The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Rwanda is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Rwanda is not a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Rwanda is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Rwanda is also a party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, but has withdrawn the possibility of individuals and NGOs to bring cases before the Court.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Article 40 of Rwanda's 2003 Constitution (as revised in 2015):
The right to freedom of peaceful and unarmed assembly is guaranteed. This right is exercised in accordance with the law. This right does not require prior authorisation, except when provided for by the law.
The 1991 Law on Public Demonstrations and Public Gatherings is the primary legislation governing assembly.Article 684 of the Organic Law Instituting the Penal Code defines an assembly as “a group of people gathered in a public place with intent to demonstrate their opinion or point of view by means of a number of actions or shouting. A public gathering means a meeting open for the public or in which the public is invited.”
Article 5 of the Law requires notification to the authorities of an assembly 30 days in advance. The authorities must respond at least six days before the assembly. There is no exception made for spontaneous demonstrations, and there is no specific provision to address counter-demonstrations.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
The use of force by the Rwanda National Police is regulated under a dedicated 2010 law.Law N°46/2010 of 14/12/2010 Determining the Powers, Responsibilities, Organization and Functioning of the Rwanda National Police.Article 37 governs the use of force:
The Rwanda National Police may use appropriate means of force if it realizes that its objective cannot be achieved otherwise.
The use of force has to be lawful, reasonable and proportionate to the objective.
The use of force shall be consistent with laws governing police officers.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
Article 38 of the 2010 Law governs police use of firearms. It allows use where necessary to defend oneself or others against "violence when no other means are available"; to protect property; or to "arrest notorious criminals or any other armed persons".
These provisions are considerably broader than is permissible under international law.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2016 Concluding Observations on Rwanda, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern
that assemblies in public places and demonstrations of political parties are subject to prior authorization in domestic law. It is further concerned at information received that congress meetings of political parties and spontaneous peaceful demonstrations have not been authorized or allowed for reasons that appear to be unrelated to the justifications listed in article 21 of the Covenant.
The Committee called on Rwanda to
amend the legislation and take other measures necessary to ensure that all individuals and political parties fully enjoy, in practice, their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, including by guaranteeing that any restrictions on the exercise of such rights comply with the strict requirements set out in the Covenant.
In 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association called on the National Human Rights Commission of Rwanda to become a more robust, highly visible and well-respected institution by engaging more with the Government on its responses to legitimate dissent; enquiring proactively, and taking public critical stands, on violations of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and publicly articulating and disseminating international human rights norms and standards governing the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
In its 2017 Periodic Report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, Rwanda stated that:
Everyone has the right to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peaceably and unarmed, and to petition in case this right is violated. The Constitution, however, allows the imposition of restrictions on the manner of exercise of this right. Appropriate regulations may be made in the interest of public in relation to the location of open-air meetings and the route of movement of demonstrators or, for the protection of democratic rights, public morality and peace during such a meeting or demonstration. This right does not give exemption from liability under laws enacted to protect the well-being of the youth or the honour and reputation of individuals, and laws prohibiting any propaganda for war and any public expression of opinions intended to injure human dignity.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2021 report on Rwanda:
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, this right is limited in practice. Fear of arrest serves as a deterrent to protests, and gatherings are sometimes disrupted even when organizers obtain official authorization. In 2018, police fired live ammunition into two crowds of Congolese refugees in the town of Karongi and Kiziba refugee camp who were protesting cuts in assistance, killing at least 11 people.
Public gatherings were restricted in March 2020 as part of the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19, though restrictions on some events, including weddings and funerals, were loosened in October. In April, refugees living in the Gashora camp held a protest after COVID-19 restrictions delayed their resettlement to other countries, though it was quickly dispersed.