Mobilizing the Rwandan Church to Protect Human Rights

by Roger Alford

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is personally invested in making Rwanda a country that is committed to reconciliation, human rights and self-sufficiency. Toward that end, Kagame is seeking to mobilize the most powerful social force in his country—Rwandan pastors—to protect human rights and pursue forgiveness in a country that has much to forgive. In 2005 Kagame partnered with Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to develop a plan of action. As Time magazine noted, “Kagame has committed his government to cooperation in a five-to-seven-year self-sufficiency project staffed by Rwandan volunteers but initiated, advised and at least partly funded by Warren’s network of ‘purpose-driven churches.’”

I have spent the last two weeks working with a team of Saddleback lawyers who are implementing this impressive program. Having met with Supreme Court and High Court judges, Ministry of Justice officials, and over sixty of the top Rwandan pastors in the country, I am convinced that in a country where 82 percent of the population are Christians, there is no better vehicle for educating the general populace about human rights than the local church. At the invitation of President Kagame, Saddleback Church has been sending hundreds of volunteer professionals–doctors, nurses, lawyers, psychologists, etc.–to work with local churches to address Rwanda’s most pressing problems.

On the legal front, top government officials have identified three central problems: intra-family land grabbing, domestic violence, and sexual crimes. To address those problems, lawyers from Saddleback Church have drafted a human rights manual for local pastors they can use to educate their members about those issues. They have started with the issue of land grabbing, and future manuals will be developed that focus on domestic violence and sexual crimes.

The problem of land grabbing stems from two key issues: common-law marriage and intestacy. Common law marriage is common in Rwanda, primarily because its is culturally unacceptable to marry in Rwanda without a large dowry and an expensive wedding. Consequently many destitute couples simply start living together without the legal protections that marriage affords. Likewise, wills are virtually unheard of this country, with the exception of the occasional death-bed oral bequests. So women and children in this country find themselves with almost no legal protections when their loved one dies. The consequences are devastating when the husband dies, with his extended family literally kicking the common-law wife and “illegitimate” children off the land.

The Saddleback family manual educates the pastors to educate their members about the importance of documenting paternity, registering marriages and drafting enforceable wills. Having spent several days with local Rwandan pastors, they are hungry for this type of education. They are ill-equipped to explain Rwandan law–which is quite progressive on women’s rights–and they frequently find themselves counseling family members who are forced off their land without any understanding of their legal rights. The pastors were desperate for legal information regarding the rights of women and children struggling with this issue.

It is an impressive project. The result will be a manual that will be sent to thousands of Rwandan pastors with information on the rights of women and children and information on legal resources for families who struggle with land grabbing. Prevention is the principal objective, but for those who are in the midst of a land grabbing dispute, the manual encourages local pastors to work with government legal aid clinics, the National University of Rwanda, and the Christian human rights NGO International Justice Mission to intervene.

The President of the Rwandan High Court said to me last week that human rights do not exist if the people don’t know about them. Mobilizing local ministers to educate Rwandans about their rights is one of the best ways to make the laws on the books effective on the ground. It is also consistent with the Biblical mandate: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Exodus 22:22.

5 Responses

  1. ‘Purpose-driven churches’… Unfortunately they have been around during the genocide too… It’s well documented that the Rwandan genocide was very broadly supported by various layers of the Rwandan society, including the church. Isn’t the institute of the church tainted because of this deplorable role?

  2. GH,

    I think it’s a great question.  My sense is that the role of the churches were mixed, with some churches attempting to provide safe haven while others were painfully silent.  As Desmond Tutu put it, “The story of Rwanda shows both sides of our humanity. The churches were sometimes quite superb in what they did in the face of intimidation and at great cost to themselves. But there were other times when [they] failed dismally and seemed to be implicated in ways that have left many disillusioned, disgruntled and angry with the churches and their leadership.”

    It should go without saying that the pastors Saddleback is partnering were not the ones culpable in the genocide. 

    There is a fair bit of literature out there on this subject including this short article and this book.

    Roger Alford

  3. Well, whatever one might say about the mixed record of organized religion in dispensing social justice, the IJM – which appears to be working alongside (with?) Saddleback on the land-grabbing issue sounds like a pretty effective organization in many respects (check out the recent Samantha Power article from the New Yorker, prominently featured on the IJM website (I won’t send the link so as not to cause the administrator headaches).

    From the perspective of the small but dedicated group of human rights advocates worldwide interested in what are coming to be known as ‘HLP’ (housing, land and property) issues, I would be quite interested in seeing the actual Manual. From the description above, the approach sounds very sound. However, there is a tendency for well-meaning and well thought out property initiatives to get caught in the contradictions of countries with plural legal systems.

