The Human Rights Issue in Rwanda

Human skulls and rotting bodies were scattered all over. Vultures circled hungrily looking for a place to land and devour the abundant supply of food. Hungry children clutched firmly on their empty plates waiting for the next humanitarian aid to arrive and distribute the little food and other medical supplies available on board. This was the scene of post-war Rwanda. The human rights violations had created deaths that translated to hundreds of thousands of people with others being left homeless. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was one of the greatest Human Rights violations which called for the intervention of the International community. After the civil war, several organizations stepped up efforts to ensure that the perpetrators of the massive Human Rights abuse were brought to book and that such events are not repeated. The situation called for close cooperation between the NGOs, the State of Rwanda, the African Union and the United Nations to achieve the desired results.

The Human Rights issue is one of the most important issues on the International platform. Promoting Human Rights has become a task that calls not only for the effort of the State but also several other actors including Non-Governmental Organizations and other civil societies. There are several organizations both governmental and non-governmental that engage in this field of promotion of human rights in the world. It is through the collective responsibility of these different actors that efficiency can be attained through all the activities designed to facilitate the upholding of Human Rights. It is therefore the role of international bodies, the State and the Non-State actors to concentrate their efforts to promote Human Rights. But what are the appropriate measures that have been put in place and how do these different players and actors facilitate their activities? What is the major role played by each of these players and how do they depend on one another to ensure smooth running?

To answer these questions one should first understand that the issue of Human Rights is not something that can be done by the sole effort of the State. It is an issue that was given universal status and therefore an abuse of Human Rights in one country is a concern for the whole International Community. Through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the general outfit of the Human Rights acquired a universal status in all countries that are members of the United Nations. The stipulations in the Declaration should therefore be the yardstick for the State when enacting their versions of Human rights.

This paper will therefore outline the functions and roles of Human Rights actors. It is aimed at outlining the importance of international bodies and Regional Blocks’ Charters in the provision of universal standards within the Constitutions of member States in terms of Human Rights promotion and also their roles in ensuring that appropriate measures are taken against the violators. It will also highlight the importance of the State as the link between the international bodies and the non-State Organizations and also the Civil Societies. Finally, the role and functions of the Civil Societies and NGOs as the grass-root actors will also be highlighted.

Role of international bodies

International bodies have a great role to play in ensuring that human rights are observed. These bodies include the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the African Union etc. They play the role of bringing together nations to attain a collective power in case of measures against a nation that is violating human rights. The European Union is one of the greatest operational human rights actors. At its formation, the EU had a five-country membership which eventually grew to 25 member countries. Although the original aims of the formation were not human rights, the commission eventually grew to give these issues a first-hand priority. This was done through the formation of arms and institutions which had defined obligations. Although members have conferred some of their sovereignty to the organization, they have retained other responsibilities as States. Among these are the fact of being responsible for the protection and promotion of human rights under International Law. But some of the human rights issues are dealt with jointly. These are issues of rights in terms of racism and discrimination (Iceland human rights center 2008).

Treaties promoting Human Rights

The most significant role in the promotion of human rights comes in terms of the treaties signed by the member countries. Coming into operation of the Treaty on European Union (TEU, 1992) brought for the first time the issue of human rights into the policies of the European Union. The treaty’s Article 2 states that the Union must strengthen the protection of the rights and interests of the nationals of its member states and also to ‘maintain and develop the union as an area of freedom, security and justice.’ As a punitive measure, article 7 of the Treaty stipulates that all member states which are bound by the treaty will be stripped of their rights and privileges which come as a result of EU membership if found guilty of ‘serious or persistent violation of human rights’(Iceland human rights center 2008).

The Treaty of Amsterdam that was signed on 1st May 1999 increased the EU’s concern and thus involvement in upholding human rights within its member states. The Treaty improved into the TEU by adding a clause which stated that the European Union ‘is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principals which are common to the member states.’ The treaty went on to stress the deprivation of certain rights to member states that violate human rights. In December 2000, the EU charter was officially launched at the Nice summit and it summarized the two treaties named above through its stipulated address on human rights. The Nice charter of 2000 thus puts human rights protection and upholding one of the core principles of the EU (European Union 2003).

