Casting Off Rwanda’s Colonial Legacy Through New Legal Scholarship

Over the last few years, I have been part of a group of students in the Rwanda Legal Development Project working with Professor Erik Jensen, Director of Stanford Law School’s Rule of Law Program, and faculty from the University of Rwanda Law School to draft an introductory textbook focused on Rwandan laws and legal institutions. Through this collaboration, we aim to elevate the voices of Rwandan legal scholars to create a compendium of modern law and legal institutions that highlights how Rwanda has shucked off its colonial past.

To understand the development of law and the need for legal texts in Rwanda, we must first know something of its history. Rwanda is a densely populated, landlocked country located in East Africa with a rich and extensive history dating back to 10,000 BCE. In 1899, Rwanda was colonized by the German Empire, and after Germany’s defeat in World War I, Rwanda was absorbed into the Belgian colonial empire. A lasting, devastating trademark of Belgium’s rule is how the colonial authorities racialized the differences between Hutu and Tutsi. Despite Rwanda’s having gained independence from Belgium in 1962, the seeds of ethnically motivated conflict were sown. This culminated in the Rwandan Civil War and the subsequent genocide of 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans in just 100 days.

Casting Off Rwanda’s Colonial Legacy Through New Legal Scholarship

The people of post-civil war Rwanda have made concerted, multidimensional efforts at reconciliation between ethnic groups aimed at bringing peace and economic development to the country. To strengthen rule of law and promote post-conflict reconstruction, Rwanda has rejected the many archaic legal dimensions of its colonial past, and so the country’s legal landscape has changed dramatically. Notably, Rwanda adopted a new constitution; passed a number of far-reaching laws addressing social, political, and economic issues; developed the legal system to incorporate elements of common law; and established new public institutions and extensively reformed existing ones. Finally, in 2019, Rwanda became the first former colony to repeal all colonial-era laws. While tremendous progress was made, a critical missing component was a textbook that captures the significant changes in the laws and legal institutions of Rwanda that have occurred over the last two decades.

Stanford’s Rule of Law Program launched the Rwanda Legal Development Project (RLDP) in 2013. In RLDP’s inaugural effort, working in close collaboration with the Rwanda Law Reform Commission, Stanford Law students provided extensive comparative research that informed the Rwanda’s national interpretation law. Subsequently, Stanford Law students wrote a number of policy papers for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Then, in 2017, RLDP began partnering SLS students with Rwandan law faculty to co-author draft chapters of an introductory textbook that will be forthcoming next year, entitled An Introduction to the Modern Laws and Legal Institutions of Rwanda.

In 1997, Belgian scholars published a descriptive overview of the laws of Rwanda. However, the book largely drew from colonial law and was written to advise a discredited former regime. The aim of the RLDP textbook project is to elevate the voices of Rwandan legal scholars, aided by Stanford students’ critical research and writing skills, to create a textbook about the modern laws and institutions of Rwanda that actively engages law students.

A central focus of the collaboration is accessibility. Justice Emmanuel Ugirashebuja, who recently stepped down as president of the East African Court, believes that the textbook “is a significant piece of work which will provide law school students, legal practitioners, and the public with the necessary information on a wide range of legal issues in Rwanda … [and] the book is easily understandable, informative and essential for anyone who wishes to interact with the Rwandan legal system.”

Another focus of the project is to illustrate how the Rwandan legal system has evolved. As Rwanda’s former Chief Justice Sam Rugege notes, “most of the writing on Rwandan law is outdated, more reflective of our colonial legacy than of contemporary Rwanda … and the change of direction from a strictly civil law system to a mixed system of civil, common law and traditional elements more consonant with the needs of Rwandans today. … It will be of immense value to the courts, legal practitioners, scholars and students, but more importantly, to the ordinary people of Rwanda who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the law.”

SLS students have had multiple opportunities to travel to Rwanda to meet with the partners. Most recently, the team and I traveled to Rwanda in December 2019 to continue updating the textbook and to incorporate more local scholarship. We were able to meet with the current and former chief justices of Rwanda’s Supreme Court and the prosecutor general. When not in meetings, we explored Kigali and visited genocide memorial sites to contextualize the work we were doing and the importance of the rule of law and addressing colonial history. It is our hope that we can host an authors conference and book launch in the 2021-2022 academic year to convene the key Rwandan legal scholars and student co-authors who helped make this book a reality.

The team and I are also hopeful that a reference guide of modern laws will help support stability and the development of law in Rwanda. Despite episodes of controversy around political expression, I, like my classmates, hope that this project can support and inform the rule of law, justice, and fairness in Rwanda’s state-building process.

Alyssa Martinez is a joint degree student pursuing a JD at Stanford Law School and an MA in International Policy at the Freeman Spogli Institute, graduating with the class of 2021. She has actively participated in projects and initiatives centered around human rights, transitional justice, conflict resolution, immigration, civil rights, and economic inequality. She will be doing social impact litigation with the Social Justice Legal Foundation after graduating.  SL