Great Lakes, Africa
PRI worked in the Great Lakes region between 1998 and 2010, including on programmes in Rwanda and Burundi.
Political instability, violence and humanitarian crises have beleaguered the Great Lakes region over the last few decades.
Efforts to rebuild the economy and the state’s infrastructure in the fifteen years following the genocide in Rwanda are beginning to yield results. Processes of peace and democratisation are coming to fruition following significant efforts from governments and civil society. Nonetheless, strengthening national unity in the face of long-standing ethnic divisions remains a considerable challenge.
More than 800, 000 people were suspected to have participated in the genocide. Gacaca jurisdictions – inspired by the traditional justice system - were established nationwide to speed up the number of cases coming before the courts and to deliver justice to suspected genocide participants. From 2002 until the beginning of 2010 (the date they are expected to close) the Gacaca courts will have judged more than 1,500,000 cases.
Certain categories of offenders who confessed, pleaded guilty, repented and asked for forgiveness for genocide-related crimes can be committed to community service in accordance with the law. As a result approximately 30,000 people are currently serving community service sentences and around 56,000 more are expected to do so in the future.
In Burundi, after more than thirteen years of conflict, in which more than 300,000 people died, the country is slowly moving towards peace and political stability. The economy of the country remains shattered; Burundi has almost the lowest GDP per capita in the world. In 2008 a ceasefire agreement was signed by the government and the FNL (Force de Libération Nationale Palipehutu). This agreement has contributed to a more stable and peaceful environment across the country.
Penal reform challenges in the region
Prison systems in Rwanda and Burundi are characterised by overcrowding, a significant number of people are detained without charge or trial. Outdated prison buildings and problems of health, hygiene and food provision are widespread.
In Rwanda, penal reform challenges result from the significant number of suspected genocide participants. The high volume of people's cases which are pending trial along with the great number of people in custody, either serving prison terms or undertaking community service, places enormous pressure on the criminal justice system.
In Burundi, many challenges exist which relate to the day-to-day management of prisons. Burundian prisons are overcrowded which leads to hygiene, health and food provision problems. To reduce the prison population, community service as an alternative to imprisonment was integrated in the Penal Code and was adopted in April 2009.
Closure of the Great Lakes office in Africa
In December 2010, PRI closed its regional office in the Great Lakes region of Africa. It had worked in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide when approximately one million citizens were killed and around 130,000 people accused of organising or taking part in the genocide were detained in prisons – which had been built to accommodate 18,000 prisoners. PRI was one of a small number of organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, which sought to improve conditions in prison and reduce overcrowding.
It subsequently monitored the Gacaca process developed by the Rwandan government to deal with the genocide cases and produced a number of reports and recommendations for the process, communicated to the government authorities at the time. In 2010, PRI published Eight Years on . . . A record of Gacaca monitoring in Rwanda, a short volume summarising PRI’s Gacaca research, downloadable from the website.
PRI monitored prison and community service camp conditions, reporting their findings and recommendations for action to the government authorities. With support from the European Commission and the Belgian government, it developed paralegal services for detainees in prisons in Rwanda and Burundi to improve access to justice, reduce high rates of pre-trial detention and support detainees’ rights to a fair trial. The paralegals advised detainees how to prepare and present their cases at trial. They also worked with the prosecution services to introduce better case records and systems to improve court procedures. The paralegal programmes in both countries brought clear results as cases were brought to trial or conclusion more rapidly and detainees were able to obtain bail or release dates.
The PRI Board held a number of discussions over 2009 and 2010 to develop a new strategy for working in Africa that would be based on working with local partners rather than through a regional office which inevitably had a limited geographical remit and high overhead costs. It agreed that PRI should find new ways to re-engage with penal reform in the continent, through supporting the Special Rapporteur for the African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights and working with local partners active in promoting human rights and prison reform. This approach led to the decision in December 2009 that PRI should seek to transfer responsibility for paralegal services to local partners and focus on new ways of working in Africa. In 2010, steps were taken to approach local partners to take on these services and discussions took place with the Legal Aid Forum in Rwanda and with the EC donor in Burundi to facilitate the continuation of paralegal services.
PRI’s current activities to improve access to justice in Africa include: mapping the range of paralegal services for detainees in prison; producing information tools to support paralegal services; supporting the role of the Special Rapporteur; and promoting the global campaign for pre-trial justice led by the Open Society Justice Initiative. Working with local partners in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, PRI also has a multi-regional programme that promotes progressive abolition of the death penalty and alternative sentences that respect international human rights. PRI has recently completed a project for UNICEF in Tanzania to improve the situation for children in detention and to develop an advocacy strategy.
Click here for Gacaca Research Reports
Paralegals in Rwanda 2009-2010: a case study