Q&A regarding Laurent Munyandilikirwa v. Republic of Rwanda (Application No. 023/2015)

1. Who is the Applicant in this case?

The Applicant is Laurent Munyandilikirwa, who is a Rwandan national and human rights lawyer. He served as President of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights Ligue rwandaise pour la promotion et la défense des droits de l’Homme ( LIPRODHOR) from December 2011 until July 2013, when he and other board members were illegally ousted. The Applicant is represented by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFK Human Rights).

2. What is LIPRODHOR?

LIPRODHOR is the French acronym for the human rights organization, Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights. It was established in 1991 and one of the few Rwandan human rights organizations to have denounced the early warning signs of the genocide in March 1993, alongside the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). After the genocide, LIPRODHOR was reconstituted with members in all districts of Rwanda, enabling it to document and denounce violations throughout the country, including disappearances, the deplorable prison conditions (including lack of hygiene, spread of disease, hunger, deaths, and overcrowding), irregularities in the genocide trials, and violations of property rights, all of which displeased the Rwandan authorities.

LIPRODHOR had been the target of judicial and administrative harassment by the Rwandan government for many years, an emblematic example of how Rwandan authorities strategically attempt to silence independent and dissenting voices within civil society. In July 2013, the illegal ousting of the Applicant and other board members of LIPRODHOR compromised the independence of the organization. It was one of the last remaining independent civil society organizations in Rwanda.

3. What is the background context of this case?

The government’s maneuvers against LIPRODHOR began in 2004, when the Rwandan Parliament called for its dissolution on the grounds that the organization was allegedly promoting genocidal ideas while carrying out its work to document human rights violations committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which took power in 1994 and still rules the country to this day. Following repeated threats, a dozen members of LIPRODHOR’s steering committee had to flee the country.

In 2008, the National Electoral Commission prevented LIPRODHOR from observing the legislative elections of that year. In November 2011, the building belonging to LIPRODHOR that hosted its headquarters since 2002 was shuttered by government officials on the pretext that they were located on property designed exclusively for residential use.

4. What are the facts of this case?

In July 2013, LIPRODHOR took the decision to withdraw from the Collectif des Ligues et Associations de droits de l’Homme (CLADHO), a Rwandan body that brings together human rights organizations, following the government’s takeover of the body through appointments to its management committee. It is in this context that LIPRODHOR’s leadership had been repeatedly intimidated and harassed by the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), the state body responsible for the supervision of national nongovernmental organizations.

The pressure intensified on 21 July 2013 as Mr Augustin Gahutu, Former President of LIPRODHOR, organized a so-called “consultation meeting,” later recharacterized as an “extraordinary general assembly” without the knowledge of LIPRODHOR’s Board of Directors and Executive Secretary (“legitimate Board”). At this meeting, it was decided to dismiss LIPRODHOR’s Board of Directors, appoint a new Board (“illegitimate Board”), and rejoin CLADHO in violation of LIPRODHOR’s statutory provisions.

However, these decisions were not valid as they were not adopted by a regularly convened general meeting in accordance to LIPRODHOR’s internal procedure, which provided that in the event that the organization’s president or vice-president is unable or unwilling to convene a meeting, a regular convocation requires either the involvement of one third of the full members (article 11 of the LIPRODHOR Statute) or that the members had been convened at least eight days in advance. In this situation, members, including the president, vice-president and executive secretary, were never informed of the meeting and the meeting convened failed to include a third of the members and provide eight days’ notice.

Furthermore, the meeting could not be classified as a general meeting as the LIPRODHOR internal procedure stated that a general meeting “shall be validly held by an absolute majority of the full members” (Article 12 of the LIPRODHOR Statutes), which was not reached. Moreover, several other people present were counted even though they were not full members. This meeting therefore did not constitute a general assembly, which is the only body empowered to dismiss and appoint a Board of Directors. Some members present at this meeting denounced these violations and left to not endorse these irregularities.

On 24 July 2013, the police stopped LIPRODHOR from holding an event that was meant to support and provide information on the UN Universal Periodic Review. LIPRODHOR’s bank accounts were subsequently blocked on the same day.

On 26 July 2013, the new illegitimate Board forced the Executive Secretariat staff to recognize their takeover of the organization, in violation of Article 11 of LIPRODHOR’s Rules of Procedure. Despite the legitimate but illegally ousted Board’s refusal and denouncement of their actions, the illegitimate Board relied on the RGB’s letter of recognition of the new illegitimate Board to solidify their takeover.

