rwanda continues to be one of the most dangerous places in Africa yet continues to go unreported in mainstream media. Cases like Victorie Ingabire Umuhoza who remains unjustly on trial in Rwanda to date, the brutal murder of Rwanda Democratic Green Party Vice President Andre Kagwa Rwisereka being found beheaded yet no investigation has ever been conducted into his case and the sentences of four of President Paul Kagame former close aides in absentia to trumped up unfounded charges we well as journalists being murdered for speaking out against the government does not create an atmosphere of safety and welcome to those who wish for nothing more than to return home. The international community must listen to the refugees calling out for this change in their status and the danger it puts them all in.