Saturday, July 31, 2010

Whither International Responsibility in Rwanda?

(This post is written by a colleague, and she asked me to post it here.)

Slightly under two years ago, an expert roundtable was convened by the International Peace Institute, the UN Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and InterAfrica Group to revitalise the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Prevention of Genocide in Africa. R2P is an ambitious set of principles that aims to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It came about after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda once it was clear the international community failed so tremendously in adhering to the ideal of “never again” that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked: when do we become responsible?

It seems as if we still don’t know the answer.

This past April, as Rwanda commemorated 16 years since approximately 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered in less than 100 days, the Special Adviser with a focus on R2P restated the world’s commitment to preventing mass atrocity. Speaking on behalf of current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, he said: “We can and must do better in the 21st century... Complacency is our enemy, and vigilance our friend”. Yet a cursory look at the lead-in to Rwanda’s upcoming presidential elections indicates that just as in 1994, with tensions climbing and violence on the rise, the international community is choosing to look the other way.

In Rwanda, survivors and perpetrators of genocide comprise the majority of the population. Ethnicity remains deeply politicized and ethnic conflict is a living memory. However, since the last presidential elections in 2003, people have been required to eliminate public forms and expressions of ethnic identification. The RPF government, which controls most state institutions, has prohibited claims for ethnic representation in politics, education, and the economic sector in the name of preventing “divisionism” and “genocide ideology.” Those who criticize or question the government’s policies are arrested, killed or disappeared. President Kagame and the RPF regime justify such actions as necessary for preventing another genocide, but what sort of peace is built on a foundation of repression? If Rwanda’s history indicates anything, it is that long-simmering inequalities do not go away on their own; rather, they burn at slow pace until the cauldron bursts and violence erupts.

Many praise Rwanda for its social and developmental achievements without recognizing that the proceeds of economic gain are largely serving to further the interests of Kagame’s elite, English-speaking Tutsi minority, most of who grew up in neighboring Uganda. Secretary Clinton described Rwanda as “a beacon of hope for other African nations” and Philip Gourevitch, in a recent New Yorker article, wrote that in Rwanda, “The reconciliation defies expectations.” Further, in the last two years, President Kagame has been named one of Financial Times’ 50 greatest leaders of the past decade, a Time Magazine Man of the Year, winner of the Clinton Global Citizens Award for Leadership in Public Service, and winner of the International Medal of Peace. Rwanda was the World Bank’s top reformer of 2009 and was accepted in to the Commonwealth last November.

How is it that diplomats and journalists alike are continuing to ignore the tragic realities of life for the average Rwandan? While Kigali is gleaming, 90 percent of the population is mired in poverty; mostly these are Hutu, but Tutsi not connected to the RPF regime suffer tremendously as well. However, to challenge a system that perpetuates such inequalities means almost-certain imprisonment, if not death. Rwanda, following closely behind the US and Russia, has the third largest incarceration rate in the world. Where is our vigilance? When will we speak out for those who unable to speak for themselves?

It is clear that violence is increasing as we near this summer’s elections: in the last month alone, there was an attempted assassination of Lt General Nyamwasa in South Africa who, along with several other senior military officials, had fled Rwanda after disagreements with President Kagame. Almost immediately afterward, the newspaper editor who called for an investigation in to the General’s death was gunned down in front of his home in Kigali. Another editor in Rwanda was arrested on charges of defaming the president and espousing genocide ideology one week later.

Yet the voices quashed are not just those of the Rwandan media: A Human Rights Watch researcher was recently expelled, American law professor Peter Erlinder was arrested in May while preparing a case for charges of genocide denial against opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, and she herself, in addition to other serious contenders for president and their supporters, was charged with genocide ideology and banned from registering her candidacy. Two weeks ago, Green Party candidate Andre Kagwa Rwisereka was found nearly decapitated in South Rwanda, his body dumped on the side of the road. Still Kagame, with US and UN support, maintains that the story of Rwanda since the genocide is one of success and prosperity.

Whither our responsibility?

Certainly, there is no easy solution; it would be wrong for the US and UN to push open the doors of democracy and force Rwanda to hold free and fair elections. It is also too late to even try; such an act would be dangerous not only for American interests in East Africa (a whole other quagmire) but for average Rwandans who continue to suffer under a regime that manipulates the worst of its history to further oppression in the present. We should not, however, stand idly by, either. Those who care about “never again” should at least begin by advocating for political dialogue in Rwanda, pressing for open economic opportunities, and supporting freedom of speech and conscience in a country where talking politics in a way the government does not approve means that your life is at risk. Indeed, if we are not vigilant about our responsibility to protect, another round of mass political violence in Rwanda will be the shame of us all.

To get involved in this important issue, contact the office of Senator Russ Feingold, chairman of the Subcommittee on African Affairs (

1 comment:

  1. Russ Feingold himself made a statement on Rwanda's democracy a couple of months ago. What has the State Department done since? A statement by Joe Carson was made at some point.