Recent developments in the relations between Rwanda and Uganda have caused many to ponder the implications of these events for the political stability and security of the region. Different perspectives can be helpful in analysing the consequence of these events to the countries in question; I will focus on some of the international legal matters pertinent to understanding these developments.
The basic facts in the public space are mainly that Rwanda initiated particular measures in reaction to activities allegedly undertaken by the Ugandan government.
Rwanda has essentially and publicly accused Uganda of three things: First, that Rwandans have been arrested, tortured, and harassed in Uganda. Relatedly, that Rwandans undergoing such treatment are being deported for unknown reasons.
Second, it is alleged that Uganda is involved in providing safe haven and significant support to armed dissidents opposed to the government of Rwanda. It is purported that such groups have carried out criminal activity in Rwanda. The “Rwanda National Congress” is said to be one such group.
Third, it is asserted that there has been a challenge related to the free movement of Rwandan goods across Ugandan territory.
These allegations have been denied by the Ugandan government; with Uganda expressing regret with regard to the third accusation, whilst committing to addressing any trade related issues. The response by Rwanda to these alleged activities by Uganda has been to close its official frontier crossing points to Uganda, and block the movement of goods and persons across the borders.
This reaction by Rwanda, in response to alleged impropriety on the part of Uganda, triggers critical aspects of international law, which need to be analysed, in order to provide appropriate context to this standoff. Basically, Rwanda is holding Uganda responsible for violation of particular aspects of international law.
For example, the arbitrary expulsion of foreign nationals present in the country lawfully, is a violation of international law; and so is the torture and ill-treatment of such persons. Indeed the torture of anyone is a fundamental violation of international law.
Critically as well, it is a particularly concerning violation of international law for a state to harbour and support insurgents effectively fighting against another state. This, if proved, could potentially trigger the use of armed force in response.
Concerning the aspect of trade relations, there can be a violation of international law if a state is blocking the free movement of goods contrary to an existing treaty or agreement that guarantees the free movement of such goods.
In sum, if Rwanda’s allegations are properly substantiated and proved, Uganda could find itself in violation of international law. Consequently, due to such wrongful actions, Uganda would also be subject to different measures, including legally acceptable unilateral actions by Rwanda – as an aggrieved state.
Under international law, such unilateral actions can include “retorsions” (acts that are unfriendly but not illegal) and “countermeasures” (acts that are usually prohibited but are permitted as a response to an illegal act because they are necessary, proportionate and aimed at inducing the other state to comply with its legal obligations.
Thus, retorsions can include withdrawing diplomats, or just closing the border to another state, and suspending friendly relations. Countermeasures on the other hand, can include non-compliance with a bilateral treaty, until the other state stops violating its legal obligations.
What needs to be stressed here, is that such measures can only be taken by the aggrieved state, in this case Rwanda, if there is clear and proven evidence of internationally wrongful action on the part of the accused state, in this case Uganda.
The question then is whether Rwanda’s reported actions against Uganda are merely unfriendly or potentially a violation of international law unless they can be justified as exceptions to the law. To answer this question, the arrangement under the East African Community (EAC) is pivotal.
Under the umbrella of the EAC Treaty is the establishment of the EAC Common Market, to which all EAC states are members currently – including Rwanda and Uganda.
The Common Market, which has been in force since 2010, is governed by the Protocol on the Establishment of the East African Community Common Market. This protocol establishes the free movement of goods and persons within the Common Market.
Member states are required to adhere to these treaty obligations in order not to defeat the purpose of the protocol and the community generally.
It can be asserted that Rwanda, by blocking the movement of goods and persons across the border, is in violation of the EAC Treaty and the Common Market Protocol. However, Uganda can hold Rwanda legally responsible for this violation only if it is proved that Uganda is not at fault for the allegations leveled against it by Rwanda.
Rwanda would be exonerated if this violation of the EAC Treaty and Common Market Protocol is not an independent and random illegal action, but is a proper countermeasure in response to proven wrongdoing by Uganda.
In this case, the countermeasure would have to be measured (not excessive), necessary, and continuing – only until Uganda ceases the wrongdoing towards Rwanda.
Given all this, perhaps the more beneficial route for both states would be to explore the peaceful means of settlement of disputes that are available in the international legal framework.
Peaceful avenues be considered since the use of unilateral acts of self-help could only compromise peace and security; because such unilateral acts are usually adopted on the basis of allegation and unsubstantiated claims, creating a downward spiral of counter acts that could escalate to war.
Joshua is a Ugandan International Lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org