Apart from the signing of treaties, the Eu has created institutions whose sole responsibilities are to oversee and ensure efficiency in the effort to withhold and protect human rights within its member states. Among these organizations is the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. This institution was founded in Vienna in 1997 and has the responsibility of collecting data on the incidences of discrimination and formulating policies that can enhance equality and suppress discrimination (European Union 2003).

Another institution that was put in place to ensure the promotion of the human rights in the European Union is the European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Under this policy, the EU has come up with principles to be adhered to in foreign policy formation. These principles also push for the upholding of human rights. They include pointing out that human rights must be protected irrespective of where they are committed and that this should be the core duty of all the member states. The policy also calls for the adaptation of a unified human rights policy and actions. It also puts it clear that the CFSP will do its operations without bias and inclination in terms of one’s religious or political orientation (European Union 2003).

To promote human rights, the EU undertakes various activities. These activities are based on the demand of the situation at hand. For example, if there are reported human rights abuse in a given state, the Union orders the embassies of their member states and also the Commission’s representatives to draw a report about the situation. The reports are then used as information from which the Commission can draw up appropriate steps to be taken (Iceland human rights center 2008).

In addition to drawing reports, the Union can also decide on using the demarches method. In this method, the Union representatives summons the government of the country in question and instruct them to take action about the human rights issue in question. This can include setting free of prisoners or prosecuting the responsible officials. Although demarches are supposed to be confidential, the Union can sometimes make it public by releasing it to the press to ensure that the government takes the appropriate step. In the year 2002-2003, for example, more than 80 states received demarches. Another activity undertaken by the Union is the funding of human rights organizations in third-world countries. This is done through the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). In conjunction with other instruments of the European Financial and technical cooperation like MEDA, Phare, Tacis and others, EIDHR spends an annual 100 million Euros on the promotion of democracy, rule of law and good governance. The most important aim in this undertaking is to enhance political pluralism, enact a proper justice system and ensure that the media is free. Other activities include the abolishment of death penalty, pushing for respect for civil and political rights through the struggle against discrimination and racism and finally by funding projects that fight for children welfare and those that fight for gender equality (Iceland human rights center 2008).

EU and the international criminal justice

The issue of international criminal justice has been one of the center stage priorities in the regional and international human rights bodies. This has been done through the formation of institutions to deal with the same issue. THE European Union for example has the Court of Justice as one of its arms. Situated in Luxembourg, the Court has 25 independent Judges and 8 advocate-generals from member states. The main function of the Court of Justice is to ensure that all member states comply with EC/EU treaties. The Court’s rulings are binding and are based on respecting and promoting fundamental rights throughout the EU institutions and also in the field of community law in all the member states. This ensures that human rights are observed when administering justice(European Union 2003).

In America, the Organization of American States (OAS) also plays an important role in the administration of international justice. This includes their effort to listen to cases brought by the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) which are filed in the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. With the cooperation of other players, the OAS brings to justice cases that could have otherwise been ruled inappropriately if done in the states of origin (Organisation of American States 2009).

LGBT and the European Union

The European Union has shown a lot of commitment to the issue of lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the European Union. The first manifestation is in its charter. The Treaty of Amsterdam 1997 was added by the inclusion of article 13. This article gave power to the communities to take appropriate measures against any form of discrimination in terms of sex, race, religion or sexual orientation. It is from the same inclusion that in 2000, the adoption of the Employment Directive whose most important clause was to ensure that all member countries put up legislative measures that prohibited discrimination of all kinds including sexual orientation in terms of employment.

In addition to this, the European Parliament has also shown undivided effort to protect the rights of LGBT. they have done a lot of legislative amendments to ensure that the interest of LGBTs is positively reflected. They also championed for LGBTs rights by using written questions to check the decisions of the Council and the Commission. Finally, the Parliament fosters understanding and awareness through discussions enabled through the formation of public forums.

