Why did the ICRC
help to build prisons in Rwanda?
In mid-1995 the ICRC took an extraordinary and unprecedented
step in Rwanda. Appalled by detention conditions of thousands
of people arrested in connection with the genocide, the ICRC
offered to help the authorities erect properly equipped structures
to house the ever-increasing number of detainees – a
move that could be easily misunderstood.
In autumn 1994, several thousand detainees were held in Rwanda’s
prisons which, according to the authorities, had the capacity
to house around 10,000 people. A year later, the prison population
had swelled to more than 60,000, and arrests were continuing.
The people detained are suspected of having taken part in
the genocide. The fact that the civilian population itself
joined in the massacres partly explains the extraordinarily
high number of accused. But the genocide has also engendered
a climate of general suspicion. For the most part, individuals
have been arrested merely on the basis of a denunciation.
By the end of 1995, not a single detainee had been tried.
The only solution to the problem of prison overcrowding in
the long term is the rehabilitation of the judicial system,
the sentencing of those found guilty and the release of those
found innocent. Given the vast number of suspects, however,
and the difficulties of investigating each case, there would
be decades of work for even the best-oiled justice machinery.
In the first few months of 1995, hundreds of inmates died
because of the abominable sanitary conditions and lack of
food and medical care which in turn were a result of overcrowding
and insufficient resources. The prison authorities were completely
overwhelmed by the situation. It rapidly became clear that
the reform of the judicial system, necessary as it was, would
not provide an immediate solution. Urgent action had to be
taken to improve the conditions of detention.
Such were the circumstances that impelled our institution
to carry out the largest operation in its history on behalf
of detained civilians. Traditionally, the ICRC visits places
of detention, identifies problems relating to the conditions
of detention and to the treatment of detainees and gives recommendations
to the prison authorities on how and where to make any necessary
improvements. Normally, it does not get involved in the direct
maintenance of prisons, so as not to become a substitute for
the authorities and thus lose its status as a neutral intermediary
between them and the detainees. In Rwanda, in view of the
exceptional gravity of the situation, the ICRC went one step
further. It committed itself to taking an active role in the
detainees’ struggle for survival.
It began by overhauling sanitary installations in the existing
prisons. It also began providing basic food and medical care
to the detainees. In June, the ICRC decided to become involved
in setting up new temporary places of detention to ease the
overcrowding in the existing premises. In cooperation with
a Rwandan interministerial commission and the UN agencies
on the spot, it helped to install the accommodation, kitchens
and sanitary and medical facilities for six new prisons capable
of housing around 10,000 detainees. The ICRC will now progressively
hand over to the Rwandan authorities all the tasks for which
they are normally responsible in the prisons.
The prosecution of acts of genocide is a crucial issue which
must be addressed if different components of Rwandan society
are to be able to live together. For this to happen, it is
imperative that the Rwandan authorities and the international
community seek fair and realistic solutions to the problem.
Jean-Daniel Tauxe is the ICRC’s Delegate General for