Human Rights Watch, Crying Wolf Under Covid-19

Kenneth Roth, HRW boss

You can but admire Human Rights Watch. The rights organisation has kept up a singleminded campaign against the government of Rwanda, and their knee jerk reaction to pervert the truth to serve that end, would rival the efficiency of any robot programmed to automatically perform the task.

There is one, and it seems only one way, that the Rwanda government can escape a damning report from Human Rights Watch (HRW): never arrest anyone, for whatever reason. Ever. And of course, clear any policy with HRW, before it is implemented. 

It is barely a year since the organisation published a report, dramatically accusing Rwanda of summarily executing petty criminals. And it seemed the impunity and callous indifference of the government knew bounds. 

The murders, for there can be no other word for what was alleged, apparently took place in broad daylight. There were even photographs of the dead, with quotes from eyewitnesses. That apparent strength, however, would prove to be the main weakness of HRW’s case, as one after another, the dead piped up, begging to differ on the question of their demise. As always, HRW’s response was to declare, “we stand by our report.” 

At the time, HRW had a direct line to the now still Minister of Justice, and Attorney-General, Johnston Busingye. As part of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Ministry of Justice and HRW, the latter would need only to pick up a phone, or visit the minister, and put to him any area, or areas of human rights concern. The agreement broke down, when time and again, Busingye would be surprised with outlandish claims published by HRW in the media. His patience strained, he directed all HRW enquiries to go through his officials, rather than directly to himself.  

It is a sad fact of life that the world has need of human rights organisations. Contrary to claims from HRW and others, however, as the MoU attests, the commitment of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led government of national Unity to human rights is unequivocal. 

The entire reason for existence of any human rights organisation is to advocate for human rights to governments. The question that arises, is why HRW would, deliberately it seems, torpedo a relationship that guaranteed them such privileged access to a government.

The answer may perhaps lie somewhere between the lines of the latest HRW report on Rwanda. “Rwanda: Lockdown Arrests, Abuses Surge” the title screams, then in quieter letters, “End Media crackdown, Mass Arbitrary Arrests.” There is something poignant that immediately strikes one about this report.

There are gross, unspeakable abuses of human rights, going on around the world, which have intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, here is a supposed defender of human rights, pushing at a door so ajar, one need only follow the flood of light illuminating all that lies within. 

The organisation clearly had the good sense to employ several journalists to write its reports. The opening paragraph could not be clearer or stronger. “Rwanda Police have arbitrarily arrested scores of people since directives to prevent the spread of Covid-19 came into force on March 22nd 2020. The authorities have accused people of violating the measures and at times detained people in stadiums without due process or legal authority.” 

The report goes on to demand the end of such dastardly crimes, quoting Mr Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. 

“Government directives to prevent the spread of Covid-19 do not give security forces carte blanche to ignore rule of law and commit abuses against the population while locking up those trying to expose them.” Mr Mudge goes on to demand investigations into all violations and the bringing to justice of all who commit them. 

So far so little with which any one can argue. Nothing at any rate, until one looks at supposed violations in the report.

The Rwanda Ministry of Health publishes a daily update on Covid-19. To date, there are 260 cases, of which 129 have recovered, and, deaths, thankfully, remain at zero. Around a thousand tests, give or take, are carried out a day. There has been a spike in Covid-19 cases of late, which are attributed to transnational lorry drivers. Measures to control this source of spread have now been put in place. 

From the outset, the Rwanda government followed scientific advice on how to control the spread of Covid-19, almost to the letter. This included decisions on when to bring in lockdown measures. 

It is not entirely clear whether HRW disapproves of Rwanda’s decision to institute the restrictions. But let us assume that they object only to the manner in which the restrictions are enforced, or their enforcement at all. 

The report criticises police warnings on twitter, that people caught violating lockdown measures would be fined or detained. The words, caught put in quotation marks, presumably as evidence of some disquieting intent. 

The government of Rwanda prides itself on its partnership with the people it governs, and it can demonstration justification for that pride. As measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 came, they were shared with the population, through the media, and text messages. Technology being employed wherever possible. 

Police fly drones telling people to stay at home. When they were first deployed, a message asked people not come out and gather to look at the drones. “Not even if you have not seen drones before” the message added, as an afterthought.  

The report is right, that the directives prohibit non essential movement, something HRW seems to find especially egregious. It is not clear why this is unacceptable in Rwanda, when it is enforced the world over. The report questions the police’s authority to enforce adherence to lockdown measures, but does not offer any suggestion as to who should do this, unless of course the suggestion is that it should not be done at all. 