European Union and the International Criminal Justice

The support by the European Union to International Law is very commendable. This includes political, financial and technical and political supports to ensure that the International Criminal Court runs effectively and efficiently. Collectively, the member states of the EU took one stand to the support of the establishment and efficiency of the International Court of Justice. Action Plan which was adopted in February 2004 places the member states under obligation to give technical support to third states to ensure that Rome Statute is well ratified and implemented. All the EU policies towards the ICC are founded on the Common Position and Action Plan. Financially, the EU has also shown great support to international criminal justice. Since 1995, the EU has used more than 20 million Euros in different areas of support. The Union has cooperated with institutions like Coalition for International Criminal Court (CICC) and No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ) to fund NGOs that work at promoting international Criminal Justice. In addition, they initiated the Parliamentarians for Global Action. This initiative was aimed at promoting awareness among parliamentarians. Professionals from developing countries have also been send to the ICC through a program called Clerkship and Visiting Professionals’ Program. This was aimed at enabling them to work in the ICC and develop the appropriate skills.

Moving down from international to national level, the role of the states cannot be undermined. In fact, the state could be termed as the most important player in the promotion of human rights. Without its participation, all other actors’ efforts will result to nothing as it is the state that links both the non state actors and the international arena. Their role does not only entail internal efforts through domestic strategies but also external ones through international cooperation. It is undisputable that the formation of national laws, which are the corner stone in the effort of promoting human rights, purely has its links in the Universal Declaration and other International Covenants and Treaties (Mane 2004)

The first and most important role of the state in the promotion of human rights is the adherence and the unshakable promotion of the Universal Declaration. By subscribing to the membership of the United Nations and other regional blocks, the state will thus be obligated to promote human rights as dictated by the charters of the respective organizations. Concerning human rights promotion, the United Nations’ General Assembly, on December 10, 1948 adopted resolution 217 A (III) which is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration which called for a common standard for human rights was voted in by 48 states with no State being against. As a member of the UN, it is the responsibility and obligation of each state to ensure that Human Rights domestic strategies and external strategies conform to the Universal standard as dictated by the UN Universal Declaration. This is the first step in a states journey of achieving human rights promotion (United Nations 2009),

In India, for example, Article 21 of the national Constitution which expresses the ‘right to life and personal liberty’ is a clear example of a state’s effort to conform to the international rules. Part three of the same article places social justice as a principle of fundamental rights. This part gives the right to life a deeper position in the Indian society. This right to life includes right to food, shelter, clean water and air, free education until age 14 and above all, the right to livelihood (Mane 2004),

In addition to adherence to International Treaties and Declarations, the State plays an important role in the formation of efficient mechanisms to detect any incidences of human rights violations and facilitate the effort to curb the crime. The first and most efficient tool in this endeavor is the National Constitution. This constitution must give appropriate powers to relevant institutions whose roles will promote human rights. This calls for ran interplay between the arms of the government which are the Judiciary, the Legislature and the Executive so as to avoid any forms of friction between them. In addition, the Constitution should provide for law enforcement agencies by strengthening their jurisdiction powers. It should also define powers to other state organs that play a role in the fighting for the promotion and upholding of human rights. This is because these institutions are the foundations of the wellbeing of a nation. Proper functioning will consequently result into the elimination of poverty, promotion of equality and preservation of the environment. Through the Acts of parliament, the legislative should be in position to pass bills such as the bills to protect the Human Rights Act, 1993. This act will promote the state’s observation of human rights. In its different forms, the act should be improved for example by making it put the public authority into an answerable position in cases of violated human rights. Finally, the Human rights Commission should be made as an independent institution without outside the manipulation of any other organ of the government. (Mane 2004).

