Last week, as most Minnesotans set out to enjoy the long Memorial Day weekend, one Minnesotan embarked on a journey of a different sort. On Friday, St. Paul law professor Peter Erlinder was arrested by Rwandan police on charges under that country's "genocide ideology" law.
Erlinder went to Rwanda as part of the legal defense team of opposition political candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who faces charges under the genocide ideology law.
Throughout the past several years, Erlinder has represented people accused of genocide before the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda. In the course of this work, he has developed an argument that questions whether the violence in Rwanda was, technically speaking, genocide. Erlinder hasn't been shy about putting forth his theory; he helped organize and presented a paper at an international criminal defense conference on the subject in Brussels just days before entering Rwanda.
International law recognizes that genocide -- the killing, causing of serious bodily or mental harm, deliberate infliction of conditions calculated to bring about the physical destruction, imposition of measures intended to prevent births, or forcible transfer of children to another group, with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group -- is among the most serious of crimes.
Is what happened in Rwanda "genocide?" Most international human rights experts think so. And if any country has an interest in ensuring that public safety is balanced against the right to free speech, arguably it's Rwanda. Radio broadcasts deliberately inciting ethnic violence fueled much of the brutality that killed upwards of 800,000 people in just 100 days in 1994.
International human rights law recognizes freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. That right is not without limits. Governments can and must limit dangerous speech. But those limits must themselves be narrowly tailored and carefully applied.
The Rwandan genocide ideology law falls far short of what international human rights law requires. It has been characterized by one human rights organization as "a very broad, imprecise and even confusing array of activities and expression" which includes "terms which are widely open for abusive interpretation -- such as 'marginalising,' 'laughing,' 'mocking,' 'boasting,' and 'creating confusion aiming at negating the genocide which occurred' and 'stirring up ill feelings' -- or which very obviously have no place in any law -- such as 'propounding wickedness.'"
The evidence suggests that potential abuses of this vaguely worded crime have come to pass. Human rights organizations and the U.S. government alike have denounced the law for having been used to silence those who oppose the government. Erlinder himself went to Rwanda to defend a political opposition leader accused of genocide ideology. Amnesty International reports that at last count there were 912 people in prison, either awaiting trial or serving sentences, on genocide ideology charges.
The government of Rwanda today is under the control of Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front. Exploiting the tragedy of the genocide for political purposes is apparently just one part of Kagame's strategy to continue to hold power. A glance through the U.S. State Department's most recent assessment of human rights in Rwanda reveals that its record of ensuring freedom of speech, assembly, association, and the right of citizens to change their government is abysmal.
In addition to politically motivated use of the genocide ideology law to keep government opponents quiet, Amnesty International reports substantial restriction of press freedom, active restriction of opposition political parties, and widespread impunity for members of the Rwandan Patriotic Army and Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Erlinder's arrest gives us a glimpse of what Rwandans and millions of others living under repressive governments around the world face every day. In the United States, Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those who gave their lives to protect our freedoms. This incident serves as a poignant reminder of what those human rights really mean.
Robin Phillips is executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights.