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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
Jean-Daniel Tauxe is the ICRC’s Delegate General for Africa.

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