The state must ensure that the stipulations of the 1990, Copenhagen Document are strictly adhered to. In terms of human rights upholding and promotion, the Document dictates that the public authorities and the government have to Act in accordance with the National Constitution. It also puts the Government and the judiciary under the obligation to act according to the norms of the established Law. The military and the police are also highlighted by the document. It puts them under the responsibility and makes them answerable to the Civil Authority. The document goes ahead to dictate that the laws of a state should guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms as dictated by the international law. All persons are considered equal before the law. The document thus stipulates that no individual should be discriminated against in relation to his race, religion, political or religious inclination, sexual orientation or any other form of personal beliefs or values. Every individual should have an avenue through which he can file a petition against the decisions of the administration so as to uphold respect for fundamental rights and observe the integrity of legal structure of the state. The document highlights the importance of a judiciary that is in position to protect its subjects from abusive legislative powers and thus provide appropriate remedies and ensure fair trials. Finally, the document stresses on the importance of an efficient coordination between the three arms of the government and outlines the characteristics of the an ideal legislative, judiciary and executive (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

One area where human rights are violated has been the abuse of power by the executive. As a remedy to this, there are several international documents that have been drafted to offer certain standards o behavior which are termed as the international codes of conduct. These codes are aimed at certain professionals like the military and police as law enforcement agents and also the professionals in the legal field and the medical field. The codes give limits to police powers so as to curb instances of torture. This is stipulated in the 1979 UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. The codes all prohibit medical personnel from using their profession to submit an individual to torture or any inhuman treatment. This law is found in the 1982 UN Principles of Medical Ethics. The judiciary also comes in the spotlight when their powers are defined and also protected from interference by other organs of the government by the 1985 UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary. There is the 1996 UN International Code of Conduct for Public Officials. It is therefore the responsibility of the state to ensure that each of the professionals concerned in the UN codes of conduct abides by the stipulations. This will ensure that people in authority do not abuse their powers and as a result subject the citizens under them into torture or any other form of human rights deprivation (United Nations 2009).

The state undertakes several activities that can contribute positively in the effort to uphold and promote human rights. Among this is the participation in international fora. It is here that the issues of human rights abuse are brought to light in presence of other heads of states so as a way forward can be discussed. Through the participation, the states acquire a stronger and more efficient collective power that can have a stronger influence to the convincing of the state in question. It is the collective responsibility of each state to act as a means of checks and balances for their neighbouring states. Individual states have to ensure that other states are acting in accordance to their traditional laws and also consistent to the international law. In case of a breach of these laws, the state will thus have a platform from which to launch their reports against the government in question. After launching the complain, a collective decision can be made which might include the stripping off of privileges accrued from the bare fact of being a member of the given block (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

Another pronounced activity of the state in the effort to protect and promote human rights is the use of bilateral measures. In cases where international interventions cannot be used because of a reason or another, a state can decide on its own to impose bilateral sanctions between the two countries. The measures taken can be in terms of cutting of any form of relations, imposing of trade sanctions, imposing of economic sanctions, suspending of any forms of aid etc. apart from such measures, the government in question can decide to put all its efforts in the strengthening of projects that promote good governance and those projects that are aimed at strengthening the judiciary. This is one of the forms by which co operations can be used to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights. This comes in terms of financial or technical cooperation where small projects are initiated in the field of human rights (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

Another activity of the state in promoting human rights is the use of foreign missions. These are informal visits by the representatives of the concerned state to the government in question in order to discuss on their way forward. The dialogue between the host and visiting states can be very productive because of its friendlier approach. Apart from dialoguing, the mission has the obligation of understanding the depth of the situation at hand and reporting back. Through bilateral cooperation, it is easier for the neighboring state to have conduct with NGOs and other defenders of human rights and thus have first hand information of the situation. In addition, through the discussions by the two states, the host nation can have a chance to bring out the causes and limitations which could be hindering its effort to promote human rights. This is because friction is likely to occur, at times, between the protection of human rights and the protection of national interests (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

In addition to foreign missions, several countries have permanent missions with other countries. These are representatives permanently situated in given headquarters of international bodies and embassies who take part in a continuous discussion and decision making activities. This helps in an efficient coordination between the state and the international body in question. For example, several countries have stationed their missions permanently in the headquarters of the EU like New York, Geneva, Strasbourg and Vienna (European Union 2009).

