Throughout my life I have been surrounded by lawyers — most pivotally my father, a personal injury lawyer who came home many a night exclaiming, “Adam, don’t be a lawyer! Do something useful!” However, I have long been captivated by the role of lawyers — avocats — in giving a voice to the voiceless. Furthermore, as a Jew, I constantly hear the loud call “tsedek, tsedek tirdof” (Justice, justice you shall pursue) which has guided me throughout my life. Never did I imagine my first ‘clients’ as a wannabe lawyer would be the orphans of Gisimba Memorial Center on the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda.
I am in Rwanda participating in a three-week program led by the New York-based organization, Global Youth Connect (GYC). The delegation is comprised of equal parts Rwandan and American/Canadian young adults. Together, we explore our shared commitment to advancing human rights, with Rwanda as the focal point for study and reflection. An important segment of the program is a placement with a grassroots organization. I have joined three of my GYC counterparts from Rwanda and North America for a placement at the INARA Legal Aid Service. As it turns out, Rwanda and Canada share numerous challenges in the realm of legal aid to the most vulnerable citizens, including children — the focus of this piece.
Why Legal Aid in Rwanda is Needed
Eighteen years after a genocide razed the social and economic fabric of this tiny “land of a thousand hills,” Rwanda has seen a remarkable burst in socioeconomic indicators under President Paul Kagame. Yet, Rwanda remains a poor, land-locked country and continues to grapple with poverty, widespread illiteracy and low life expectancy. Ethnic tensions have been forcibly swept under the rug, and the terms “Tutsi” and “Hutu” — the inflamed yet arbitrary racial categories and the protagonists in the 1994 genocide during which between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally slaughtered in about 100 days — are almost never heard in public fora.
Yet tensions are sizzling beneath the surface all over the country, with the international community accusing Kagame’s government of supporting, recruiting and training new members of the M-23 rebel group currently working to destabilize the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among the flagrant violations of human rights allegedly committed by M-23 is the use of child soldiers. (The situation is far from simmering — a few days ago, the Washington Post reported that a rebel recruit who escaped has claimed he cannot return to Rwanda for fear of being killed.)
Beyond the media frenzy surrounding these allegations and subsequent withdrawals of aid from Rwanda by the United States and several European countries, the people of Rwanda are slowly, faithfully rebuilding their country.
Access to Legal Aid in Rwanda and Canada: Uncovering Shared Obstacles
One area in which Rwanda and my home country, Canada, have significant room for improvement is in enabling poor and marginalized citizens to access legal aid services. Simply put, neither Rwanda nor Canada has a national legal aid policy. Moro ever, According to EW Lawyers, there is a serious shortage of advocates, with only 1 lawyer per 16,203 people. That’s 611 Advocates registered with the Bar Association (as of April 2010) for a population of 9.9 million!
Recognizing the overwhelming need, Jean-Claude Rwibasira — a young, trilingual Rwandan lawyer with a permanent smile — brought together fellow lawyers as well as a law students to establish the INARA Legal Aid Service (INALAS) — a tiny organization with a one-room office in the Kimisagara district. Last year’s cessation of operations of Avocats Sans Frontieres (Lawyers Without Borders) in Rwanda has made the work of local organizations like INALAS even more crucial.
Aside: Avocats’ absence will be felt for a while longer — for instance, Rwandan journalists charged with promoting “divisionism” and spreading “genocidal ideology” — thought crimes in the true Orwellian sense — now have a tremendously difficult time finding a local lawyer willing to take the risk of defending them. After all, Kagame has made it illegal to challenge a “truth” regarding the genocide. At the same time, he has effectively criminalized efforts by Rwandans to call attention to human right abuses committed by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army. If a lawyer were to appeal the case of a journalist charged with the aforementioned thought crimes, he or she would be in effect breaking a law and challenging something related to the genocide that was verified as “truth” by the courts.
In only three years, INALAS — a member of the Rwandan Legal Aid Forum — has handled nearly 500 cases, focussing primarily on the needs of marginalized and vulnerable individuals. During my brief placement at INALAS, I am working with a team of Rwandan and North American students and young lawyers to learn about Rwandan family and property law, to share ideas and obstacles to effective delivery of legal aid in our home countries, and to support INALAS’ advocacy for a national legal aid policy. It is indeed truly special to be learning from young lawyers advocating day in and day out on behalf of those whose legal grievances so often go unheard.