What constitutes essential movement was made clear, before lockdown was put in place. Shopping, including going to market, going to the bank, anything medical. It quickly became normal, for a police officer to ask people where they were going, and waving them on, if the answer was to any of these places. 

By and large, people are cooperating fully, and the police have had little reason to censure anyone. But inevitably, the seriousness of Covid-19 seems to have escaped a small minority who try to play cat and mouse with the police. 

When they are caught, they are firmly instructed to go back home. Persistent offenders are fined up to 25,000 Rwandan Franks, about $25. This is however a large sum for many, and some who can neither pay or manage to abide by instructions to stay at home, have found themselves detained. But few, if any have spent more than a matter of hours in detention. The point seems to impress the seriousness of the directives upon them. They all have to sit through a lecture about every individual’s responsibility to prevent the spread of Covid-19, before being released. 

The report makes much of what it considers the abuse of sitting people in “stadiums” informing us that people are told to sit a distance apart from each other, for what we are told is “punishment.”

As always with everything that HRW shouts about Rwanda, the truth is always more prosaic. Some people were indeed ushered into an empty stadium, and directed to sit at a distance apart. Two metres to be precise. A few days into lockdown, a large minority insisted on wandering around, clearly taking the whole thing all too lightly. Police and local authority officials who had been talking to people individually, decided to address them en masse, given their large number.

And HRW is absolutely right about “punishments.” After all, if you are at a loose end, and decide to wander about your neighbourhood, a lecture from a censorious police officer, about a virus that is ravaging the world, followed by stern instructions to go home and stay there, can feel like a punishment. Not admittedly as much as an agonising death from Covid-19 would be, but punishment nonetheless. 

In that sense, it is no doubt worth all of the expense that HRW will have incurred in producing a report about it. And of course, lockdown itself is an infringement on people’s right to perambulate as they wish. But the question that must arise, is why not a report on the many other governments of the world, in fact every responsible government that is following scientific advice on protecting the people it governs. If enforcing lockdown is “abuse” such abuse is now itself a pandemic. 

And what of the alleged arrests of journalists and bloggers who according to HRW are guilty only of reporting “the abuses”?

It is worth pointing out in the first instance that given HRW’s claims that Rwanda is a virtual police state, where journalists are “killed” “disappeared” and are generally too repressed to so much as say boo to a goose, it is a wonder that these journalists and bloggers felt free enough to be so troublesome in the first place. 

But again, HRW is absolutely right that there have been arrests after reporting of abuses, and that journalists have been arrested. 

If, however, we accept that HRW’s concern is for people’s rights, then they ought to have been gratified by these arrests, since the arrests that followed reported abuses, including the serious allegations of rape, were in fact of individual police officers, and members of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF). The authorities moved not against the journalists who reported abuses, but the abuses that were reported. 

Lockdown directives stipulated not only essential movements, but essential workers too. These included anyone involved in the production of food, medical professionals and health workers of course, but also journalists, because the government considers people’s right to be informed essential. 

Some journalists abused the privilege, and used the freedom to move about not to report stories, but to attend a party, the very definition of an action designed to spread the virus. It is for that they were detained, and they will soon be out, to publish their experiences, or not, as they wish. 

Typically, as they so often do, in their excitement to demonise the Rwandan government, HRW conflates two, or more stories. This leads to sloppy inaccuracies. The area where the rape attacks were reported to have taken place is Nyarutarama, not Remera. And the reports of rape have absolutely nothing to do with the long running story of residents there, refusing to leave the slum area for new housing provided for them. And this story too raises questions about HRW’s depiction of Rwanda. 

A supposedly oppressive government constructs new housing to move people from unsafe, unsanitary conditions. The people, fearful of change, decline to move and take the government to court. The case rumbles on still. This does not sound much like a problem any repressive government worth the description would have. 

And the response to reports of alleged rape by members of the RDF is also be encouraging for HRW, if respect for the alleged victims’ rights were what concerned the organisation. 

Rwanda’s armed forces are among the most disciplined, most widely respected, not only on the African continent, but arguably in the world. In survey after survey, Rwandans give the RDF the highest approval rating. 

The allegations of rape against RDF personnel shocked the entire city, and the response from the authorities was firm and swift. Every procedure that should have been followed, including supporting the alleged victims, has been followed. 

The individuals involved were immediately put under arrest, an investigation begun, and if found guilty, they can expect long stretches in prison, and their careers over. The same will be true of any police officer who has stepped beyond the bounds of the law. The victims would then certainly expect to be compensated.  