National Human Rights Institutions

Another role of the state in the promotion of human rights is the formation of National human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Ice Land Human Rights Website defines National Human Rights Institutions as Bodies, authorities or organizations that perform general and specific functions in the protection and promotion of human rights. Unlike NGOs, NHRIs are constitutionally bestowed with the powers legally perform the specifically outlined duties in the promotion of human rights. These institutions play a role of advising the government concerning the human rights issues and in some cases; they are given a defined judicial capability to deal with instances of human rights violations. In addition to the above mentioned roles, the NHRIs also draw attention of the government towards the incidences of human rights violations, ensuring that international human rights standards are observed with the state’s legislative decisions, incorporating human education in the governments programmes, etc in the formation of these institutions, the states have to conform to the stipulated standards put forward by the UN in its 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights and later stressed at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and later in 1991 in Paris where the formation of the Paris Principles took place. These principles were basically aimed at giving room for a manipulation free operation of the institutions and to give them power. (Mane 2004)

Civil Societies and international criminal justice

International criminal justice is considered one of the issues to be incorporated in the issues of human rights. States can play a key role in the upholding of international justice through civil societies. The European Parliament for example set a sub committee whose sole responsibility was to over see the role of Civil Societies in the promotion of international criminal justice. No Peace Without Justice is one of the Societies that have put their energy in trying to ensure that international Criminal Justice is achieved. NPWJ was established to advocate for Special tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Their other effort was to advocate for a political will in the formation of permanent International Criminal Court. They also advocated for the establishment of a special court for Sierra Leone. In addition to that, NPWJ worked hand in hand with local NGOs, Civil Societies and other defenders of human rights educate the general public on how to assist in the upholding of international justice (No Peace without Justice 2008)

Role of NGOs in Human Rights Promotion

Non Governmental Organizations are among the key players in the promotion of human rights. Their roles and activities cannot be valued. This is as a result of their ability to function in ways that Government organizations cannot. This includes their flexibility. NGO’s are capable of making new strategies in the middle of a situation in case of a change in the out look of the situation at hand. Due to their less bureaucratic nature, NGOs are capable of changing tactics to approach a situation without wasting time. This gives them advantage above their government counterparts where the issue of bureaucracy cannot easily allow for timely change in strategies and this can lead to devastating effects by the time new strategies are put into operation. The following advantages give NGOs an indisputably leading role in the promotion of human rights (Mane 2004):

  • Unlike the Governmental Organizations which have to work from the whole Nations point of view, the NGOs deal with small projects which are easy to handle and manage and thus require less money for start ups. It also makes it easier for the professionals to assess the required needs as compared to the Government Organizations.
  • NGOs operate with the need in question unlike the Government Organizations which have to operate on commands from above. In the Government organization’s situation, the directives may be contrary to the expectations of the problems at hand but they must be dealt with as commanded from above.
  • Government organizations loose a lot of money in their long bureaucratic structures as compared to the NGOs which are less bureaucratic. Also the bureaucratic structures contribute to time wasting (Mane 2004)

The above mentioned advantages thus enable NGOs to efficiently play their roles in the human rights promotions. It is this vantage position of the NGOs that made the United Nations recognize their role and consequently adopt the 1998 which recognized the role of other human rights defenders such as civil societies and NGOs. The stipulations of the declaration were to ensure freedom from manipulation and provide protection to human rights activists. The UN effort was re-affirmed by the states through the adoption of the same in their constitutions (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

As openly known, silence encourages oppression. One of the roles of the NGOs and which is the key issue in the promotion of human rights is their role to act the mouthpiece of the sections of the society which could otherwise be voiceless. With their acknowledgement from international bodies such as the UN and other regional bodies like the EU, the OAS and the AU, it is the sole responsibility of the NGOs to voice out the concerns of their subjects not only locally or nationally nor regionally but internationally through the foras. In the Durban conference, the UN thus called upon all member states to give room for free operation of the NGOs. This was one step ahead in the effort to ensure that all individuals enjoy their fundamental rights. The collective actions of the NGOs and their strategies to provide name and shame lists brings about chances of responsibility among the civil authorities. (Mane 2004).