During my first day of work, the team joined INALAS to visit the Gisimba orphanage and met with its executive director. This is a confusing time for orphanages, with the government issuing a policy in May 2012 calling for the closure of all such facilities within two years and encouraging families to adopt orphans.
Many individuals orphaned during the genocide have now reached adulthood and are ready to begin living on their own. However, much of the property of their parents — which legally belongs to the orphaned child — has been looted, stolen or destroyed by neighbors or relatives. It has been fascinating to observe a case of post-genocide property law in action. Most importantly, I get to share and reflect upon the experience with four of my GYC colleagues, including a Rwandan paralegal, a Rwandan entrepreneur and recent graduate from Rwanda, and two American undergraduate students.
Lawyers like Jean-Claude feel their best when they are providing meaningful assistance to underserved clients — often unsung heroes. The Gisimba orphanage is certainly a meaningful and special place in itself. It began with the dedication of one man who provided shelter to orphans in his home during the 1980s. His grandson Pierre carried on the work of his father and established the orphanage. During the genocide, Gisimba protected nearly 500 children, most of whom lived in tents. At time of writing, 128 children are living at the orphanage and an additional 105 live with relatives or hosts and receive support from Gisimba for school fees and health insurance. It should be noted that a significant proportion of recently arrived orphans still have one or more parent(s) alive, yet the children cannot remain at home due to domestic violence, abuse, HIV/AIDS or mothers’ engagement in prostitution.
As we walked through the orphanage, the children greeted us with large smiles and Jean-Claude’s two current clients came over immediately to hug him. The atmosphere was one of tremendous warmth, especially in the interaction between Gisimba’s director and the children. In addition, we were pleasantly surprised to see the boys’ dormitory so clean, the beds perfectly made. It puts my bedroom at home — let alone my bunk at summer camp (!) — to shame.
With Gisimba receiving new orphans frequently, its services continue to be essential. As such, I was intrigued by the reaction of the staff to the May 2012 ‘pink slip‘ — a policy calling for the closure of all facilities like Gisimba. The staff did not merely cross their arms and rail against the authorities, as many child advocates tend to do in reaction to the policies of Canada’s Conservative government. They have instead chosen to work with the government. They recognize that the government’s vision of placing children in homes — particularly those of relatives — is a far more ideal situation than leaving them in facilities like Gisimba. As my Rwandan GYC counterpart pointed out, a policy that appears sensible on paper may not necessarily make sense in the implementation phase.
A key issue is that the staff are unsure what will happen to newly orphaned children, many of whom ironically sent to Gisimba by the government. Where will they go? We should remember that each case — each child — is an individual with a unique story. I learned of one recent arrival — a teenage girl from Uganda who crossed the border (most likely illegally) to trace her Rwandan roots. The catch: she has previously tried to commit suicide and continues to show signs of suicidal ideation. This emergency case requires an immediate psychological assessment of the girl, yet Gisimba’s orphans do not have access to mental health counseling and treatment. There are also problems with finding hosts. “How do we know what is in their hearts [in agreeing to adopt a child],” as the Gisimba director put it. Indeed, the fight against child exploitation is very real here.
Meeting the basic needs of orphans at Gisimba and providing financial assistance to those who have left are expensive tasks. With much of the West still grappling with the effects of a massive economic recession, many donor countries — especially the Europeans — are scaling back aid. Funding from the Rwandan government is extremely limited, divided up amongst many organizations into barely visible slices.
When I return home, I will not simply leave these issues at the airport gate. Canada is facing many of the same challenges as Rwanda, most notably a lack of a national legal aid policy, underfunding, and inconsistency between the provinces and territories over which legal aid services are covered and which are not.
Through my brief stint at INALAS, I am proud to see — and support — the work of compassionate young lawyers like Jean-Claude who believe all people — including the most vulnerable — deserve to enjoy their human rights. It is mentors like Jean-Claude — their humility, work ethic and commitment to the pursuit of justice — who I hope will shape the kind of avocat I become.