After 3 July 2013, when LIPRODHOR decided to leave CLADHO following its takeover by the RGB, the legitimate president of LIPRODHOR, Mr. Munyandilikirwa and other members of the legitimate board were constantly threatened by phone, in particular with frequent anonymous phone calls and verbal threats, because of their opposition to the irregular takeover of the organization. The threats intensified again from 24 July 2013, when Mr. Munyandilikirwa and Evariste Nsabayezu respectively president and vice president of the legitimate Board of Directors filed a complaint in the Rwandan courts.

On 21 November 2014, Daniel Uwimana, a LIPRODHOR member and head of the Kayonza branch, and Mr. Nsabayezu, vice-chairman of the legitimate Board, were arrested and detained. In the late afternoon of 24 November, following the Rwanda’s Bar intervention, Mr. Nsabayezu was released from Kicukiro police station after being questioned for “forgery and use of forged documents.” Meanwhile, Remera Kigali police questioned Mr. Uwimana on similar grounds then transferred him to the Nyarugenge High Court, where he appeared in the detention proceedings on 8 December 2014. On 29 December 2014, the High Court Kigali Chamber ordered his provisional release on appeal.

On 22 November 2014, Ms. Solange Mukasonga, the Mayor of Nyarugenge District/City of Kigali and a former LIPRODHOR member sympathetic to the Rwandan government and the illegitimate board of LIRPODHOR issued a communiqué prohibiting the convening of a General Assembly meeting. The communiqué was issued in response to a letter from Aloys Munyangaju, the illegitimate president of the LIPRODHOR Board.

On 24 November 2014, André Bigirimana, head of the Rusizi branch, was also arrested and accused of forging signatures to convene a meeting of the LIPRODHOR Extraordinary General Assembly on 23 November 2014. Mr. Bigirimana was released on 9 December 2014 after his file was not forwarded to the judge and he had not received a summons.

5. What is the procedural history of this case before domestic Courts in Rwanda?

On 25 August 2013, members of the legitimate but illegally ousted LIPRODHOR Board of Directors filed a complaint at the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Nyarugenge (Nyarugenge TGI) against the illegitimate Board requesting:

  • The intervention of RGB in the proceedings,

  • The nullification and voiding of decisions taken at the 21 July 2013 meeting,

  • The suspension of the illegitimate Board, and

  • That RGB indicates on which laws it had based its recognition of the new LIPRODHOR Board and confirmation of the new Board’s decisions.

On 8 August 2014, during a court holiday and after postponements since March 2014, the judge of the Nyarugenge TGI unexpectedly dismissed the case, holding that LIPRODHOR should have been the named defendant, instead of the illegitimate Board.

The Nyarugenge TGI also found that LIPRODHOR’s internal procedure to consult their Disciplinary and Conflict Resolution Committee prior to filing with the court had not been respected. On this issue, the Applicant stated that such a procedure had been initiated as early as 21 July 2013 to demand that the legitimate Board of Directors be able to continue their work as normal and to summon two members of the illegitimate Board and the person who had convened and led the illegal meeting before LIRPODHOR’s Disciplinary and Conflict Resolution Committee regarding the takeover. These members of the illegitimate board refused to appear before LIPRODHOR’s internal procedure on 2 August 2013. This refusal was also recorded in writing and attached to the Applicant’s submissions.

Lawyers for LIPRODHOR’s legitimate board appealed the decision to the High Court of Kigali on 24 February 2015. On 23 March 2015, the High Court of Kigali issued its verdict, reversing the finding that the case was not filed against the correct defendant, but rejecting their appeal on the same basis as the court of first instance, that is, that the applicant did not exhaust the internal dispute resolution procedure.

6. What is the procedural history of this case before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights?

The Applicant, Mr. Munyandilikirwa, with the support of FIDH and RFK Human Rights, filed a complaint before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights on 23 September 2015 to hold Rwanda accountable for their illegal interference and takeover of LIPRODHOR in violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In his complaint, the Applicant specifically alleged that the Republic of Rwanda violated the following:

  • Right to freedom from discrimination,

  • Right to equality and equal protection of the law,

  • Right to a fair trial,

  • Right to receive information and freedom to express his opinions,

  • Right to freedom of association and assembly, and

  • Right to work and failed to prevent and sanction private violations of human rights through independent and impartial courts

On 5 January 2017, Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association, submitted an amicus curiae brief to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The amicus curiae stated that “authorities who interfere with the internal affairs of associations violate the international right to freedom of association” and concluded that “the right to freedom of association is violated when government authorities promptly recognize a new council if (1) they know that the council’s legitimacy is being challenged and (2) such recognition contradicts the decision of the internal conflict resolution mechanisms of the association concerned.”