Encouraging and supporting the society is another role played by NGOs. Due to their specializations, they acquire adequate knowledge which can be used in the educating, supporting and encouraging the society. NGOs come in different packages. They specialize in a given field of action. For example, there are those that specialize in technical and scientific fields, there are those that are politically oriented, there are those that major their activities in the religious ground, and other fields that are innumerable but one thing stands out as a common denominator. This is their objective of social wellbeing through humanitarian activities. (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

NGOs have a key role in the intergovernmental negotiations. Through their collective power, they can initiate a government into action by its outcry and unrelenting push for action. It was the effort of the NGOs that led to the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations of the Declaration and Rights of Individuals, Groups and Organs of the Society to promote and Protect Universally recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1998 (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

NGOs have the capability to work in small capacities as compared to the Government Organizations. This gives them capability to work to grass root levels. They therefore unearth first hand information direct from the victims of human rights violation. It is therefore the role of the NGOs to search and research for instances of human rights violations. It is their role to witness and bring to light all human rights violations. They can report the violations directly to the UN, the regional organizations, or the national level (Icelandic Human Rights Centre 2008).

The issue of lesbians, gay, bisexuals and transgender

The issue of LGBT rights has not been side lined in the wagon of human rights promotion. Several governments have included in their constitutions the Acts to protect the rights of these people. As discussed earlier, member states of any international organization are bound by the charter of the organization. Therefore, the as a process of national laws formation, the bodies concerned with formulation of laws have to ensure that the enacted laws conform to the dictates of the relevant charter. The United Nations Universal declaration forbids any form of discrimination in terms of one’s race, religion, political inclination or sexual orientation. The EU Charter drafted at the Nice Summit prohibits any form of discrimination and xenophobia. Each country that is under the umbrella of the two international bodies is therefore bound by the statutes. This means that any form of discrimination on an individual on the basis of their sexual orientation is a crime (ACLU 2008).

The American Civil Liberties Union is another organization that has devoted its effort in the fighting for the rights of the LGBTs. In 1936, a play the children’s hour was banned because of allegations that it promoted lesbianism. From this moment, ACLU took center stage in the promotion of the rights of LGBTs. Apart from fighting for legal battles; the Organization has also embarked on formation of projects to assist this group of people. 20 years ago, ACLU formed the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and AIDS project. These are just but a few mentions of the efforts of the civil societies and international organizations on the issue of LGBT rights (ACLU 2008).


The United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights placed the Human rights efforts a great boost. Through the Universal nature of Human Rights, Individual States were given power to operate in collaboration with other States in promoting Human Rights. Through support from developed countries third world countries are in position get both technical and financial assistance so as to facilitate their domestic strategies in human rights promotion. The states then facilitate the work of NGOs by ensuring conducive working environment for the organisations.

It is evident from the functions of each actor in human rights promotion mentioned above that none of them plays a non important role. It therefore calls for a collective effort through efficient mechanisms to merge the effort of each player into a single fight against human rights violation. It will take the non state players like the NGOs to undertake ground work and bring to light statistics of the situation to lime light and also to educate and support individuals on the topic of Human rights. Then, the state takes on from their by ensuring that every citizen enjoys his fundamental rights by providing resources and mechanisms to detect and curb human rights violations and eventually, the international bodies will dictate ideal universal standards to be adopted. This holistic approach is the only solution to an efficient human rights promotion mechanism.


  1. American civil liberties union. Aclu and the history of LGBT rights & HIV/AIDS.
  2. European union. Press releases rapid. EU commitment to promoting human rights and democracy.
  3. Icelandic human rights center. Human rights actors.
  4. Nobel Martin Luther King Junior. Web.
  5. No peace without justice. Role of Civil Societies in promoting international criminal justice. 
  6. Organization of American states. Inter-American democratic charter. Web.
  7. Speech delivered by Justice Anant Mane, acting chairperson, Maharashtra State Human Rights, commission, at Giants International Meet, Mumbai 2004.
  8. The international center for the legal protection of human rights. Security and the rule of law program. Web.
  9. United nations. The universal declaration of human rights.
  10. United nations high commission for human rights. Commission on human rights.
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