A Dangerous Trend of “Ifs and Buts” on Human Rights in Rwanda

April 6, 2018

6 Apr, 2018

BY Chantal Umuhoza

Rwanda plans to throw “rights” under the bus in the new National Sexual and Reproductive Health strategy.

The recent rise of conservatism is not a myth, but a reality.  In different national, regional and global spaces and contexts, decades of progress that have been made to uphold all Human Rights are being reversed, and commitments that were made, are being broken.

This was evident at a recent validation meeting of Rwanda’s Family Planning, Adolescents Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights strategy 2018-2024 (FP/ASRHR), on the 20th of March 2018, where a government official informed participants that “language on rights” will be stripped from the whole document. The participants, including development partners, civil society organizations and different government agencies, found this to be odd as there was no room for debate on the deletion of human rights references from the entire strategy.

This is not surprising given the trend of long held, as well as emerging positions of most African states in higher level policy negotiations, where they have expressed reservations and have often been outspoken against the inclusion of language on Human Rights in United Nations and African Union policy documents. However, it is surprising for a country like Rwanda, that has positioned itself as a progressive country and Gender champion, to take such a position openly.  The argument that is used, which often leads to increased opposition to Human Rights and Human Rights language, is that some rights are “problematic”, are ‘UnAfrican”, and that they contradict some values and traditions.

Firstly, this perception has no sound basis, as there is no such a thing as common “African values and traditions”, however what is shared amongst our countries, is a strong patriarchal system in most African societies, fanned by western religious norms that can also be conditions for funding provided by western countries, combining to contribute to this perception. Secondly, there are no “problematic” Rights. Human Rights are universally agreed, indivisible and inalienable, and there is no hierarchy of rights. They are all equally important, and the denial of one, can affect the realization of another right.

Human Rights approaches in development work have ensured the principle of non-discrimination which is key, but also the interconnectedness, of all rights. Not reaffirming and reinforcing efforts for realization of all rights, especially those related to health, in a policy document like the Rwandan Government FP/ASRHR strategy, is problematic as can lead to gaps in the realization of health for all, without discrimination, which can have negative impact on lives of people.

Like many African states, Rwanda has signed and ratified different Human Rights Instruments and engages in various Human Rights mechanisms . In addition to being a party of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 2 of the charter clearly states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms…, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…”

Rwanda has also ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform of Action, all of which, uphold all Rights without any discrimination.

At the regional level, Rwanda has ratified the African charter on human and people’s rights , and the protocol to the African charter on human and peoples’ rights on the rights of women in Africa   in which article 14 clearly stipulates rights to sexual and reproductive health.This year, the protocol marks 15 years.

African governments, Rwanda included, have also adopted the progressive Maputo Plan of action 2016-2030   for the operationalization of the continental policy framework for sexual and reproductive health and rights. The overarching goal of the Plan of Action is “… for African Governments, civil society, the private sector and all multi sector development partners to join forces and redouble efforts so that together, the effective implementation of the continental policy framework on SRHR is achieved in order to end preventable maternal, newborn, child and adolescent deaths, expand contraceptive use, reduce levels of unsafe abortion…”.

Nationally, a full chapter IV of Rwanda’s constitution is dedicated to human rights including the right to equality before the law (Art 15) which states that “All persons are equal before the law. They are entitled to equal protection of the law”, right to protection from discrimination (Art 16) and right to health (Art 21). Section 2 of chapter IV of the constitution is on Promotion and protection of rights and freedoms and article 42 states that “The promotion of human rights is a responsibility of the State.”  Rwanda’s reproductive health law also reaffirms rights relating to reproduction.http://www.partners-popdev.org/blogs/rwandan-reproductive-health-law/

Removing language on “Rights” from the FP/ASHR would not only be going against the commitments as stipulated in the different instruments that Rwanda has adopted and ratified, but also unconstitutional as article 4 of the Rwandan constitution states that “Any law, decision or act contrary to this Constitution is without effect.”

Rwandan civil society organizations including SPECTRA: Young Feminists voices, Great Lakes initiative for Human Rights and Development (GLIHD), The African Youth and Adolescents Network (AfriYAN), Rwandan chapter and Health Development Initiative (HDI) among others have expressed disappointment at this step and are calling on Rwanda to continue using a human rights approach to policy and programme development, that ensures no one is left behind, and are also calling on the Ministry of health to retain language on “Human Rights” in the National Family Planning, adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and Rights strategy 2018-2024.