7. What was the Republic of Rwanda’s response to this case filed with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights?

On 30 January 2017, Rwanda notified the African Court of its decision to discontinue participating in this case’s proceedings. In March 2016, after the case was filed, Rwanda withdrew its declaration under Article 34(6) of the Protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which allows individuals and non-governmental organizations to submit complaints directly to the African Court. This decision significantly reduces the ability for survivors and victims of human rights violations to obtain justice and redress. However, in its 3 June 2016 order, the Court ruled that Rwanda’s withdrawal does not affect pending cases or new cases filed prior to the effective date of Rwanda’s withdrawal.

8. What is the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights’s decision on this case?

The African Court did not issue a ruling on the merits of the case. Instead, on 2 December 2021, the African Court determined the case to be inadmissible for non exhaustion of domestic remedies, as provided for in Rule 50(2)(f) of the Rules (Decision Appl.023/2015 Laurent Munyandilikirwa v. Republic of Rwanda).

9. What is the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights’s reasoning on this case?

The African Court is of the opinion that the Applicant did not exhaust domestic remedies because the Applicant sought redress in Rwandan courts before completing the internal LIPRODHOR’ internal dispute resolution process. The African Court made this determination by relying solely on the French version of the LIPRODHOR Statute, which clearly differs from the English and Kinyarwanda versions of the Statute regarding the requirement for submitting the decision of the internal dispute resolution committee to the General Assembly. In relying on the French version, the African Court stated that the decision of the internal review mechanism was not “…submitted to the General Assembly for adoption, before he [the Applicant] took his case to the Tribunal…”. Similar to the Rwandan courts, the African Court thus adopted the view of LIPRODHOR’s illegitimate Board, which was never admitted as a party to the case but was heard by the Court as an Amicus Curiae despite having a clear interest in the case..

10. What are the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights’s dissenting opinions on this case?

In the two dissenting opinions, Judges Rafaa Ben Achour and Ben Kioko found that the Applicant had successfully exhausted all local remedies prior to submitting his complaint to the African Court. They take issue with the majority opinion’s procedural assertion that the Applicant did not comply with the French version of the LIPRODHOR Statute, which was one of three written versions of the internal procedure of the organization and the only version which includes a clause providing a role for the General Assembly of LIPRODHOR in the internal dispute resolution process. The English and Kinyarwanda versions are silent on this issue. Both dissenting judges point out that the majority court mentions both the principle of equality of languages under the Rwandan Constitution and that Kinyarwanda is the default language used by LIPRODHOR, yet it proceeded with its ruling in accordance solely with the French text. Judge Achour stated that “it makes little sense to insist that the Applicant return before the General Assembly, that is, before the same body that decided to oust the Board of Directors chaired by the Applicant, because that body had refused to comply with the decision of the internal dispute resolution organ and had sanctioned the Applicant and his counsel.”

Judge Kioko’s dissenting opinion further disagreed with the majority court because of its decision to rely on the facts, analysis, and arguments of the amici curiae, the illegitimate LIPRODHOR board, who ousted and replaced the Applicant. Judge Kioko argued that the majority should have engaged in more analysis to determine whether the current illegitimate LIPRODHOR board should have been joined as a party to the matter because they are an interested party in the case.

11. What is the current status of LIPRODHOR?

Today, LIPRODHOR has been taken over by supporters of Rwandan Patriotic Front, which has been Rwanda’s ruling political party since 1994. It is no longer an independent civil society organization and none of its branches or volunteers throughout the country monitor, document or denounce human rights violations. All members of the legitimate but illegally ousted Board of Directors are either in exile or no longer active and forced to keep a low profile.

12. Why is this case important?

Laurent Munyandilikirwa v. Republic of Rwanda is emblematic of the shrinking space for freedom of association in not only Rwanda, but also the African continent. It would have been pivotal for the African Court to rule on the merits of this case to fulfill its mandate of protecting and bolstering freedom of association.

13. What are the next steps for this case?

This decision comes six years after the complaint was lodged with the African Court and almost 17 years after Rwanda’s first attempts towards suppressing LIPRODHOR, which was one of the last remaining independent human rights organizations in Rwanda. FIDH and RFK Human Rights will continue to support the Applicant and pursue justice in this case to protect and promote freedom of association in Rwanda.