“Even the BBC reported the rape” HRW announces breathlessly. It was clearly too inconvenient to add that the first to report the allegations were those severely repressed Rwandan journalists. 

“Women and girls are at increased risk of sexual and other gender based violence” the report tells us, and then goes on to instruct the Rwanda government on what it must do to support the likely victims. 

These are of course, not crimes that have taken place, but ones that might conceivably do, as a result of would be offenders spending more time with potential victims. In fairness to HRW, this stands to reason, although once again, one would expect this to be a problem for the entire world, not just for Rwanda. 

Moreover, outside the Scandinavian countries, it is well nigh impossible to find a country with stronger, more active institutions against gender based violence than Rwanda. As it so often does, the government itself would be the first to warn against complacency, but of all the countries that need to be urged to act on a problem that is sadly pervasive the world over, Rwanda cannot reasonably be said to be among them.

The entire report must come under the heading of since we have the opportunity of Covid-19, what can we say to keep up the campaign against Rwanda. 

As with virtually every HRW report on Rwanda in the last decade or so, in the search for something damning to say about the country, the facts are never allowed to intrude on the overall objective. And this is particularly true of this report. Some parts of it are such absurd non sequiturs they leave any reader shaking his or her head in bemused disbelief. 

“It’s unacceptable for Rwanda to use authoritarian tactics to enforce public health measures to contain Covid-19’s spread. The media crackdown sends a deliberately chilling message at a time when scrutiny of security forces’ behaviour is critical” Mr Mudge declares. 

In cooking up the report against Rwanda, HRW had some stock favoured ingredients like “authoritarianism” “chilling” “media crackdown” that had to be used, so in they went, whether or not what was served up would make any sense. 

Most puzzling of all, however, is what seems like an implication of the nefariousness of the Rwanda government’s programme to support the most vulnerable, who are unable to work during lockdown. 

“Paul Kagame announced a social protection plan, which includes the delivery of free food to at least 20,000 households in Kigali. One Rwandan journalist told Human Rights Watch: ‘some journalists have been trying to find out who is benefitting from this programme; these bloggers who were arrested were trying to uncover the facts.’”

The programme has actually been nationwide and not just in Kigali, and it was announced by the government, but there had to be a disapproving finger pointed at Paul Kagame, somewhere.

And the “facts” were out in the open for anyone, blogger or not, to see. Inevitably, there were initial teething problems within the delivery system, including complaints that the support was being claimed by some people who did not need it, and supplies piling up in storage, while those in need waited. Such complaints continue, even as they are being resolved. These “facts” were in almost every media, and reported to saturation point.  

There is now an easing of lockdown measures, which will be reviewed after fourteen days. Rwanda’s response to Covid-19 has been exemplary. Across Africa, and many other less advanced nations, poorer people, especially those on the margins of society, have been driven under even greater hardship. Heart rending stories of people walking tens of miles from urbans areas to their rural homes, as lockdown regimes were declared without warning. 

Before putting lockdown measures in place, the Rwanda government organised an orderly return for people who worked away from their main homes. School pupils, and students from higher education institutions had special buses arranged for them. Hand washing stations suddenly sprung up in all transport hubs, like bus stations. Within, a couple of days, these places were completely empty. There were inevitable anecdotal stories of individuals left stranded miles from their homes, but these people could appeal to the authorities for assistance.

Many people in Rwanda live from pay day to pay day, and the government moved early to make sure they did not go without food. The programme which HRW derides, putting the words, social protection plan in quotes, was essential for many. It continues to be expanded, as the need increases. 

The relatively low cases of infection in the country are not by luck only. 

There are fears that the worst of Covid-19 is yet to come to Africa. On a continent where healthcare systems are at best weak, prevention measures are the main line of defence.

Rwanda has an efficient universal healthcare system, but like everything else in the country, it is a mere twenty or so years old. Having to withstand a severe onslaught of Covid-19 would threaten to overwhelm it. 

The government understood this, and as early as January, has been following World Health Organisation advice to test, quarantine or isolate, treat, while urging people to observe measures like hand washing, and physical distancing. So far, these efforts have paid off.   

Not that this could be gleaned from the HRW report. This is a report that says more about Human Rights Watch than it does about Rwanda, and what it does say, is at best unflattering, if not disquieting. 

“We have contacted the justice minister Johnston Busingye for a response, but we have heard nothing” the report informs us. 

Remember that MoU? It is safe to assume that the Rwanda justice minister will have looked at the report, and decided he has better things to do, like urging people to stay at home, for instance, which he has been doing, than give HRW any attention. 




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