    Very often, for instance formal/statutory property law and institutions may only be relevant to urban cores and commercial agricultural zones, with much of the urban periphery and subsistence agricultural areas held in informal/customary tenure forms and administered through customary institutions. These types of situations can encourage forum-shopping and corruption and undermine confidence in both formal and informal systems.

    I don’t know enough about Rwanda to be more specific (and am busy encouraging a colleague who does to jump into the discussion) but I do suspect that getting a bit of exposure for the abovementioned manual might not only increase its value as a precedent for other similar settings but may also allow any potential pitfalls to be avoided early on.

    I’ve been closely following the land law reform in Rwanda since 2003 and lived and worked there 2005-2007, as Rwanda Researcher for Human Rights Watch. I know IJM’s work and admired their systematic approach to developing their program on land rights. Despite this, I would share Rhodri’s cautionary tone, though for a slightly different reason. While his points about customary legal systems are valid for most  countries in Africa, they are slightly less relevant in Rwanda, where population pressure has resulted in an active land market and an erosion of many customary norms. Custom is still important, but there is less conceptual ‘distance’ between custom and statutory forms of tenure than in most African countries. All the same, customary rights are particularly important in areas practicing polygamy and in the case of the indigenous Batwa ethnic minority, who have lost their rights to hunting and gathering territories.

    I have come to be wary of projects which stress ‘awareness-raising’ in Rwanda. Yes, most Rwandans require better access to information. But all too often, an emphasis on awareness-raising becomes an excuse to shy away from the equally important tasks of monitoring and denouncing abuses and mediating in disputes. Most organizations are fearful of taking on a monitoring role because of the risk of retaliation from government officials or other ‘connected’ individuals implicated in abuses. Despite the creation of the government ombudsman, a local system of dispute mediators, and many other promising institutions, the Rwandan state nevertheless remains generally hostile to criticism.

    Looking at the list of priorities prepared by the “top government officials” (clearly it was not a consultative, multi-stakeholder process) there is an omission which is obvious to anyone who knows Rwanda well:  land-disputes involving the Rwandan state. There are many different kinds of disputes involving the state as a party, some of them related to the ongoing expropriations in Kigali, and some related to the ongoing land reform in rural areas. In Kigali, many poor households are being evicted without due process, especially adequate and timely compensation. In the countryside, there is a risk that the land registration process will be hurried, with an attendant risk of abuses, and agricultural collectivisation policies have already involved coercion in some places. Though President Kagame has established a commission to deal with land-grabbing by politicians and military figures in the countryside, he has staffed the commission with many of the same politicians and military who have accumulated large tracts of land in dubious circumstances. Unlike most land commissions, this one has not published any reports.  The lack of transparency extends to its operational principles, which appear to ignore  the laws in force (e.g. the expropriation law and the land law).

    In the past, some members of the Rwandan clergy have stood up for human rights. (The previous comment about the role of the church in genocide is valid, but we should remember that responsibility is individual, not collective – just as some church leaders killed, others saved). It will be interesting to see whether Saddleback Ministries will empower them to stand up for land rights, or whether the emphasis on “intra-family” land rights will mean that the pastors are encouraged to stay silent when the land-grabber happens to be the Rwandan state. Judging by the approach taken so far, I would recommend that they take a more multi-dimensional view of land issues in Rwanda.

  5. For what its worth, the problem Chris identifies raises fundamental rule of law questions that apply to international engagement in numerous post-conflict settings. A rights-based discourse on property issues may be empowering in local disputes, but can lead to badly disappointed expectations if the authorities are not governed by any rules.

    A particularly flagrant example involves Cambodia, where the longtime strongman and more recent convert to managed democracy, Hun Sen (a man who, aside from any other comparisons one might make with Kagame, shares little of his charm), has tolerated the internationally-assisted development of a progressive Land Law on paper but has done nothing to ensure its implementation in the context of phenomenally widespread land-grabbing. The second half of Chris’ penultimate paragraph could almost literally apply word for word to contemporary Cambodia.

    In Cambodia, the fact that international engagement ensured widespread consultation in the drafting of a Land Law that may never be properly implemented is likely to undermine confidence in human rights and rule of law even further – and this in a situation where the bulk of Cambodia’s GNP has been directly funded by international donors for decades. In a recent report, Global Witness essentially accused international donors of negligent complicity in the wholesale looting of the country by its politicians.

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