Laurent Munyandilikirwa, former president of Rwandan CSO, LIPRODHOR, speaks to CIVICUS about the state of civil society in Rwanda and the government’s continued targeted harassment of LIPRODHOR.

1. At the 26th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, CIVICUS co-hosted an event which examined the growing restrictions on civil society in East Africa. Can you tell us a bit about the main challenges faced by civil society in Rwanda?

Although Rwanda has ratified the ICCPR and the ICESCR and the Rwandan Constitution enshrines the principles essential to creating an enabling environment for civil society including the rights to expression, assembly and association, independent civil society groups continues to be subjected to unjust restrictions. While the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms are guaranteed in the constitution, the government is simultaneously attempting to silence the very people working on the implementation of these rights.

The government restricts the work of CSOs through a number of legal obstacles including overly bureaucratic registration processes, unwarranted limitations on financial funding, and laws permitting excessive and broad interception of information and communication. Such laws hugely impact the daily activities and operations of civil society organisations, in particular those working on civil and political rights. As a result of these and other extra-legal measures, civil society organizations in Rwanda have been forced into a downward spiral: the increasing control exerted over them by the government increases their overhead expenses while it decreases their access to funding, which in turn diminishes their ability to execute projects that attract new financial support. If this continues in the long term, the survival of independent human rights organisations in Rwanda is looking increasingly doubtful.

2. In his report on Rwanda also presented to the 26th UNHRC Session, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai, cited the need to ensure that the government refrains from further unwarranted interference in the operations of CSOs. What impact has the government’s intrusions had on the health of civil society in Rwanda.

The impact of the intrusion of the government is very negative. The independence of the civil society organisations is curtailed, civil society is divided, and there is no solidarity among members of the sector. When prominent Rwandan umbrella organization, CLADHO, was co-opted by the government, a number of CSOs including LIPRODHOR, Maison de Droit, and ADL jointly decided to leave the organisation. As a result, the government undertook a separate campaign to undermine the work of LIPRODHOR, Maison de Droit and ADL. Such tactics have created an environment of fear where civil society organisations are hesitant to work on sensitive human rights issues in the country.

3. Your former organization LIPRODHOR was widely cited as one of the last remaining independent organizations in Rwanda before its board was recently co-opted by the government. Can you tell us a bit about what steps the government has taken to undermine LIPRODHROR and where your case against the government stands?

Pressure on LIPRODHOR – which was cited by many international groups as one of the last, if not the last, effective national human rights organizations in Rwanda - has severely escalated over the past few years. The organization’s executive secretary fled the country in 2012. State security forces also reportedly pressured other members of LIPRODHOR to leave the organization. 

In addition, the government has taken a number of steps to infiltrate and undermine the independence of LIPRODHOR. Following interference by the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), the body tasked with regulating the operations of Rwandan CSOs, in the formation of CLADHO’s board, LIPRODHOR decided to cancel its membership with CLADHO. Subsequently, the RGB requested LIPRODHOR to rescind its decision, threatening its president if he did not comply. When LIPRODHOR refused, the RGB then swayed members of LIPRODHOR to hold an unscheduled general meeting, where a new board was elected and the decision was made to rejoin CLADHO. The RGB recognized the new board even though it had been elected illegally. Currently, members of the ousted board have a lodged a case against the RGB and several members of the new board. We are expecting a decision as soon as July 30th. 

4. How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to civil society in Rwanda?

Despite the obstacles discussed today, regional and international civil society groups must remain stalwart in providing financial and advocacy support to independent CSOs in Rwanda. Additionally, it is important for Rwandan CSOs and regional and international organizations to work together to determine how to navigate the increasingly hostile environment for independent dissent in Rwanda while still defending human rights. It is essential that we continue to raise awareness about the growing restrictions on CSOs in Rwanda which are also being utilized in other countries at an alarming rate. Raising awareness about this trend will help to reduce the rate at which these laws are being copied and implemented as well as generate solidarity for human rights defenders working to oppose these laws.

 

Laurent Munyandilikirwa is a lawyer and Vice Chairman of Ligue des Droits de la personne dans la région des Grands Lacs (LDGL) based in Kigali, Rwanda. In December 2011, Laurent was elected President of LIPRODHOR, one of Rwanda’s first human rights groups, but has since been forced to resign following the government’s targeted campaign of intimidation against the organization. 

Interview conducted on 11 July 2014.

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