Kigali, 13th October 2011

  • Leaders of High Institutions of the Government of Rwanda;
  • Hon. Louis Michel, Vice President of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly;
  • Dr. Jean Ping, Chairman of the African Union Commission;
  • Speakers, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Ministers of Justice and Attorneys
  • General from Eastern, Central, and Southern African countries;
  • Mr. Aldo Ajello, Hands Off Cain;
  • Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
  • Distinguished Conference Participants;
  • Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased that you invited me to open this important conference and thank you for giving us the opportunity and honorto host this conference as well as to share some thoughts with such a distinguished audience on a key, very often controversial subject – the death penalty. Your participation is an indication of the importance you attach to this subject.

I wish to extend special thanks to organizations which have worked with the Government of Rwanda to make this event happen, namely Hands Off Cain, the European Union, the African Union, and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Let me also welcome you all to Rwanda and wish you an enjoyable stay in our country.

*Distinguished audience;

For a long time, organised society has debated the question of crime and punishment in a broader context of justice. The debate still goes on.

The death penalty is central to these discussions, and a key question persists: what results have we witnessed after centuries of administering this punishment? Is it an effective deterrent? The general consensus shows that it is not. Could it be time, therefore, that people had another careful look at the issue, and possibly move towards abolishing the death penalty?

In my opinion, the answer to whether the death penalty should or should not be abolished lies in another question.

Does the legal taking away of life really provide the most effective deterrent, offering us enough substantial evidence to tie us to this form of punishment? I believe it does not.

Our experience in Rwanda has demonstrated that abolishing the death penalty gave people a new lease on life – and this contributed to the healing of our society. When the psychology of a people changes, so does their behaviour; this may even explain the reduction in crime that we have seen over the last five years. One could even go further and add that no-one can show how we have been disadvantaged by not having it.

And whereas the pain and desire for justice that victims’ families feel is understandable and cannot be ignored, the punishment policy should always be put in a broader context.

It is for this reason, and for our specific historical circumstances, that Rwanda took a definite stand on this subject and abolished the death penalty in 2007. I am pleased to share some of our reasons for what was then considered drastic action.

Rwanda is committed to the protection of fundamental human rights for all. There was a time in our history when some Rwandans were denied these rights, including the right to life.

Over the years, this denial culminated in the death of more than one million people in the genocide of 1994.

The genocide and its aftermath raised serious issues of justice – some practical, others philosophical – that the government had to deal with.

The law as it existed then provided that those who had committed genocide should suffer the ultimate punishment – death. In practical terms, that would have meant executing more than a million people, in addition to the loss we had already witnessed during the genocide. Regardless of the extreme circumstances, there is no doubting the social consequences that would have accompanied such a mass execution.

What we needed most was a way to punish crime, end impunity, heal the physical and emotional wounds of survivors of the genocide and deliver justice to all.

After wide consultations and debate, Rwandans came to the conclusion that, under these circumstances, execution of offenders was not the form of justice that people needed.

Both victim and perpetrator needed to restore their faith in the value and sanctity of life, belief in their ability to live together again and a more humane sense of justice.

The government could not become a mass executioner in order to correct mass murder. So we chose to break with the past and abolish the death penalty in order to move forward. We were convinced that death could never serve as an instrument of governance.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen;

We have never regretted that decision. Today, our legal and social environment provides a sense of satisfaction and security amongst our citizenry, which reinforces our belief in communal harmony and the value of life.

Rwandans have achieved a degree of unity and reconciliation unimaginable just a decade and a half ago because a culture of forgiveness – not vengeance – has taken root.

I have laid out the experience of Rwanda to illustrate that while many people may be inspired by a sense of idealism in their opposition to the death penalty – practical and contextual considerations may ultimately sway opinion in favour of abolition or a moratorium on the death penalty.

Looking at the agenda of this conference, I am optimistic that you will arrive at other convincing arguments that will lead to a similar conclusion.

Once again, I wish to thank the organisers and sponsors of this conference who have brought together such distinguished participants from across Africa and elsewhere in the world to challenge the application of the death penalty. I would also like to thank the many foot soldiers in this struggle.

With these remarks, I am pleased to now declare this conference officially open and wish you fruitful discussions.

Thank you for your kind attention.