UN witness protection program forced on Rwanda ineffective – report
A witness protection scheme forced on Rwanda by the UN as condition to transfer genocide suspects does not help genocide survivors recover – instead creates lasting tensions on the hills across Rwanda, says a major study.
Report authors, the anti-genocide campaign group REDRESS says rather than meeting the domestic needs, the majority of legislation concerning witness protection has been driven by the requirements set by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The government was also responding to pressure from mainly European countries which were adamant to transfer genocide suspects.
Rwanda established the Victim and Witness Support Unit (VWSU) around 2006 following the murder of more than 150 genocide survivors who were targeted because they had testified against suspects. Some of the genocide suspects who testified against their colleagues were also targeted.
Under Rwanda’s own witness protection program, neighbourhood and self- protection for genocide witnesses was emphasized as part of the healing and reconciliation process among survivors and perpetrators. With this approach, it meant “indifferent neighbours” who did not intervene when somebody called for help when attacked, were sanctioned.
But despite the positive aspects of this approach, the UN pushed Rwanda into adopting a new system which the REDRESS study says does not “protect witnesses from re-traumatisation”.
It all started in 2008. On 15 December of that year, eleven days after the initial refusals to transfer suspects were upheld by the ICTR on appeal, the President of the Rwandan Supreme Court issued an order establishing a second witness protection unit under the authority of the High Court and the Supreme Court. This means that Rwanda at the moment has two witness protection programs. The mechanism forced on Rwanda requires anonymity for witnesses.
“…the emphasis on anonymity in Rwanda’s draft witness protection law clashes with some witnesses’ desire for communal acknowledgement through public testimony and the fact that anonymity is often difficult to ensure on the hills of Rwanda,” says the 43-page report.
“While this represented a necessary recognition of the extent of judicial reform in Rwanda, the wholesale adoption by Rwanda of the ICTR’s approach to witness protection is problematic.”
The report adds: “In particular, the establishment of a second witness protection unit under the auspices of the Supreme and High Court provided a quick response to the ICTR’s critiques. In practice, however, it would seem to be more constructive to establish, through legislation, a single independent witness protection unit with a separate budget and the resources to establish a trauma counselling section.”
REDRESS says the general absence of adequate long-term measures taken by the ICTR and responsible authorities in Rwanda to protect witnesses from re-traumatisation is of particular concern and needs to be addressed to enable survivors to continue providing testimony.
“As the focus of post-genocide justice shifts from the ICTR and gacaca to the Rwandan national courts, the need for witness protection will continue, along with the need to balance security for witnesses with the realities of Rwanda and its tightknit communities, and the perceived benefits of open and public testimony about the genocide,” says the study.
Genocide survivors interviewed in the study said they preferred to have a system that allows them to speak the truth openly, which contributes to their recovery. The convicts also said they believed speaking openly helps them reintegrate in the community more easily than when they have to hide their identity.
The campaign group REDRESS urges that International Residual Mechanism which will replace the ICTR to recognise the opposition of the victims and witnesses to “anonymity as a central protection measure”.
As to the government, once the two witness protection programs have been merged, REDRESS is calling for a long-term psycho-social support to survivors of the genocide and victims of related abuses.