The Government of Rwanda (GoR) has in recent years taken significant strides and made visible efforts towards legal reforms on the country’s laws. It has demonstrated a commitment to legal rights by signing international conventions and adopting domestic laws that safeguard the rights of the accused.
While the current leadership in Rwanda is making gradual progress through enacting new laws in its attempt to build the judicial and prosecutorial infrastructure necessary to process criminal cases, an essential element of a functioning justice system has been somehow overlooked: Protection of the rights of the accused and early access to legal counsel by a competent defense lawyer is a challenge in Rwanda. Development of the defender-side of the criminal justice system has been relegated to a low priority, and a gap remains in the legal system’s capacity to adequately protect the basic rights of every individual who is subjected to the criminal process. Without a skilled lawyer to effectively advocate on their behalf, accused persons are likely to undergo a lengthy pre-trial detention.
IBJ has proven that defense attorneys, trained and provided with the appropriate support, are the key to unlocking the implementation potential of the legal rights of the accused in the criminal legal process. In order to achieve comprehensive access to effective legal counsel, IBJ’s model is designed to bridge three critical gaps: lack of trained lawyers, lack of collaboration, and lack of rights awareness.
The efforts of the Bar Association, as well as a consortium of NGOs, have thus far proven insufficient to extend representation to every indigent person requiring criminal legal assistance in Rwanda. A report from the United Nations Development Program from 2014 shows only one lawyer available for every 9,800 people in Rwanda. In 2014, a report from the Legal Aid Forum estimated that 80% of defendants in criminal trials do not receive representation or legal advice of any kind. Therefore, IBJ is striving to provide legal assistance for those ordinary Rwandan citizens, thus ensuring the protection of their basic legal rights.
What we do
Since IBJ started working in Rwanda in 2009, its mission has been to fill gaps in criminal legal aid. IBJ’s work in Rwanda is developed in close partnership with the Ministry of Justice and the Rwanda Bar Association, with whom IBJ has signed Memorandums of Understanding. In 2014, the creation of IBJ’s autonomous local chapter, Rwanda Bridges to Justice (RBJ), was initiated. RBJ has the same mission as its mother organization IBJ. Through the Defender Resource Center (DRC) in Kigali led by Fellow John Bosco Bugingo, IBJ provides the support necessary to motivate criminal defense lawyers, drives the movement to guarantee competent legal representation to the most vulnerable Rwandan defendants, including women, children, and the indigent, and builds a supportive community of legal professionals in the country. Additionally, through access to justice roundtables and public rights awareness campaigns, IBJ promotes popular and institutional support for comprehensive legal reform. Roundtables bring together justice sector stakeholders to develop practical solutions to address access to justice issues, while also breaking down barriers, building respect, and promoting collegial relationships. Rights awareness campaigns raise consciousness and empower citizens to utilize their legal rights. We work to create a culture in which both political leaders and ordinary citizens understand and support basic due process rights.
Rwanda Bridges to Justice Facts
- Program established in 2010.
- Defender Resource Center operating in Kigali.
- 40 lawyers on the IBJ/RBJ Task Force
- Over 492 lawyers trained in criminal defense.
- Over 1,097 cases handled by IBJ lawyers as of January 2016.
- 72 roundtables organized.
- Over 200 justice officials attending IBJ trainings and roundtables.
- Two radio rights awareness campaigns conducted, reaching over 200,000 individuals
- Over 500,000 individuals made aware of their legal rights
- Consolidate the Kigali Defender Resource Center and establish new Defender Resource Centers to meet the country’s needs.
- Continue capacity building and training for criminal defense lawyers.
- Expand pro-bono criminal representation to all indigent and vulnerable people in need of a lawyer’s assistance
- Expand efforts to raise legal rights awareness among Rwandan citizens.